IN THE small beach village of Aberdaron, on the Llyn Peninsula, even the taps speak in Welsh. The poet-priest R. S. Thomas moved here in 1968, having learned the language in his former parish of Manafon, where few people spoke it. He was in Aberdaron until he retired, when, according to legend, he burnt his cassock on the beach.
The shore is singing a happier song today than it did in Thomas’s work. He wrote that Aberdaron was “Scarcely a street, too few houses To merit the title.” It’s much the same today, but ideally placed for anyone wanting to explore this first finger of north Wales and its 84-mile coastal path.
In the late-September sun, with the Gulf Stream attending to the favourable local climate, it is difficult to imagine the austere poet of myth. Much of this short break with the off-the-beaten-track ecumenical walking company Journeying, will be spent walking the coastline, and the landscape is in the kind of show-off mood that Thomas would not have tolerated in a human being.
Our home for the weekend is a comfy cottage above the village. We are self-catering, but our Journeying hosts have already done the shopping. We share washing-up duties alongside grace, but morning worship sessions are led by Sue, who spends the rest of her time working in refugee education in the north of England.
The Llyn has always been a place of refuge and sanctuary, and these themes will recur as we walk and think through the relationship between the landscape and the nomads and pilgrims who have made their way here. It fits neatly into Thomas’s insider/outsider status, an unexpected way of encountering him anew, only possible by being here, in this place, where he walked and wrote.
My fellow Journeyers are a warm-hearted bunch of Thomas enthusiasts — priests, retired teachers, a prison chaplain, and a lay-poet — with one or two who do not know him so well but who are keen to learn more. Our walking pace is not quick, but, because we stop occasionally to read Thomas’s work, our rhythm becomes Thomas-like, too, taking breath at just the right point on a cliff edge before tumbling down it, faces into the wind. The coastal path is a feast of wildlife for the walker: there are seals and hares, and birds to please any twitcher; and views. It is easy to see why this is an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
Our first goal is Bardsey Island (Ynys Enlli), or at least as close as we can get to it on the headland. The boat to Bardsey goes rarely once the summer is through, leaving the island’s 20,000 buried saints — and, by legend, King Arthur — to themselves.
Bardsey has been a pilgrim destination for centuries. Ptolemy knew it as Edri; Pliny called it Andros; Thomas called it “this green Island ringed by the rain’s bow, a place that we had found — and would spend the rest of our lives looking for”.
Our guide, another Sue, reads aloud again, and our not-quite-getting-there seems to fit, regretful though some of us are that there is no boat to take us. It is a beautiful spot, nevertheless, and the group joins me in a contemplative Quakerish silence. Conversations thus far have inched us together, but we suddenly feel like a small temporary community, a hitching stop on the way to some new knowledge or hope.
Thomas’s parish church, St Hywyn’s, close to the shore, is less stark than one might have imagined. Inside, an exhibition celebrating 1500 years of Christianity in the area sits next to a well-stocked bookshop, selling walking sticks alongside various poetry books and postcards. In daylight, Thomas’s spirit is difficult to locate; instead, it has the warm feeling of a later priest, who remarked that she had had to do “a lot of healing” once the remote poet had retired.
At night, though, candlelit, as Sue reads us through a Stations service composed of Thomas’s work, the place is reduced to its core elements of stone, air, and fire — “the hard ribs Of a body that our prayers have failed To animate”. And when Sue, unexpectedly, plays Thomas’s own voice from speakers set behind us, the church warps with a new resonance. His words do not offer a loving presence exactly, but they are rich and Delphic.
Back at the cottage, after a private group visit to the home that Thomas lived in after retirement — the main living room thick with animal bones and skeletons that he collected for his artist wife, Elsi, to draw — we settle ourselves into a conversation about what the poetry means to us: what we brought to it, as well as took from it.
Our prison chaplain talks about visiting the sick, leaving them, as Thomas left “Evans”, in the poem of the same name, “stranded upon the vast And lonely shore of his bleak bed”. Others are more keen to locate their own moment of grace or beauty or epiphany — their own “bright field”, after Thomas’s poem.
Our poet, pilgrim-souled, has found more faith than doubt over the weekend. Some of us shuffle our feet in embarrassment, however, wondering what the poet himself would have made of the emotional tone of the evening.
Each of us, though, leaves a little different. Living with poetry is to pay closer attention to the moment; to walk with a poet is to understand that it happens here. Or on the Llyn it does if you happen to be there at the time.
Journeying is offering five different walking retreats in 2017, including “Bardsey Island Retreat: R. S. Thomas and More”, from 23 June to 1 July, from £600 (www.journeying.co.uk). The annual R. S. Thomas Literary Festival takes place this year from 9-11 June at St Hywyn Church, Aberdaron (www.rsthomaspoetry.co.uk). DIY travellers to Aberdaron may wish to try the Ship Hotel, which has en-suite double or family rooms — most of which have a view of Gwylan Islands and Aberdaron Bay, priced from £75 per room (www.theshiphotelaberdaron.co.uk). Alternatively, Gwesty Ty Newydd is located next to the beach, and offers en-suite doubles, twins, and family rooms, priced from £90 per room (£60 single occupancy) (www.gwesty-tynewydd.co.uk).