The tradition of pilgrimage, all but forgotten, has been rediscovered and reinvented for a new era.
For centuries, pilgrims in their thousands would make the journey to holy Bardsey Island, following their feet to the ‘edge of the western world’. Today, it is the final destination for the those drawn by the special peace of this hidden historical gem.
Now mapped and waymarked, the route links several churches dedicated to a host of ancient Welsh saints and cuts through some of the most idyllic scenery in the UK.
In case you’re wondering, a pilgrimage was a religious journey taken by medieval people of all ranks. Kings, princes, paupers and peasants all took these journeys (some took several) travelling far and wide to request answers to their prayers of forgiveness of sins.
It was the medieval equivalent to foreign travel; the faithful visited such far flung and exotic places as Jerusalem and Rome, as well as holy sites much closer to home, such as Canterbury and Holywell.
Nowadays, the motivation may be different but the North Wales Pilgrim’s Way is still a monumental journey for a thoughtful explorer hoping to rediscover themselves.
Plan the Route
The route spans over 130 miles of glorious Welsh countryside and can be successfully completed in two weeks with minimal detours. A detailed route guide can be found here if you want to get started right away.
The Pilgrim’s Way begins at Basingwerk Abbey, which, in medieval times, served as a resting place for pilgrims visiting St Winifred’s shrine at Holywell. Now in ruins, the abbey gives modern-day pilgrims a glimpse of the past and the opportunity to collect a Pilgrim’s Passport, which can be used to record your travels by obtaining ‘stamps’ at certain points along the way.
But a pilgrimage is a more than just a long walk with scenic views. While many do it in remembrance of medieval pilgrims and for similar religious reasons it’s suitable for anyone who loves the outdoors and is interested in learning more about themselves. Part walking holiday, part journey of self-reflection, the Pilgrim’s Way is a unique way of seeing North Wales.
If you’re interested in following the trail but are reluctant to go it alone, consider joining a group. An organised pilgrimage starts May Bank Holiday Saturday each year, helping you make the most of the route while making some new friends along the way.
Start the journey
Wild ponies, waterfalls and holy statues, all manner of things can be seen along the way, but be on the lookout for echos of pilgrimages past hidden in the hillsides. You can follow the maps provided on the Pilgrim’s Way website or choose a route itinerary to learn interesting facts and history about your surroundings as you walk.
For anyone planning a visit to the Royal Victoria, we’re delighted to tell you that one of the very best sections of the entire route takes you through the village of Llanberis.
||approximately 15 miles
||9 hours, but allow time for rest breaks and to admire the views
||moderate – care needed in poor weather. A map of the route would be useful
||public toilets and refreshments in Bangor, Llanberis and Waunfawr
||several Pay & Display car parks in Llanberis
Bangor to Tregarth
The Cathedral Church of St Deiniol in Bangor is the starting point for your walk.
Starting at the St Deiniol’s Cathedral in Bangor, collect your first pilgrim’s stamp for Gwynedd county, a place as laced with history as it is with legend.
Imagine, as you leave the busy city centre for the trail into the mountains, how people in days-gone-by would have followed the same route to start their pilgrimage to Bardsey Island.
Follow the route over Bangor Mountain (take a moment to admire the view) then continue along the old Penrhyn Quarry railway track to Tregarth. This six mile stretch of disused track is really picturesque and you can quite easily forget the busy world around you as you amble along.
Tregarth to Deiniolen
Leaving Tregarth, the route leads you past a group of buildings, the old hamlet of Pandy, which nestles on the edge of primeval Welsh forest under the care Woodland Trust.
Follow the waymarks into the woods and pause for a moment to consider how they would have teemed with wildlife in medieval times – wolves, wild boar, maybe even a bear! It’s no wonder pilgrims traveled in groups, under the armed protection of a local lord.
Thankfully, the wolves and bears have long gone so weave your way through the trees until you reach the path leading to Ffarm Moel y Ci.
Following on from the glorious landscape of the farm, head over the hill at Tynllidiart. Here a paved lane drops away to reveal a vast open common which leads on to your first stream crossing.
The route from the crossing to Deiniolen takes you past a derelict farmhouse, Maes Meddygion (a romantic spot and a photographer’s dream), and over the hillside down to Ffridd Uchaf.
The quiet majesty of Llyn Padarn gives chance for reflection.
Following the path through Tai Caradog you will cross the second stream and follow it to begin the journey towards the woods of Padarn Country Park.
Passing the National Slate Museum means you have reached Llanberis. It’s time for a well-earned break! Pop into the hotel and enjoy rest and refreshments at the Eryri Bar & Lounge before continuing your journey past the ruins of Dolbadarn Castle.
While the hotel wasn’t around in medieval times, the castle may well have served as a stopping point for pilgrims and we think it’s a nice connection with the past that the castle is situated within the grounds of our hotel.
Llanberis to Waunfawr
You will pass the ruins of Maenllwyd Isaf as you leave Llanberis.
Heading out of Llanberis you will come across the derelict farm house, Maenllwyd Isaf, a fine example of age old beauty marking the roadside over the hill.
Your walk will take you past several disused slate quarries, the lifeblood of this region for many centuries, then along the fringes of a forest. Dropping down through the fields, you are finally nearing Waunfawr.
Passing Hafod Oleu, an oasis of civilisation in the wilderness, you will pass two cottages and follow the stream further down.
With the village of Waunfawr in sight, Caernarfon in the distance and the sea beyond, the end of this leg of the Pilgrim’s Way is in sight. Imagine how the pilgrims would have felt seeing the immense rosy walls of Caernarfon in the distance after a long trek through the wilderness – an meaningful sense of place can be found on a pilgrimage when furthest away from home.
Whether you choose to tackle the whole route or just the section around Llanberis, make sure you are well equipped and prepared. Although you’ll never be far from civilisation, weather conditions can make the going difficult. Follow the whole trail or explore the section around Llanberis but be sure you’re prepared. More than simply walking in the right frame of mind, a decent level of fitness is essential.
Images: Bangor Cathedral: National Assembly of Wales, via Wikimedia Commons. Llanberis Lake: Stuart Madden, via Flickr 2011. Maenllwyd Isaf: Rudi Winter, licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Licence.