Thursday 13 December 2018

Alun Davies on pilgrimage 

Alun Davies (MO 1961-1965) shares his experience of a pilgrimage to Caldey Island . 

It will have been said before – but the five years I spent at The King’s School Canterbury have, to an extent, characterised my life ever since. There were many character forming ingredients to life at King’s such as friendship – scholarship – sport – religion and service; by service I mean social service and also service in the Combined Cadet Corps. All of those have affected my later life in one way or another but I wish to write here about religion. I have always been a Christian and have been reasonably good in attending church services.  “Could do better” sounds like a satisfecit in the time of Fred Shirley, but I did at least bring my children up in the Christian faith. 

It was probably some adventures with the CCF that gave me an interest in mountaineering. We were taken on what were called “Arduous Training Camps” to places like Scotland – Norway and Wales where we were introduced to mountain walking and rock climbing. My main memories are sore feet and rain in buckets, but the seed was sown and I have been mountaineering and skiing ever since.  For many years in the mountains I “got away with it” but latterly I was caught in two avalanches in Iran and Turkey. Sadly the Turkish incident resulted in the death of a man I was skiing with and, later, my friends encouraged me to try adventures that were less dangerous.

So we decided to go to Crete and relive the famous story about capturing the German general who was in command of the island and follow the route taken by Patrick Leigh Fermor in 1944. This rather appealed as there were unlikely to be avalanches on the mountains of Crete and furthermore Paddy had been to Kings Canterbury and then to the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, as I had done, so a golden thread drew us together. It was difficult to contact Paddy who was living in his house in an olive grove near Kardamyli in the Mani Peninsula, southern Peloponnese. After much phoning and emailing his publisher John Murray put me in touch with his biographer Artemis Cooper (whose sons went to Kings – add detail) and Artemis could not have been more helpful. She kindly gave me his telephone number and told me to call him at a certain time in the evening when he would be relaxing with a glass of ouzo. So I called and was rather surprised when on the third ring he answered and happily it was a good line. I told him of our plan to follow his route and he said – “I will send you my wartime maps”. To my everlasting surprise the faded maps arrived in a plain brown packet about a week later, and so our expedition began.

Our trip to Crete was fun and without incident. We did manage to meet people on the island who fondly remembered Paddy and we did manage to follow his route very closely. On our return, he invited us to his house in Dumbleton in Gloucestershire for, in his words, a feast. As we arrived on the day arranged Paddy was standing ramrod straight on the doorstep clutching a chilled bottle of champagne in his hand – he greeted us with the words “come and have a drink”; and so our feast of a lunch began.

The group of friends so much enjoyed the Crete adventure that we looked for a similar expedition with a narrative theme. This time we chose to follow the footsteps of a young New Zealand army officer, Sandy Thomas, who as badly wounded in the battle of Crete. He was flown by a German Dornier ambulance plane to Athens where German surgeons saved his shattered leg. Later he was moved to a prisoner of war camp at Thessaloniki where he recuperated and prepared to escape. He was advised by the Greeks he met to make his way to the monasteries of the Holy Mount Athos where the monks would give me sanctuary. He painfully walked the 88 miles to the monasteries – which took many weeks and after some frightening times when the Germans searched for him, in the Great Lavra monastery where he hid in the roof, he was able to take a boat and sail to Turkey and freedom.

So we flew to Thessaloniki to begin our adventure. It might have been an ill omen that the pilot of my BA plane reported that the nose wheel was not able to be lowered. As we landed there was much wailing and screaming but it transpired that the wheel was down and secure and all was well. Our walk from to the Holy Mountain took only a week along the historic pilgrim route where we came across wonderful stone bridges built a thousand years ago and still looking good.

The Holy Mountain is really a peninsula on the Halkidiki, a region in northern Greece known for its jutting peninsulas, which feature Mediterranean forests that give way to sandy beaches in sheltered bays. Of the three peninsulas Mount Athos is on the most easterly and for a thousand years it has been the site of monastic devotion by the Orthodox faith. Entry is strictly controlled and has to be by boat, so that is how we arrived. We had the intention of following the route taken by Sandy in the war. This saw us walking almost the length of the island, staying in different monasteries on the way. As a pilgrim one is given a generous welcome at each monastery by the guest monk. He will provide the party with a small tray which holds glasses of cool water, cups of strong Greek coffee, and a bowl of loukoumi (a Greek version of Turkish delight). Guests are then shown to their room, which can have between one and ten beds, where there are sheets, blankets and towels.

Pilgrims sometimes struggle with the time of day as their watches and body clocks will be on European time while the monasteries work on Byzantine time. That is to say when the sun sets each evening the clocks are set to midnight, while the watch of the traveller is showing 6 pm.  The first service of the monastic routine begins at 3 am pilgrim time, which is of course 9 am to the monks. This is called orthros and it lasts for 3 or 4 hours. This service is held in the middle of the night as the busy world is hushed and the stillness of the night allows the monks to feel closer to God. As a pilgrim one does not have to remain for the whole service but as a non-orthodox Christian one has to stand or sit at the rear of the church and you are not allowed to take the holy sacrament.

One of the many surprises is that the first meal of the day, served after Orthros, is actually the main meal of the day for the monks and wine is served with it unless it is a feast day. For the less enthusiastic pilgrim who has risen for “breakfast”, it seems strange to be faced with a full cooked vegetarian meal with wine.

As the monks go into the fields to work, while others paint icons or work on the buildings, the pilgrim heads off towards the next monastery on foot or vehicle. We chose to follow the ancient paved footpaths which were laid a thousand years ago to link the monasteries, and long before the arrival of vehicles. These marvellous paths, often 2 or 3 metres wide and ten miles long or more are now less used as the modern pilgrim often travels by minibus. As a consequence, they are rapidly overgrown by the fast-growing plants, weeds and trees which thrive in that tropical environment. As they become more obstructed so they deter walkers and this came to the notice of HRH The Prince of Wales who has visited Mount Athos over the years. He suggested that an effort should be made to open up the paths and so the Friends of Mount Athos, an international but British led organisation, now sends out a party each year to clear and open up these ancient paths.

We aimed to walk each day and to arrive at the next monastery in the mid-afternoon in order to settle in and freshen up before attending vespers the afternoon service. This is a relatively short service at about 5 pm European time. As vespers ends so the doors of the trapeza or refectory open and the monks file in, there may be between 20 and 100, followed by the pilgrims. All meals are eaten in strict silence during which time a monk will read from a holy book and when he finishes the meal is ended. Some novice pilgrims may not be aware of this and will be only halfway through their plateful as a small bell is sounded everyone gets up to say a grace to end the meal. The abbot then leads out followed by the monks and last the pilgrims. As everyone moves through the doors the cooks and kitchen staff are there to be thanked. As this takes place the large bell knolls announcing that compline, the last service of the day is about to begin. This is the shortest of the services and after it, there is to be no movement in the common areas and everyone goes back to their rooms.

So we continued to walk between the monasteries for a week enjoying the peace, the tranquillity of the place and the belief of the monks and their visitors. There are no shops to be seen, there are no commercial buildings or houses as we know them, and there is no advertising or other commercial activity. There are mules, often in a train, carrying heavy loads between the monasteries, but little else other than pilgrims and monks passing in the opposite direction and those are rare sightings.

After my first visit to the Holy Mountain, I joined the Friends of Mount Athos and was invited to take part in one of the path clearing projects. We went for two weeks and spent one week in one monastery before moving to a new area and a different monastery. This was a rewarding and worthwhile visit and it was not expensive as the food and accommodation are provided by the monks.

In 2016 I made a further trip with three male friends. Women have never been allowed on the Holy Mountain as the belief is that the Virgin Mary was shipwrecked and went ashore there at the time of Christ. She blessed the land and since then no other women have been able to go there. We were fortunate to have an extended pass and spent five days walking between monasteries taking time to pray and soak up the peace and tranquillity. The Holy Mountain has had a profound effect on me and I am sure to return again another year.

As I write this in the autumn of 2017 I am able to look back on a recent and very enjoyable pilgrimage to the Cistercian abbey on Caldey Island. Living in South Wales I have always been aware of this monastery on a small island off the coast near Tenby in Pembrokeshire.  It has always struck me that a pilgrimage should involve travel and effort to reach the destination and travel to Caldey involved train – boat and foot.  The first records refer to Celtic monks who settled on the island in the 6 th century AD. That settlement was abandoned, possibly as a result of Viking raids, after a few hundred years. Then in the 12 th century, a group of Benedictine monks from Normandy set up on Caldey island as an annex to the monastery they had established at St Dogmaels on the coast of Pembrokeshire.  They remained there and flourished until Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries in England and Wales in 1536. The present abbey was built by a community of Anglican Benedictines between 1910 – 1912. In 1913 the community converted to Catholicism and in 1925 they sold the island and abbey to the Cistercian order who established a group of monks there from Scourmont Abbey in Belgium in 1929 and the Belgian influence remains to this day.

I travelled there with a friend and we were invited to share the guest rooms in the abbey and to eat our meals in the monk's refectory. There are eight services each day and I felt it appropriate to attend all the services, though pilgrims are not obliged to do so. The first service is Vigils at 3.14 am with the main service being Concelebrated Mass at 6.45 am. The other services are Lauds – Mass - Terce – Sext – None – and Vespers with the final service of Compline at 7.35 pm. This liturgical rhythm takes some getting used to, but as Father Daniel assured me it becomes easier as the months and years go by.

Between the services, it was good to stretch one’s legs and tour the island on foot. It is only 2.4 km by 1.5 km in size so it does not take long to visit all of the beaches and places of interest.  There are a number of small businesses which contribute to the running costs of the abbey, not least the chocolate factory, a reflection of the Belgian connection, which provides for the many visitors to the island.

Caldey abbey now has ten monks and is rather quieter than the monasteries of Greece with one hundred monks but it is all the more tranquil for it and it does allow the pilgrim a time for peaceful reflection and spiritual renewal.

Caldey Abbey welcomes pilgrims and brother Titus the guestmaster could not have been more welcoming and helpful. Details of the abbey and advice for visitors is to be found here .


Alun Davies (MO 1961-1965) recounts his pilgrimage to Caldey Island, Pembrokeshire Wales.

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