Faith tourism, faith in tourism?

‘All these died in faith, before receiving any of the things that had been promised, but they saw them in the far distance and welcomed them, recognising that they were only strangers and pilgrims on earth’ (Hebrews 11: 13)

The irrepressible John Winton of the Churches Tourism Network Wales, having virtually invented church tourism for our nation, is launching his Faith Tourism Action Plan in St Asaph. Here are some amazing statistics. Churches are among our most popular tourist attractions – St David’s Cathedral gets 262,000 visitors a year and Brecon gets 120,000. Their motivations vary – they may be interested in old buildings, tracing their family connections or simply looking for somewhere free to get out of the rain. But on the international scene, faith tourism is big business. Pilgrimage to Compostela has a huge impact on the economy of northern Spain. Pilgrims making the hajj to Mecca contribute about $8 billion a year to the Saudi Arabian economy. It’s no wonder that VisitWales is keen to encourage John’s plans.

Part of this, of course, is the Galilee Project ( . Initially conceived as a way of providing a better display space for the early medieval carved stones at St Illtud’s Church, this is spiralling out with an ambitious plan for a pilgrimage route across south Wales, linking Llandaff, St Fagan’s (where the museum will be the new home of the collection of early medieval stones now in the National Museum in Cathays Park in Cardiff), Llancarfan (another early monastic site with some impressive late medieval wall paintings), Llanilltud itself, Merthyr Mawr and Laleston, and Margam.

Part of the aim is to get rid of the unfortunate Anglicisation of the church’s name, Llantwit (St Twit – who he?) and re-popularise the Welsh version, Llanilltud. Seriously, we have deferred for too long to the English inability to pronounce our place names – they are part of the intangible charm of our heritage and we need to stop hiding them.

So John, Gareth Kiddie (the project’s business consultant) and I sat down with the maps to think about possible routes. Like most heritage footpath plans, this one is a balancing act: we need a good walk, on open and clear footpaths, that visits key sites and pushes the buttons of the potential funders.

John seems to treat me as a sort of enquire within upon everything to do with church history. Sometimes this means that he calls me in for things that I know nothing about: but when it comes to pilgrimage and footpaths I am on home turf. The biggest problem seemed to be the start. Llandaff Cathedral is in the middle of a built-up area. Who will want to walk for miles along busy roads before reaching the countryside? But Cardiff is famous for its ‘green lungs’, corridors of woodland and open space between the housing estates; and one of the biggest of these runs along the river. We might have to go north in order to go south … but north from Llandaff is the traditional pilgrimage route to Penrhys, one I’ve walked in the past as an alternative to our usual route from Llantarnam.

So it was that I put my boots on and collected Cara the pilgrim dog, and we made our way to the Taff bridge between the cathedral and Llandaff North.



The route up river from Llandaff starts well – you walk up the river bank from the cathedral, climb to the road for a few metres past the boat club then back to the river bank as far as the bridge. Keep on the west bank of the Taff and walk along Radyr Court Road, then when the road bears up to the left take the path along the river bank. Turn left under the railway line and walk up to the path through Radyr Woods then turn left past the playing fields of Radyr Comp to emerge at the roundabout where the Radyr road meets the Llantrisant Road.

Here it gets problematic. The footpath across the fields goes through the farmyard of Maes-y-llech – never a good idea. I had a nice chat with the farmer (he knows my cousins from the Vale). He admits he doesn’t like footpaths through his farm but accepts that it’s legal – but for a promoted path it might be better to re-route it. But here’s the real problem – he eventually said that the whole farm is scheduled for building under the latest local development plan. This explained some of his bitterness – his family have farmed there for generations but as tenants so the farm will be sold and they will be out on their ears. It’s dreadful for him, but it also means there isn’t much point in putting a lot of thought into a route that’s going to go round the back lanes of a housing development.

But there is an alternative. The footpath from Maes-y-llech cuts across the line of the disused railway from Fairwater to Llantrisant. After that, the footpath is clear up to the Pentrebane road. You have about 400m. on the road then there is a footpath across the field to a green lane that gets you into the new housing in St Fagans and the back gate of the Museum. So I walked back along the railway line.


It needs a bit of attention



(fallen trees, and one bridge has been demolished: there’s an easy scramble down the embankment and back up) and it isn’t actually a right of way but it has a waymark post for a promoted route half way along


and it gets you by a very pleasant route into the southern part of Danescourt. I re-walked it with my daughter Rachel and she approved.

So the suggested route is as follows: from the cathedral up the river to the bridge. About 100 m. along Radyr Court Road, go up the steps to your left. Walk along Highfields, turn down Greenwood Road, left along the Llantrisant Road to the roundabout. Down Tangmere Drive, along Grantham Close and into the park, bear right and you are on the old railway line. Follow this for about 1/2 mile until you are out of the trees, then after the pylon turn left and follow the footpath across the fields to the Pentrebane road and down the green lane to St Fagans.

Keen pilgrims would probably want to make a bit of a loop to the north to go past Radyr Court and St John’s Church. St John’s is the old parish church of Radyr, a simple building of rough stone with a huge old yew tree.  Radyr Court is now a pub but it was in the Middle Ages the home of the Mathew family. The women of the family were famous for looking after pilgrims on their way to Penrhys. According to the elegy written by Rhisiart ap Rhys to Elspeth Mathew,

Parlwr gan vwr niferoedd
I vels draw val osdri oedd

‘her parlour was to many invalids like a hostelry’. He also said that she sent a considerable weight of candles to Penrhys, but she never seems to have gone there herself. Perhaps she considered herself to have taken informal vows at Radyr and to be running a sort of maison Dieu, a hospice for pilgrims. This would make her something like Sister Anne Larkins, who runs the retreat house at Llantarnam and sets us off on our annual pilgrimage from Llantarnam to Penrhys with a blessing of water from a medieval stoup found in the abbey ruins.

The family also claimed to be hereditary custodians of the skull of St Teilo. This famous relic was recently returned to the cathedral after some time in Australia. It is still shown occasionally to visitors and would probably be brought out for an organised group. The cathedral also has the effigy tombs of David Mathew, Sir William Mathew and his wife Jenet


with the famous ‘sleeping bedesman’.

So there are a lot of connections.


The Llanilltud Fawr (Llantwit Major) Galilee Project – nearly there!

If heritage trails test the breadth of your historical knowledge, historical recreations test the depth – you find out what you don’t know about your own research field.

Today’s fun job was a meeting in the National Museum in Cardiff with Mark Redknap and Chris Jones-Jenkins to finalise some reconstruction drawings of the early medieval monastery and the late medieval Galilee chapel at Llanilltud in the Vale of Glamorgan.

The Galilee Project has been an amazingly ambitious and imaginative project to rehouse a collection of early medieval carved stones – the iconic ‘Celtic’ crosses of early Wales with their interlace panels and inscriptions in insular script. The crosses and pillars have been found in the area around the church. Many of them record burials of the local rulers from the second half of the first millennium, making the early medieval monastery at  Llanilltud a sort of Westminster Abbey of early Wales. They are currently in the west  end of the parish church, built by the Normans and their successors on the site of the monastery. Some of us liked that setting, where the stones mingled with display boards of Sunday School work, processional banners and other ecclesiastical impedimenta, but  it has to be said that it was difficult to see them properly. This is always going to be an issue in church heritage, and it’s thrown into sharper relief by the importance of this particular collection of stones. One the one hand, they articulate the memory of the worshipping community and they should be in the church not in the arid environment of a museum. On the other hand, in the church they are in the way of other activities and the other activities are in the way of them.

No easy answers – though in this case it’s made a bit easier because the stones were not originally inside the church: they have been moved there for safe keeping, so they can more easily be moved again.

The church is big enough, two churches, really, end to end. But in the later middle ages it was even bigger. One of the local families built a western extension, a Galilee chapel, which was used as a family chantry. There a priest said Mass for the souls of the family and (as a concession to Christian charity) all Christian souls.

Chantries were abolished at the Reformation and the Galilee chapel fell into disuse. Then a few years ago it came into its own again as a solution to the problem of the early stones. It is being rebuilt and redesigned as an exhibition centre, which will also provide much-needed toilet facilities. You can see what has been going on at .

As part of this project, Chris Jones-Jenkins has been commissioned to provide two reconstruction drawings. One is to show the early medieval monastery with the stones in situ. The other is to show the Galilee chapel as it would have looked in use in the late fifteenth century.

Of course, the big problem is that we don’t actually know what the monastery was like. We have a very hazy description in a twelfth-century life of St Illtud, which is about as much use as a Victorian description of the Hampton Court of Henry VIII. Archaeological exploration under the church and in the graveyard is clearly not a possibility, so we have to go by sites which have been explored – which almost by definition are the less important ones, the ones that didn’t become parish churches. We don’t know exactly where the crosses were, we don’t even know the function of the carved pillars, and we have no idea at all what the surrounding landscape was like.

So why are we doing it – well, it seems important to give our best guess as to what the original setting of the stones might have been. And with Mark Redknap on board, it’s a highly educated guess.

Turning to the later medieval chapel should be easier … but even here there are huge gaps in our knowledge. We assume that a chantry mass would have involved just one priest – but he would have needed helpers, and who would they have been, and how would they have been dressed? We know the equipment needed for the celebration of the Mass would have included a holy water container and sprinkler, an incense boat, a pax, a dish of blessed bread, as well as the chalice, paten and cruet  – but where would all these have been placed when they were not actually being used? How many candles on the altar? How would the walls be decorated … what statues … what about the altar cloth … the vestments … It’s all like the St Teilo’s Project, but without even as much information as we had for that.

The work of the Experience of Worship project at Bangor (which I helped with) gives us some of the answers (see – and the full web site should be live any day soon), but we don’t want to do a straight copy of St Teilo’s.  The one thing I’m happy about is the tomb carvings which will be shown on the floor – I can do tomb carvings!