Is it my hand cream? Isabelle asks. She peels back her leather-gloved hand and offers her skin for me to sniff.
I shake my head. No, I say, definitely not that. She pauses, then bends down to the balustrade in front of the tiny altar right by where we are standing. Furniture polish, she says, inhaling wood and dust. Perhaps that’s it.
It’s hard to imagine anyone cleaning or dusting in this ancient chapel. St Celynnin’s church sits high in the call of buzzards up above Conwy valley, nestled into rock and scree and fields stark in the call of wind and rain. It has stood for 800 years and more, tucked off the steep and craggy Pilgrims’ Path in this beautiful part of North Wales, its head deep into the hillside and its slate gravestones broken, forbidding. And no, it isn’t polish either. Or anything but an overwhelming aroma of something sharp, almost antiseptic.
I can’t place it, I say. But I can only smell it right here.
Then, from somewhere near the old broken-down organ with its dust and wheezing pipes, a voice. Is it carbolic? J says, and yes, that’s it, that forgotten scent of grandfather’s neck and a bathroom full of wet washing. It’s okay, J says, as though it’s the most natural thing in the world to experience sensory hallucinations of this kind. I caught the exact scent in that same place last time I was here.
We almost hadn’t made it. Caught up in the busyness of our residential writing course, we spent days workshopping, reading, cooking, eating, getting to know one another and dreading our one-to-one tutorials. Outside a storm raged at the stone cottages, rattling doors and windows and looking to blow off the roof. We hunkered down against Welsh rain driving in sideways on mountain air and peered out of windows into ever darkening days. But on Wednesday afternoon some of us found ourselves free just as sky beckoned a blue outside.
The medieval chapel had been high on my list of must-sees. Somewhere in the sixth century the Celtic saint Celynnin established a llan (enclosure) here on this hill to preach to the crowds of pilgrims, travellers and herdsmen who thronged these mountains and valleys, tracking the steps of long-gone forebears seen only in the remains of standing stones, forts and an ancient Roman pathway. Once there had been an inn, a watering-hole. And today still its footings just beyond the churchyard.
There was another reason why folk came to St Celynnin’s and that was its healing Holy Well. Families brought their sick children. They threw items of clothing into the well waters. If the child’s garment floated, the child would live. If it sank, then the outlook was bleak. Sometimes people placed their sick child in the water, desperate for a miracle cure.
We talk about this as we scramble up from our cottage, careful to keep our footing on this sharp incline with its loose rocks and running water gouging small streams and torrents from mud and earth. Anne and Liz are sorry not to accompany us, and we’re sorry not have them with us. Say a prayer for me, Liz says in her Welsh lilt, and we will once we get our breath and huddle into the chapel’s cold dank stone. We duck into the door, laughing at its inscription: THIS IS A HOUSE OF GOD. VISITORS ARE REQUESTED NOT TO SCRIBBLE ANYWHERE. Did they know writers were coming? Did they fear words, the people who once dwelled here? Or are they merely anxious to avoid a repetition of what’s happened to the altar wall which is disconcerting however many times anyone warns you what to expect?
We tuck into the freezing place, me and J in our mud-spattered walking gear and Isabelle still clean and Parisian-chic in her distressed leather boots and Russian fur hut. We tuck in and at once stop talking. It’s as if a cold hand stoppers our mouths. I wander a bit. Gaze at the altar wall with its faint, almost runic, markings and indecipherable words. At the bottom is a small skull and crossbones. It’s not what I was expecting to read. We sit, alone, silent. That’s when I encounter the smell.
In no time at all we are swapping strange encounters. J and I share ours, including the fact that as we’d crossed the graveyard I’d conjured a forbidding hand which deflected me from taking a closer look at the headstones. Isabelle listens then tells us that if there’s one thing stranger than our nation’ s fabled politeness it’s our fascination with other-wordly apparitions. The French don’t tell ghost stories, she says. She’s huddled deep into a pew, face shrouded in shadow. It’s getting dark, and I’m getting scared. She laughs. Is it maybe time we went home?
We tease all the way back down the trail, sorry for subjecting her to an afternoon with two mad English women. I don’t tell her that J and I both placed our hands in the holy well. Or that J declared the water freezing and I experienced it as warm.
St Celynnin’s Church is one of the oldest churches in Wales. It’s part of Conwy’s Sacred Doorways Project, an initiative to improve access to churches and chapels across this part of rural North Wales. See the chapel’s 15th century porch with its even earlier hinges and stoop, its medieval font and nave, 14th century chancel, 15th century east window and Capel Meibion (Men’s Chapel), plus its 14th century rood screen. Approach via the Pilgrims Path from Rowen, Conwy. Or from the path above the village. Exact location: Llangelynnin Church, nr Henryd