These are the ruins of a Cistercian abbey in north Wales, near Llangollen. It was built in an ancient town called Glas, or Glasynfre or maybe Glaestingaburh that had been there since before Roman times. There’s a bit of mystery about this 13th Century abbey, which was named Valle Crucis (valley of the cross) as was the area, after Croes Elisedd (Eliseg’s Pillar) , a 9th century stone cross nearby. The Croes Elisedd was a monument erected by a king of Powys to honor his great-grandfather. It contained one of the longest surviving inscriptions from pre-Viking Wales. You can hardly read any of it now, but the linguist Edward Lhuyd copied and translated it in 1696. It listed members of a family whose names match ones in the legends of King Arthur, such as Vortigern, a king who was (in the story) slain by Arthur’s father Uther Pendragon.
Like other boys who were small but had big imaginations, I liked reading about myths and legends. I did not particularly revel in the tales of great battles and feats of physical strength. My preference was for stories of miraculous things. So I gravitated more toward King Arthur than Hercules or Beowulf. In the stories Arthur wasn’t so powerful physically, but he still pulled a magic sword from a stone because he was born to be king by divine appointment. I was interested in the implied equality of the round table, and in the mysteries of the grail quests undertaken by Arthur’s knights. I didn’t assume that it was historical, but I did wonder if it had been based on real people. If you ever go to Wales, you’ll find the locals don’t wonder about that. They are sure the people lived, and lived in their land, not in England. Did Arthur really live? Beats me. If he didn’t it’s still a good story, one that was popular enough even back in the Middle Ages to lead directly to:
THE GREAT GLASTONBURY PILGRIMAGE SCAM
In 1191, 600 years after Arthur is assumed to have lived, monks at Glastonbury Abbey in Somerset claimed to have found the graves of Arthur and Guinevere to the south of the Lady Chapel of the Abbey church. The remains were later moved, and disappeared. Most scholars believe that this discovery was a forgery crafted to benefit Glastonbury’s foundation, and increase its fame. The monastery was short of funds, and staged the “discovery” to increase pilgrimage. After the discovery, the abbey became wealthy from the alms of travelers who came to see the relics of the famous king and queen of legend. Though the abbey was dissolved by Henry VIII, as was the one at Valle Crucis, the ruins are now a tourist attraction for people seeking connection to Arthur’s legend, or to Joseph of Arimathea who might have even brought the grail there (wink-wink, nudge-nudge, say no more).
I love the Welsh. I love their culture, their language and their natural musicality. Welsh people are more like the Irish in temperament than the English. They are passionate and demonstrative, and very protective of “Welshness”. They aren’t very organized. That’s more an English and German trait. If you can appreciate their history of resistance to being taken over or absorbed by outsiders, you’ll get along well.
Besides the wonderful hymns sung in Welsh by performing choirs, they also like to sing songs that allow them to express their deep understanding of nostalgia and sentiment. Though I was only there for a week, it seemed like every choir in Wales sings an arrangement of “Dixie”. I grew up during the Civil Rights era, in a northern state. In my upbringing, singing “Dixie” was a kind of code that you were racist or supported white-supremacy agendas. It just wasn’t done by polite people. The Welsh let me see the song through their eyes. To them, all that mattered was the authentic expression of regret and longing to return to a place that had once sheltered you. When they sang, “Look away, look away…” everyone in the audience got choked up, and I was no exception.
When I stood among the stone ruins of Valle Crucis abbey, in a place of prayer and meditation that had stood for four times as long as the nation I live in, I could feel the sadness. It was beautiful and still. I could see the nuns leaving the home they had been banished from. I imagined them taking one, last sad look back as they walked. And in the wind, I heard the notes of “Dixie”. Some say they have no regrets in life. I think if you don’t understand the value of regret, then you haven’t really lived.