Episode 2 of Pagans & Pilgrims is on BBC 4 tonight 8.30pm. As mentioned in a previous post, this series was designed and made to be called ‘Britain’s Holiest Places’ and looks mainly at Christian sites. Only after it was made did the Beeb change the title. So don’t be surprised if you don’t hear much about Paganism… although of course it’s always there, just beneath the surface…
what was really happening in Britain’s spiritual landscape over the last two thousand years?
Many of the answers will be found in our BBC Four TV series, Pagans and Pilgrims: Britain’s Holiest Places, where we had to choose 36 of them, each drawn from a selection of 500 around the UK, included in a book by Nick Mayhew Smith on the same subject.
The series explores the historical relationship between Christianity and the older beliefs that existed before its arrival. Rather than destroying the old symbols of paganism, Christianity simply subsumed them, and the previously pagan landscape was overwritten with a new Christian narrative.
From crumbling ruins and towering mountain hideaways, to sacred caves and ancient shrines, some of which predate Christianity, we explore the myths and legends running through Britain’s spiritual history, and ask what these historical sites tells us about who we are today.
Many of the places we visited were in the grand surroundings of some incredible cathedrals, but the one that stood out most for us couldn’t be more different – the Welsh Christian shrine at Pennant Melangell.
Set amid the dramatic North Wales countryside near the Snowdonia National Park, a small farming valley was in the 6th Century home to Melangell, a princess who became a hermit after an unwanted marriage proposal.
Legend has it that one day the local lord came through with his hunting pack, driving the wildlife before him.
Some hares sought refuge under Melangell’s cloak, and when the huntsmen raised their horns to their lips to call the dogs in for the kill, no sound emerged. The lord was so moved that he placed the valley and all its wildlife under Melangell’s care and it became a place of Christian sanctuary.
In the 12th century a shrine to St Melangell, containing her body was erected. Like many other shrines, it was destroyed during the reformation, but she was so popular her bones were secretly reinterred to save them from the reformers’ zeal. During restoration of the church in the late 20th Century they were rediscovered and placed back in the rebuilt shrine.
On the day we visited in October, we were preoccupied with the difficulties of the day’s filming. And it was only afterwards that we began reflecting on how calm and moving a place it was.