St Dwynwen’s Island

Nothing wins hearts like cheerfulness – St. Dwynwen

ImageGenThe celebration of Dwynwen – the Welsh patron saint of lovers – takes place on January 25th. Not only does she command a unique day on the calendar, but Dwynwen surely lives on in cheerful spirit. Llanddwyn Island, the slim peninsular of land dedicated to her is so evocative, surely there has to be more than lava rock, saltmarsh and historic ruins here…

One of the 24 daughters of a Welsh prince, Dwynwen lived in the fifth century AD. She fell in love with a young man called Maelon but rejected his advances. This, depending on which story you read, was either because she wished to remain chaste and become a nun or because her father wished her to marry another. She prayed to be released from this unhappy situation and dreamed that she was given a potion to do this. However, the potion turned Maelon to ice. She then prayed that she be granted three wishes: 1) that Maelon be revived, 2) that all true lovers find happiness, and 3) that she should never again wish to be married. She then retreated to the solitude of Llanddwyn Island to follow the life of a hermit. Not so bad, then.

Dwynwen became known as the patron saint of lovers, and pilgrimages were made to her holy well on the island. It was said that the faithfulness of a lover could be divined through the movements of the eels that lived in the well. This was done by the woman first scattering breadcrumbs, then laying her handkerchief on the surface. If the eels disturbed it then her lover would be faithful. Visitors would leave offerings at this shrine, and so popular was this place of pilgrimage that it became the richest in the area during Tudor times. This funded a substantial chapel that was built in the 16th century. In 1879, a plain cross was erected in Dwynwen’s memory, followed by the Celtic cross in 1903. The medieval love poet Dafydd ap Gwilym first popularised her story in the 13th century, writing: ‘Dwynwen your beauty is like a silver tear. Your church is ablaze with candlelight.’ To see that church ablaze with candlelight against such a backdrop must have been beyond magical. But there is still magic to be found here.

 

The history behind these scattered ruins across a relatively small area of land, seems all the more poignant for their close proximity … a concentration of beauty and legend, history and romance. There’s a sense of shivery danger too when you learn that at certain high tides, the island is completely cut off from the mainland. And yet there’s a quaint coziness in the row of empty cottages – given over to a small maritime museum – the lighthouse and the boats. I was walking into a children’s adventure one moment, a grisly crime scene or a romantic mystery, the next. (Only in my imagination). And I was on a natural history tour too, scanning the coves for seals, cormorants, sandpipers and turnstones. The rock formations are pillow lava, formed by undersea volcanic eruptions; as the hot molten rock met the cold seawater a balloon-like skin was formed, which then filled with more lava, forming the characteristic pillow shape. These extend down much of the length of Llanddwyn Island, giving it its interesting rolling topography along the beach. These secret coves of washed sand, one after the other nestled into the cliffs were virtually undisturbed, even on a busy day. Combined with the two crosses set against the sky, the solitude lends the place a special peace, a mesmerising natural sanctuary.

No surprise then that the island has been used for various film sets. The lighthouse was built in 1845 in a style similar to Anglesey’s windmills. In 2004, it became a location for filming romantic thriller Half Light. From here there are fabulous views stretching to the misty hills and mountains of the Llyn Peninsula and Snowdonia.

According to Dwynwen nothing won the heart like cheerfulness.  Where else can a writer, photographer, artist, nature lover, bird-watcher, walker or historian find such concentrated richness? I was left contemplating that historical novel, no, wait, I need to write a time-slip historical fantasy. Or the next Enid Blyton? Whatever the outcome, Llanddwyn certainly won my heart.

Words and photography by Jan Ruth.

Watch & Walk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s27z_gBHqek

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