Heaven, Earth and a Hare

“Here heaven and earth come close together,
here the small and the frightened find shelter and hope.”
– A.M. Allchin, A Pilgrim’s Prayer

The Hare at Pennant Melangell

I’ve wanted to make a pilgrimage to Pennant Melangell since I met the Priest Guardian of the shrine, Rev’d Lynette Norman, on a course in which we both participated earlier this year. Although I know North Wales pretty well, spending lots of childhood holidays there and with more recent visits to retreat venues, I’d never heard of St Melangell or the shrine church that honours her.

Shrine Church, Pennant Melangell

Since my chats with Lynette I’d had a couple of those strange “coincidences” in quick succession that prompted this visit: I’d picked up a novel in Liverpool that has Pennant Melangell as its setting (Fay Sampson’s The Hunted Hare) and I’d begun reading Andrew Jones’ book on Pilgrimage that features, well, Pennant Melangell. Three such encounters in the space of a couple of weeks probably is a good indication of a journey one is supposed to make. So on a glorious day in July two friends and I set out on our journey: one of us Russian Orthodox (Melangell is pre-1054 and the Great Schism), one Anglican with Buddhist heritage and practice and one Interfaith enthusiast who lives up a mountain in Sri Lanka for the most of each year. Quite a spiritual and quirky mix but all are welcome at Pennant as we found out!

Entarnce, St Melangell

The shrine has been a place of pilgrimage for more than a thousand years and is located in the secluded and beautiful setting of the Tanat Valley between Oswestry and Bala. The shrine church is cradled in the palm of several hills, surrounded by 2000 year old yews, and is very special. Some places seem soaked in prayer and this is definitely one of them. There are pilgrim liturgies said every day, whether there are pilgrims present or not, and there is a particular emphasis on healing with the laying on of hands and anointing with oil. Intercessory prayers are made for the many contacts that the Church in Wales Priest receives each day from around the world. The service we attended was very moving and, surprisingly, even had a tailored sermon although only we three (and God) were present. We felt part of something particular but universal.

Sanctuary, Pennant Melangell

The impressive 12th Century shrine in the sanctuary of the church contains the 7th Century relics of St Melangell and has undergone much reconstruction and restoration. It is Romanesque in style and similar in shape to those found in some grand medieval cathedrals.


A leaflet at the church explains that “The legend of Melangell derives from two 17th Century transcripts of a lost medieval Life of the Saints. One day a prince named Brochwel was hunting at a place called Pennant. His hounds raised a hare that took refuge in a thicket. On pursuit, the prince found a virgin praying, with the hare hiding under the folds of her garment. The hounds were urged on but fled howling; their huntsman raised his horn to his lips and was unable to remove it. The virgin informed the prince that she dwelt at his place, and that she had fled here for refuge. So impressed was the prince by Melangell’s godliness that he granted the valley to her and here she founded a religious community.”

Modern Icon, St Melangell

Near the church is the St Melangell Centre which is used for the ministry of healing and for Quiet Days. There’s a very active programme of day courses and retreats. Although it was Lynette’s afternoon off she insisted that we join her for lunch at the centre and we were able to enjoy her great hospitality and the beauty of the views from the centre’s immaculate bird-filled gardens. This really is a very special place and Lynette and her husband are very fortunate to live and work in such a beautiful location. St Melangell’s shrine is wonderfully served by them, too. All three of us felt touched by our visit.

To Cuthbert’s Place for Cuthbert’s Book

Lindisfarne Gospels Exhibition

Making the most of the continuing lovely summer weather, I had a short trip over the northern Pennines to see the wonderful Lindisfarne Gospels exhibition that is currently taking place in Durham. The 8th century gospels, made to honour St Cuthbert, are normally held at the British Library in London but are on loan, with other exhibits, just across Durham’s Palace Green from the Cathedral which houses St Cuthbert’s shrine. It is a kind of homecoming.

The drive to Durham took me through lovely countryside via Kirkby Stephen and Barnard Castle. Barnard Castle, aside from the ruins of the castle itself, has many fascinating buildings. The parish church has recently commissioned a labyrinth – something of a growing trend – and we enjoyed mooching around the market town – and the Book Aid theological bookshop provided a bit of wholesome retail therapy, too.

Durham looked fantastic in the summer sun and we spent a day around the Cathedral and the exhibition. Celtic Christianity has this notion of “thin places” where the earthly and divine meet more closely and Durham Cathedral is certainly one of these places – particularly in Cuthbert’s Feretory (his shrine) where I received communion. This was prior to visiting the Gospels exhibition in the afternoon and feeling touched by seeing his pectoral cross, his portable alter and bishop’s ring. Although the exhibition was fascinating it was the saint’s personal objects that affected me most. Following the exhibition we headed back to the Cathedral for Choral Evensong; a lovely way to end our day.

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Our drive back was via a different, higher, route through Alston and Penrith. Alston (highest town in England) was in the middle of a French festival with films being shown and local shops kitted out in Gallic style. Someone had managed to rustle up a 2CV car and a guillotine. We popped in to the Parish Church to have a look at an art exhibition and notice the very “proper” Victorian stained glass and the historic Derwentwater clock (complete with winding instructions!).

In the Alston graveyard there’s a tombstone with this inscription:

The Cobbler’s Epitaph

My cutting board’s to pieces split,
My size-sticks will no measure mete,
My rotten last’s turned into holes,
My blunted knife cuts no more soles,
My hammer’s head flown from the haft,
No more Saint Mondays with the craft,
My nippers, pincers, stirrup and rag
And all my kit have got the bag;
My lapstone’s broke, my colour’s o’er,
My gum-glass froze, my paste’s no more;
My heels sewed on, my pegs are driven,
I hope I’m on the road to heaven.

We descended from Alston over the Hartside Top and visited Penrith, with its contrasting Parish Church (and Giant’s Tomb), before reaching home.