Before we went to St David’s, I went to a meeting called by John Winton of Churches Tourism Network Wales to discuss pilgrimage projects in Wales. The main discussion centred around Andrew Dugmore’s route across south Wales from Llanthony via Blaenafon, Caerphilly and other Cadw sites to St David’s. Andrew walked this route last summer (in atrocious weather) with a number of supporters, as part of the Cultural Olympiad: I walked part of the south-east Wales section with him.
This was a rather bitter-sweet experience. On the one hand the walk was wonderful. On the other hand, with support from Cadw, the Ramblers and the Welsh Government, it looks as though this project will succeed where my Cistercian Way project has failed.
The Cistercian Way has a long back-story. As part of the 1998 celebrations of the 900th anniversary of the founding of the Cistercian order, I was somehow bounced into leading a group walking on a pilgrimage round all Wales’s Cistercian abbey sites, medieval and modern. We had minimal time to prepare the route but it went surprisingly well – so well that some of the group wanted to make it into a permanent heritage footpath. I spent a few years trying to fine-tune the route and produced a rather amateurish web site. But it soon became clear that the job was too big for one person’s hobby. While much of the route was clear and walkable on public rights of way and minor roads, there were sections where the footpaths had been blocked through neglect or deliberate action. There were the usual problems of heritage footpaths – you need to balance the historical interest with the need for a good walk. On the other hand, the fact that the Cistercians were the order of choice in medieval Wales meant that their abbeys were strung out all round the country. Join them together and you get a walk that takes you through the whole of Welsh history, from Neolithic burial mounds to iron works and canals.
The project needed funding, to negotiate with local authorities and to help with footpath clearance and waymarking. With help from John Winton, John Smith of the Alliance of Religions and Conservation, and some individual Ramblers, I tried to raise funds to employ a project officer, but without success. We did get some funding for publicity but that wasn’t what we needed – we needed funding for project development. In some ways the publicity has caused more of a problem. We did get a very professional web site (http://cistercian-way.newport.ac.uk – thanks to my colleague Dave Topping who did an outstanding design job) – but that has meant that the route looks more ‘finished’ than it actually is. Most of it hasn’t even been checked since we walked it for a second time in 2005.
In many ways this is typical of the whole heritage funding scenario. You follow the funding stream – or you fail. And current funding is generally focussed on bottom-up, community-led projects. This is in itself an admirable priority, but it does mean that the big overarching projects that link communities together are much more difficult to get off the ground.
All this sounds like a bit of a whinge – and in a way it is. It was a great project, but at the moment it isn’t going anywhere. I am so worried about the out-of-date information on the web site that I have even thought of pulling the plug on it. What would I do if someone following a route that I wrote up seven or eight years ago found themselves in difficulties?
One possible way forward has actually emerged from Andrew Dugmore’s project. His route goes across south Wales to St David’s. St Asaph Cathedral and North Wales Ramblers have a route across north Wales from Holywell to Bardsey. Might the Cistercian Way get a new lease of life as the link between St David’s and Bardsey, and the route down the Marches from Holywell and Basingwerk to Llanthony?
I was in St David’s last week, mainly to do some work on the tombs in the cathedral, but I also spent a few days thinking about possible routes north from St David’s and up the coast. Of course, there’s the coast path – but that takes days to go not very far. There is potential for a route that cuts across some of the corners and links the sites in Anne Eastham and Damian Walford Davies’s admirable Saints and Stones car-based trails. For a mile or so inland from the coast path, the footpaths are clear and fairly well walked. After that, it gets a bit more difficult. Pembrokeshire County Council has put a lot of effort into waymarking and installing gates and stiles, but if the paths aren’t walked they soon become overgrown. Fields under crop should have a clear strip for the right of way, but no farmer is going to leave land unused if the path isn’t being walked. So we would be back to negotiating with local authorities to clear and promote the route.
Further north, Ceredigion had plans for a Teifi Valley Way which would take the route from Cardigan up to Strata Florida (with a possible diversion to Llanllyr –a pity to miss one of the very few Cistercian abbeys for women, even if there’s very little to see above ground). After Strata Florida, the Cistercian Way is clear through the grounds of Hafod, over the hills to Ponterwyd and north picking up the line of Sarn Helen to Dolgellau and Trawsfynydd. From Dolwyddelan you can go over the southern shoulder of Snowdonia to pick up the coast at Cricieth and along the south of the Llyn to Bardsey.
Going down the east border, you could settle for the Offa’s Dyke path, but that is now very heavily walked. There are good footpaths down the Vale of Clwyd (and some stunning medieval churches). Over Mynydd Llantysilio to Llangollen you pass Valle Crucis abbey – then there’s the Ceiriog Way south to a less well walked section of the Offa’s Dyke path via Welshpool. Llanllugan (another Cistercian abbey for women) is a bit tricky to get to, but from there you can follow some magnificent ridge routes to Abbey Cwm-hir and rejoin the Offa’s Dyke path down to Llanthony.
Would it work – or is this a heritage footpath too many for a small country?