John Redhead on the trail of the white hare in St Melangell's churchyard
This time last year I went up to the remote Cwm Pennant with John Redhead to visit the ancient church of St Melangells which sits at the head of the cwm. We had come to take a look at a 15th century oak screen which features the story of Princess Melangell. An Irish lass who ended up in the valley and who became the stuff of legend when, according to a 17th Century manuscript translated by Professor Oliver Davies of Saint David’s College, Lampeter, tells the tale of the illustrious Prince Brychwel Ysgithrog of Pengwern Powys who in AD 604 whilst hunting in a place called Pennant started a hare and with his hounds gave chase. They came to a thicket of brambles and thorns wherein he found a beautiful maiden, given up to divine contemplation, with the hare lying boldly under the hem of her garments. Impressed by her piety and devotion,The prince gave the lands thereabouts to Melangell to act as a sanctuary and harbour for quiet devotion.
Oak Screen showing the Melangell legend
The 1600 year old legend has been adopted by the church which apart from its 15th century oak screen,includes many other beautiful sculptures and artifacts related to the story. Like most Christian churches,the site is undoubtedly pagan in origin with its magnificent 2000 year old yew trees far predating the church.
For John and I as non Christians,we were more interested in the pagan and aesthetic side of things. We were also aware that the hare was also important to the inspirational German artist Joseph Beuys- founder of De Grunen (The Green Party)- being one of his six sacred animals. Animals which embody an almost magical element. While we were in the churchyard and with John communing with a yew tree, I took in the magnificent cwm which had an impressive waterfall contained by crags at its head. I registered it as a possible climbing venue and looked forward to getting back in the spring to take a closer look.
1964 Joseph Beuys painting featuring sacred hares
When I did return it was high summer when I parked up outside the church. After wandering down the lane expecting an easy trod through the valley- Google Earth shows a good track all the way-I was quickly directed 'to the waterfall' via an indistinct path across a field. Eventually it came out as a pleasant rising path cutting through the side of the valley. The problem came when I tried to descend. Towards the head of the cwm the path disappears into deep bracken and gorse and plunges down into gullies in places. Eventually, after a truly horrible descent down a gorse and bramble choked gully I crossed the river and scrambled up to the path. I was dirty,scratched and sweating like a pig! There was no way I was scrambling out the way I came in!
After cooling down under what is a magnificent fall, I decided I would walk out through the private estate which owns the lands within the cwm. The walk out was pleasant and easy but pretty soon I hit a ' private property-keep out' sign. Climbing over a fence I crossed a field and headed for another footpath I had spotted. More 'private-keep out' signs...bugger it...I'm coming through like it or not!
Eventually I sneaked through a large farmyard and in one bound I was free. I had passed the entrance to the estate without seeing a soul. In fact I had spent the whole afternoon alone in a fantastic cwm which anywhere else would have been a mecca for outdoor types and tourists. Normally this state of affairs would suit me down to the ground. The point is; despite the last Labour government's promise to give us a right to roam act, unfortunately,like most of the government's promises, what materialized was another half baked policy- the cRow act. A unsatisfactory compromise policy which still leaves many areas in the UK where we cannot freely roam. This estate being one of them. For non outdoor types, such as old people,families with children,the disabled... the waterfall of Blaen y Cwm is out of bounds as it requires a certain tenacity and dedication to reach via the dedicated path. In 2013 it's surely not acceptable to be denied access to some of our most beautiful areas by governments still kowtowing to a privileged elite. Benny Rothman...where are you now!
Pistyll Blaen y Cwm
St Melangell Church of Cwm Pennant