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Penmon: Glimpse the Divine

© Cadw

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By bus:  The number 57 from Bangor, Menai Bridge or Beaumaris will take you to the crossroads by Plas Penmon, but then it's a mile walk to the site. By car:  follow the A545 to Beaumaris and then the B5109 towards Llangoed, turning right at the sign for Penmon.

Opening: The holy well and the priory ruins are always open. The dovecote and the church are open daily from 9am to 5pm (except the church for Sunday services at 10am).

Parking at the site is charged at £2.50 per car. This is a charge made by the Baron Hill Estate who own the road and car park. The charge does not apply to those attending services or visiting graves but does apply to those visiting the church.

Facilities: The nearest public toilets are in Beaumaris and Llangoed. There are toilets at the Point Cafe by the lighthouse further on the toll road, for patrons only (open seasonally)

Further information from the Rector 01248 811402; [email protected]

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. 

St. Seiriol's well by Robin Drayton; Creative Commons 2.0Even 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 think?

© Phil Williams; Creative Commons 2.0Mighty 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 Priory.

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 church.)

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 stone.

Penmon Priory in the 12th century; © Cadw, Welsh Government (Crown Copyright)About a century later, they expanded the church and added a dining hall and dormitory for
the monks.

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 northwest Wales.

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.

Cross in St. Seiriol's; © Bencherlite, GNU FreeAnd 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 island

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 are
 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 Beaumaris Rectory.

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.

Puffin Island; © Bencherlite, GNU FreePlease 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.

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