A MONTH-LONG festival will traverse south Wales throughout June in a bid to boost faith tourism by uncovering neglected stories hidden in some of the country’s most arresting natural landscapes.

Singer and cultural facilitator Richard Parry, who is leading the events, says the aim is to ‘bring to life’ Welsh Government recommendations dating from 2013. The Faith Tourism Action Plan found Wales’ faith heritage – churches, landscapes and buildings, and stories from many traditions – were not sufficiently available for the public to access and engage with.

And while Parry explains ‘Christianity is by far the largest story’, he is keen to stress: “We will engage with all faith traditions. Islam has a heritage in Wales dating back to the first millennium, and we’ll also be thinking about Roman religion and prehistoric sites as well as world faith traditions that have come to Wales in the more recent past.”

He cites the story of a coin minted by King Offa of Mercia found at Bangor Cathedral. It featured the king’s name on one side and the Shahada – the Islamic declaration of faith – on the other. “It emphasises Wales’ really strong links with the Mediterranean,” says Parry.

The National Wales: Gold dinar of King Offa. Picture: British LibraryGold dinar of King Offa. Picture: British Library

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The festival’s four journeys will end at Llantwit Major in the Vale of Glamorgan, where an exhibition of photographs by award-winning photojournalist Kiran Ridley will document key sites in the faith landscape of south Wales.

Parry enthuses about the ‘fabulous heritage’ of the town, named Llanilltud Fawr in Welsh, where a new library and cultural centre will be launched near the site of the monastery established by St Illtud in the sixth century, one of Britain’s oldest known seats of learning.

“The Normans, who ruled large swathes of south Wales, were obsessed with the Celtic Age of Saints,” says Parry.

“The lives of the fifth and sixth century saints were like the cigarette cards of the day, a kind of cast of soap opera stars. Lots of what we know about them comes through the Normans. ‘The Life of St David’, by Rhygyfarch, was written in the eleventh century, hundreds of years after he lived... but for Samson and Illtud, we have much closer historical insights. Llanilltud Fawr was Britain’s first theological college.”

In celebration, Beauchief Abbey Press will publish the first translation into Welsh of the work of great twentieth century philosopher and theologian Paul Tillich, by his collaborator and friend John Heywood Thomas. ‘Ar y Ffin’ brings into Welsh Tillich’s ‘On the Boundary’, his intellectual autobiography.

“Much of Welsh culture knows about being on the boundary,” says Parry, “and it’s a great text. I hope this book and Wales can be friends.”

The National Wales: Landscapes of Faith - Wales - a community treasure hunt

But the organiser – whose previous work includes the 80-day Coleridge in Wales festival in 2016 and Carnifal y Môr for the 2018 National Eisteddfod in Cardiff – is also keen to emphasise how this festival hopes to relate to the daily lives of people living in south Wales’ communities today, describing the journey as ‘a slow bike ramble’.

Starting at Strata Florida, the former Cistercian Abbey outside Pontrhydfendigaid, Ceredigion, on June 1, the festival will call at Llanddewi Brefi, where St David was reputedly lifted above the ground so large crowds could hear him preach, and Llandovery – home to Wales’ greatest hymn writer, William Williams Pantycelyn.

In Swansea, the festival will engage with Peace Mala, an educational project which draws on the peace traditions contained within all major religions.

A second journey focuses on Banwen in Neath Port Talbot, which has a claim to be the birthplace of Patrick, patron saint of Ireland.

On March 17, the community marked St Patrick’s Day with a socially-distanced memorial to the saint and his sister Darerca, who were captured by pirates and taken to Ireland as slaves. An online meeting to remember present-day victims of human trafficking was attended by First Minister Mark Drakeford.

The third journey will celebrate the life of Tudful, whose name survives in the name of Merthyr Tydfil, which Parry calls ‘a mountain town’.

“The upper Merthyr Vale is stunningly beautiful,” he says. “Gelligaer and Merthyr Common should be a national park! If you were in Keswick, you’d stop the car and climb the hill!”

Here a collaboration with RunWales will see a women’s fun run to mark the story of Tudful’s martyrdom, and singer Kizzy Crawford – who hails from Merthyr – has been commissioned to write a song.

The National Wales: Kizzy Crawford.Kizzy Crawford.

The final journey toward Llantwit Major will start in Bristol, retracing the steps of Methodist revival leader John Wesley into Wales.

It will begin at the New Room where mobs were despatched to attack Wesley’s preaching against slavery. At Caerleon, the festival will recall Julius and Aaron – some of the first British Christian martyrs, killed by the Romans – before arriving in Cardiff, where the festival will celebrate ‘all of the great world faith traditions that have come to be an integral part of our culture and communities’.

“Wales has fantastic civic faith infrastructure set up by the late former First Minister Rhodri Morgan,” says Parry, “Organisations like the Muslim Council of Wales and the Hindu Council of Wales ensure an insightful, inspirational civic ecosystem for conversations with faith culture.”

The hope for a legacy for the festival journeys is that the new library at Llantwit Major will be another platform for communities across Wales to engage with our landscapes, steeped in millennia of often hidden faith heritage.

In its organiser’s final description: “It’s a treasure hunt!”

• ‘Landscapes of Faith’ is taking place at sites across South Wales. Due to restrictions there are no public events but activities can be followed at landscapesoffaith.org

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