Welsh Pilgrims Songs of Praise


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Welsh Pilgrims

Aled Jones follows the pilgrim trail to Bardsey Island, reputed to be the resting place of 20,000 saints. Kate Bottley uncovers the real St Valentine in Dublin.


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Today on Songs Of Praise, I'm in Wales.

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It is a land close to my heart, of course, and it is

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a place that's rich in myth and legend

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and steeped in Christian heritage.

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This is the ancient Pilgrim's Way in North Wales.

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If the tides are on my side, I will reach Bardsey Island,

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reputed to be the resting place of 20,000 saints.

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I remember I walked up onto the top of the mountain and cried and

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cried and cried - completely overwhelmed with emotion.

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I am also following in the footsteps of Hollywood actor

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Andrew Garfield who came to this retreat centre to learn how

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to play a 17th-century Jesuit priest.

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He had long straggly hair and a straggly beard which

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he had grown for the film.

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Happy Valentine's Day. I hope you have a great day!

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Valentine's Day is nearly upon us. I am here in Dublin

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spreading the love and in search of the saint himself.

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Our music today comes from across Britain and we begin here in

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the land of song with a hymn written by one of the greatest

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Welsh writers, William Williams.

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It has become a firm favourite everywhere.

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Just off the Pilgrim's Way here in Denbighshire is St Beuno's -

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named after a 7th-century Welsh missionary saint.

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It was built in 1848 by the Jesuits as a theology college and

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has recently fallen under the spotlight since the release

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of Martin Scorsese's firm Silence.

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I pray, but I am lost. Am I just praying to silence?

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To prepare for the role, actor Andrew Garfield,

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best known as Spider-Man, studied the life of

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a Jesuit priest for a year when he came here for a silent retreat.

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It was all hush-hush, of course!

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Thank you. Is it normal for St Beuno's to open its doors to

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Hollywood superstars?

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It is the first one we have had in my time, you are the second!

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You have come down in the world!

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What was his reaction when he saw this place,

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because it is such a magnificent building?

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It is. It is really splendid.

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What I remember about him, though,

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was he was very modest and unassuming.

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He didn't draw attention to himself.

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He was really just like any other retreatant.

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Except he had very long straggly hair and

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a straggly beard which he had grown for the film.

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It is too dangerous. We asked for this mission.

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-I must admit, I didn't know who he was.

-Didn't you?

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I just thought, "I've seen your face." Oh, he has been here before.

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Just another person, you just serve him like everybody else.

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-You never know, he might come back.

-Yes!

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You will be more impressed next time.

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Yeah, I would know who he is, wouldn't I?

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Originally missionaries, the Jesuits

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are a Catholic order and now number around 16,000 worldwide,

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including Pope Francis, the first Jesuit Pope.

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But at St Beuno's, anyone of any faith or none

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can come on retreat.

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-I will show you one of the rooms.

-OK.

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Oh, this is lovely. How would you describe the Jesuit faith?

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It is a spirituality, about finding God in all things.

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So, I think there is an openness to the world and looking to see

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where God is at work in all people and in all situations.

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Jesuits follow the spiritual exercises of their Spanish

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founder, St Ignatius of Loyola, written nearly 500 years ago.

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They are designed to focus your mind and broaden your understanding

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of the life of Christ.

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Take us through some of the exercises that happen here

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when you come over on retreat.

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Well, essentially people are being offered Scripture and it is

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putting the gospel down alongside our own lives and seeing how

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one speaks to the other.

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Most of all, Ignatius wanted people to come to know Christ as a friend.

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Some people might say coming here is running away from real life.

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I would say it is facing up to real life!

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Because I think we use a lot of stuff to distract ourselves

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from what is going on inside.

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And although so many of these things are good in themselves,

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phone, computer, all our modern technology,

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it can sometimes take us away from what needs attending to in here.

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That escape from everyday life whilst on retreat here is

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something James Potter experienced.

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What is it like not talking at all for 30 days?

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It's...

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Not as bad as you might think.

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-Really?

-It sounded like torture the first time I heard of it but one of

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the great things about a place like this is it really eases you into it.

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It is quite a fruitful, creative space where you can discover

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more about yourself and to be with your own thoughts.

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This sounds like something you could do at home,

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so why do you need to come to somewhere like this?

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Being away just gives you that extra space to really settle down,

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to really allow some of those extraneous worries and

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thoughts in our daily lives just to filter out and really to hear

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that still, small voice in the depths of your being.

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On Tuesday, many of us will be celebrating St Valentine's Day.

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It has become a mix of romance and commercialism.

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But who was St Valentine?

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Kate Bottley is in Ireland on his trail.

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-Happy Valentine's Day!

-Thank you.

-Happy Valentine's Day.

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-Thank you so much.

-Have a great day. What do you know about St Valentine?

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Just that he is the man of love!

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He is buried in Dublin and that is what we know and that is why

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-we are so romantic.

-Do you think that is why the city is so romantic?

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What can I say? What can I say? We are oozing with love!

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Lo-o-o-o-ve!

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St Valentine could be the patron saint of flower sellers,

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the amount of business he does for them, and certainly here in

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Dublin's Moore Street,

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business is booming.

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-This is what you need!

-Look, he is giving it to you.

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That is so romantic.

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-Happy Valentine's Day. How long have you been together?

-46 years.

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-Oh, my word.

-What's the secret?

-I don't know yet!

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The Catholic Church recognises at least three different saints

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called Valentine or Valentinus - all of whom were martyred.

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One of the stories is that St Valentine was

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a third-century priest in Rome and behind this rather humble

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facade is a church said to contain the relics of his body.

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-Good to meet you.

-You are very welcome.

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So Father Brown, who was St Valentine?

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Now, there was a possibility there was more than one Valentine

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but the story we like to hold on to here is that he was a Roman

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priest who lived in the third century and during his ministry, he

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brought couples together at a time when essentially that was forbidden.

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So why were the couples not allowed to marry?

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Well, it all had to do with the Emperor of Rome, Claudius II,

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who was sometimes referred to as Claudius the Cruel.

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Lovely name isn't it, really(?)

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And for the military campaigns to be successful,

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Claudius II needed his young men to be fighting fit and perish

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the thought there would be lovers or wives or partners of any sort.

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He just could not allow that.

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That resulted in execution for Valentine. So, he lost his head?

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-He lost his head. The poor man.

-He lost his head for love.

-He did.

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In 1836, it was Father Spratt,

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a renowned public speaker and preacher, who gained recognition

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from Pope Gregory XVI for his dedication to Christianity.

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He was apparently given a reward of St Valentine's remains.

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And the gift was this wonderful casket which contains the

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-reliquary of St Valentine.

-So, it was like a present?

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It was a present. So we got this beautiful reliquary.

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The current Pope, Pope Francis, has urged churches to think again

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about St Valentine's Day - that it might not just be a commercial

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opportunity but an opportunity to reflect on the true nature of love.

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And every Valentine's Day, couples come and have their rings and

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vows blessed in a time of prayer and reflection.

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Although St Valentine's own life ended in martyrdom,

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his legacy of love will endure for ever.

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And who can ask for any more than that?

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Later in the programme,

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I will continue on my pilgrim trail as I hope to set out across

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the sea and reach Bardsey Island - if the weather holds out.

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But now, an uplifting soundtrack for any journey.

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Here is Angel Blue with her own composition, Sing.

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# Do you hear the sound of change?

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# Growing louder

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# Through the pain?

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# Praying hard to keep things going

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# Though God, you're ever knowing

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# Keep us planted on firm ground

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# Trying to go the extra mile

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# May take a little while but it will happen in God's time

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# Let us all sing

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# Sing together

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# Let us all sing

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# Sing till it's over

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# Joy will come

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# In the morning

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# Like a fire blazing through the night

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# Looking toward our destination

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# May take a little patience

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# It will happen in God's time

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# We must go the extra mile

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# May take a little while

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# But everything will be just fine

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# Let us all sing

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# Sing together

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# Let us all sing

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# Sing till it's over

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# Now you've reached your destination

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# Don't forget your occupation

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# Thanking God for all that he has done

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# It is his grace by which I stand

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# And now I lend a helping hand

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# Praising him for this journey

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# Let us all sing

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# Sing together

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# Let us all sing

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# Sing till it's over

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# Let us all sing

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# Sing cos it's over

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# Let us all sing

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# O-o-o-o-h!

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# Till it's over

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# Let us all, let us all sing. #

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For centuries,

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many thousands have walked the pilgrim trail here in North Wales.

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And a key stopping point is Aberdaron,

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right on the tip of the Llyn Peninsula.

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This used to be an inn where medieval pilgrims were offered

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a free meal before attempting to cross over to Bardsey Island.

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And for some it would be their last, as the waters of Bardsey Sound

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can be treacherous.

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The local church, named after St Hywyn, an abbot of Bardsey, was also

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a welcome place to shelter whilst waiting for fair weather.

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So, I am following in the footsteps of a few pilgrims before me

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-by coming into this little church?

-You certainly are, yes.

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People would have brought their own food,

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-they would have been eating in here, sleeping in here...

-I see.

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..whilst they are waiting for favourable conditions to go across.

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-So, they could be here for quite a while?

-Yes, they would have been.

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People would have been here who were at the end of their lives and

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that was why they were waiting to go across to Bardsey to die on the

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island, because it is regarded as the island of 20,000 saints -

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because in those days, anybody who became baptised was called a saint.

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And what they wanted to do was to die on Bardsey or to have

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their body taken there.

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It is a thin place between heaven and earth.

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The area is not just a place of pilgrimage.

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Celebrated Welsh poet RS Thomas was parish priest and drew much

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inspiration from his time here.

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He had a very strong connection with Bardsey Island and one of my

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favourite poems is titled Pilgrimages and it gives you

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-some of the sense of...

-What people went through...

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..of what people went through to get to the island.

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"There is an island there is no going to

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"But in a small boat the way the saints went

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"Travelling the gallery

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"The frightened faces of the long drowned..."

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And as far as you are concerned, how do you feel towards that place?

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For me, it holds a very special place in my heart.

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I was estranged from the church for 25 years but going to Bardsey,

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for me, that was the very first time I really connected with the

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sacred and the divine.

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I remember I walked up onto the top of the mountain and cried

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and cried and cried.

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And I don't know why, I was completely overwhelmed with emotion.

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There is this otherworldliness about it.

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Over the years, I have tried three times to get over to Bardsey Island

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and each time the weather and tides have conspired against me.

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And everyone I meet, especially around here in North Wales,

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talks about the magical and spiritual quality of the place.

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I really hope I make it, this time!

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Porth Meudwy was where many pilgrims would embark on their crossing.

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I am entrusting local boatman Colin Evans with my trip.

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THEY SPEAK WELSH

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The million-dollar question, are we going to go today?

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I think we are. Just about.

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-There is a bit of a swell there, you might want to hang on!

-OK, really?

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-Shall we get going?

-Yeah, absolutely. Hop on.

-Lovely.

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-Thank God we are not going in a coracle!

-Well, it can be arranged.

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Bardsey Island lies just two miles off the coast from the mainland.

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It should take us about 20 minutes.

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And you think about all the thousands of pilgrims that

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have done this route over hundreds and hundreds of years,

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-what was it like for them, then?

-It must have been very difficult.

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They would have needed to have absolute faith in their boatmen.

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They really wanted to get over there.

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And who could blame them, really?

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It is looking nice, as well.

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-We haven't really got into the sound yet.

-Oh, OK!

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I wish he would just say yes. HE CHUCKLES

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The island's Welsh name is Ynys Enlli

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meaning "island in the currents" and once you are

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out in open water, the sea can get a lot more choppy.

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-It has been an interesting 20 minutes.

-Yes.

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If it was like that all the time, I would be richer than I am!

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In the old days, what was the expression,

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three trips to Bardsey equalled one pilgrimage to Rome, wasn't it?

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That's right.

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And it was believed if you died here, or even on the way here,

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you would go straight to heaven without passing through Purgatory.

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On a day like today, you can see just how magical this place is

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and why so many people tried so hard to get here.

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At this time of year, there are just a handful of residents,

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including island manager Sian Stacey.

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It is quite a journey to get here, quite bumpy, it was, but worth it.

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Why do you think people want to come to Bardsey so much?

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I mean, it is a very special place.

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The scenery, the views are never-ending.

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So, it is just a beautiful and calm place to come.

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And I think people do still

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return here on their own pilgrimages

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both for spirituality reasons and other reasons.

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-There is four of you on the island at the moment.

-At the moment, yes.

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-Doesn't it get lonely?

-No, surprisingly not.

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In fact, I used to live in a big city and I feel

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-a lot less lonely here than I ever did in the city.

-Really?

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SHEEP BLEAT

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Bardsey has had Christian connections for more than

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1,500 years when St Cadfan is thought to have established a community here.

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Today, all that remains are the ruins of a 13th-century abbey.

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Gosh, not much left!

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No, well, there are theories that some of the stones that would

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have made up the monastery have been reused in the buildings we

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see around us today and may have even been used in the chapel

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-which is just in front of us now.

-Nice idea.

-Yeah!

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-You have been coming here for years, haven't you?

-Yeah,

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-since I was about eight or ten.

-Really?

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Do you think you will live here for ever?

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Well, forever is a long time but I would like to see myself here

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for the foreseeable future. The problem with Enlli is...

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There's a Welsh word called hiraeth...

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Longing.

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Yeah, I certainly felt hiraeth whenever I am not on the island.

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When I'm going back to the mainland,

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I feel the island is drawing me back.

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I think a lot of people who visit the island feel that.

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I'm so fortunate to have finally made it here onto Bardsey Island,

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following in the footsteps of thousands of pilgrims before me.

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They must have been onto something because I felt a tremendous inner

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calm on this island and wouldn't have missed it for the world.

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Our final hymn seems an appropriate way to end.

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Until next time, bye-bye.

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Aled Jones visits north Wales to follow the pilgrim trail to Bardsey Island, reputed to be the resting place of 20,000 saints. Kate Bottley is in Dublin to uncover the real St Valentine.

Music:

Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah from Llandaff Cathedral, Cardiff Be Still, for the Presence of the Lord from New Community Church, Southampton Here Is Love, Vast as the Ocean from St German's Church, Cardiff Sing by Angel Blue, St Jude on the Hill, London I Will Sing the Wondrous Story from St James the Greater, Leicester Nearer, My God, to Thee by Treorchy Male Voice Choir, Morriston Tabernacle Chapel Who Would True Valour See from Manchester Cathedral, Manchester.