People of all faiths (and none) are drawn to visit the
extraordinary area called Penmon. In addition to the spectacular
views all around, the site also boasts an ancient well, a sacred
off-shore island, a medieval priory church (where I serve as
rector), and a unique dovecote.
Surely here is one of those "thin places" where, as the ancient
Celtic Christians believed, the veil that separates this world from
the next is stretched thinner, so that humans can catch a glimpse
of the divine.
Even before the advent of
Christianity, for hundreds of years perhaps, the well at
Penmon was held sacred, a source of healing waters.
Then sometime around the year 550AD, a Christian monk came to
live there. Like other Welsh saints of the age (Beuno, Dwynwen,
Cybi), Seiriol built a cell near a holy well, where people would
come to visit, seek advice, and pray for healing. (People still
do.) From there Seiriol would have had a roving ministry wandering
about the area.
Holy water, holy walker
And he got around the island. Every school child in North Wales
can recite the most famous legend about Seiriol, the one about his
weekly trek to meet his mate, St. Cybi of Holyhead. From Seiriol's
cell, it's 17 miles (one way) to Clorach Well near
Llannerch-y-medd, where the two monks met up. The former walked
with the morning and setting sun on his back and so was called
Seiriol Wyn (Seiriol the Pale), while the latter had sun in his
face both ways and so became Cybi Felyn (Cybi the Golden). Some say
it really happened; others say it's a myth, a Christian cover of an
older allegory about the interplay of light and dark. What do you
Mighty medieval monastery
A lesser known legend concerns Seiriol's brothers, kings of
nearby Rhos and Llŷn. Apparently they decided that the monk's
humble cell was far too lowly for a royal, so they founded a
monastery nearby and made Seiriol the first Abbot of Penmon
Over time the monastery grew. By about 900 AD, it had a wooden
church and two 10-foot-high stone crosses, which probably stood at
the entrance to the grounds. (They are now housed within the
In 971 Vikings raided the church and destroyed it. In the
12th century, during the prosperous rule of Gruffudd ap
Cynan and Owain Gwynedd, monks rebuilt the church, this time in
About a century later,
they expanded the church and added a dining hall and dormitory
Though King Henry VIII dissolved the monastery in 1537 (along
with most others in England and Wales), the church has remained in
use. Today it is the most complete building of its age in
See for yourself
Interested? Feel free to come and see it. The church is open to
visit every day 9am to 5pm, and guidebooks are available. The
chancel or East end of the church was "Victorianised" in 1855
(i.e., turned into a recognizable parish church), but the Norman
nave was left alone; it has the finest Romanesque carving in North
Wales, with rounded arches and characteristic stone pointing.
And once you're here, there's plenty
more to see. After the church and Seiriol's well, you'll pass
a beautiful old dovecote, most likely built around 1600, after the
monastery's lands passed into the hands of the local landowners,
the Bulkeley family. Inside, the family kept doves for eggs and
meat, as was common at the time.
Ynys Seiriol: island off an island off an
From there, walk down to Trwyn Du (Black Point), where Penmon
Lighthouse stands sentinel over some treacherous currents that
separate the mainland from a small island, now also named for the
saint. For, late in his life, Seiriol once again tried to "get away
from it all"; he moved his hermitage offshore. But followers
followed, building a priory offshoot there, now in ruins.
The tiny island also became a holy site; pilgrims visited, King
Maelgwn Gwynedd was buried there, and it became known as Ynys
Seiriol (also later called Puffin Island).
In the 19th century, the Liverpool Semaphore Company
operated a flag signal service on island, conveying messages from
Holyhead to Liverpool and back; their small building remains on the
east end of the isle.
Puffins still return to nest for a few weeks every May and June,
and seals bask in numbers on the eastern slopes.
Boat trips round the island operate regularly in the summer from
Beaumaris pier. The island itself is privately owned. Visits, which
very weather dependent and require professional help, must
be authorised by the owner, Sir Richard Williams-Bulkeley.
Occasional pilgrim visits the island are possible; contact the
Even more around the corner
At Black Point you are on the Anglesey Coast Path, a
long-distance footpath that will take you right round the whole
island. As you walk back or drive to the Priory site a private road
on the right goes to a fish farm, where sea bass are now raised in
the same quarries that once produced the stone for Menai Bridge and
Brittania Bridge, not to mention Manchester City Hall. You can buy
the sea bass at any Waitrose nationwide.
Please note that the charge for
parking and use of the road at Penmon (currently £2.50) is not a
charge made by the church but by the Bulkeley estate, which owns
the road and adjoining land. The charge is not levied on those
attending worship in the church (Sundays at 10am except first
Sunday in the month) or those visiting graves.