The cycle route from my house into Cardiff takes me past Llandaff Cathedral, and sometimes through its grounds. It was built in the twelfth century on a site at least five hundred years older. Though its scale is grand, its setting is modest: out of sight at the base of the hill, in a dip close to the River Taff and surrounded by trees. Passing through, I recall Philip Larkin’s feeling in the poem Church Going, that ’It pleases me to stand in silence here.’
Those moments in the Cathedral grounds, when I feel that I am brushing past something ancient and deep-rooted, remind me of the many ways in which geography can be mapped into the psyche. Every landscape is imbued with invisible meanings that come from the generations who have previously inhabited it. Our relation to the land depends on our relation to those generations and their sources of meaning.
The desire to inhabit a sacred landscape also reminds me of the fascination with Tibet as a place, which is so important for many western followers of Tibetan Buddhism. The German Buddhist, Lama Govinda, writes in his memoir, The Way of the White Clouds:
Tibet has become the symbol of all that present-day humanity is longing for … the stability of a tradition, which has its roots not only in a historical or cultural past, but within the innermost being of man, in whose depth this past is enshrined as an ever-present source of inspiration.
This thought resonates more strongly in some places than in others. I was born in Croydon, a dismal London suburb where any sense of ancient sanctity has been buried beneath concrete, and whose sole river, the Wandle, is for most of its course culverted like a sewer. I moved from England to Wales to marry a Welshwoman, and the difference is palpable – bound up with the land, the people, the stories they tell and, for many, the language. Though North Waleans would deny it, that’s even true in Cardiff.
I have learned to love the distinctive character of Welshness. I feel it keenly when we go on holiday to Pembrokeshire, even among the well-heeled visitors from the cities who come for a summer of sailing and paddleboards. Between the Preseli Hills and Cardigan Bay, the place has an Atlantic starkness and the same sense that following its paths means stepping upon layers of memory. The cathedral town of St Davids is on the west coast, facing the ocean. That is where the eponymous Dewi Sant lived in the sixth century. I enjoy the story that David founded a monastic order whose members pulled the plough themselves and usually ate only bread with salt and herbs.
The daffodil and leek lapel-badges you see on St David’s day are emblems of something half-remembered. In this country we cannot help stepping on the past, or into a space where things that were once powerfully alive persist and continue to surprise us. At the end of Church Going Larkin recognizes the significance of the place into which he has stumbled:
A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognised, and robed as destinies.
As well as the literal space of a physical church there is the figurative space of our consciousness. When I think of Larkin’s lines I also think of my favourite poem by Wallace Stevens, The Final Ballad of the Interior Paramour, which describes an encounter within this inner space:
Here, now, we forget each other and ourselves.
We feel the obscurity of an order, a whole,
A knowledge, that which arranged the rendezvous
Within its vital boundary, in the mind.
We say God and the imagination are one…
How high that highest candle lights the dark.
Happy St David’s Day! Dydd Gŵyl Dewi Hapus!