by Chris Moss, The Daily Telegraph, August 27, 2018
The path out of Swansea takes me along the towpath of the Tennant Canal, past the Brunel Tower that once housed a hydraulic ram, alongside the gas-fired Baglan Bay power station and then right through the industrial heart of Port Talbot. I love it – but I can’t say it’s making me feel very religious – or medieval.
I’m in South Wales at the western end of a newly described 13th-century pilgrimage route linking Swansea with Hereford: The St Thomas Way . Having breezed through the city – one of my favourites, but home to more squealing tyres than dreaming spires – I enjoy the sea air while contemplating the original walkers.
In October 1290, Norman ruler Lord William de Briouze – Marcher Lord of Gower – ordered William ap Rhys, a Welsh outlaw also known as William Cragh and “Scabby William” to be hanged at Gibbet Hill (now North Hill, Swansea) for allegedly killing 13 men in an attack on nearby Oystermouth Castle. A second man, Trahearn ap Hywel, was also to be hanged.
The vengeful Norman lord instructed Cragh’s relatives Griffith, Dafydd and Uthel to hang him themselves. But, as dastardly de Briouze and his son looked on from Swansea Castle, the crossbeam of the gallows broke. Cragh and Trahearn fell to the ground. The gibbet was rebuilt and they were hanged a second time. Soon, Trahearn’s spent body was lifted down. Cragh also appeared lifeless. Eyewitnesses to the hanging described his eyes bulging out and his tongue blackened and swollen to the size of a fist.
But he wasn’t dead. According to nine eyewitnesses, interviewed later by Papal inquisitors, Cragh came back to life. Pious locals attributed the miracle to St Thomas of Hereford. Several joined Cragh – barefoot, with a symbolic noose around his neck – along with the Lord and his Lady wife, when they set off to visit the tomb.
It’s quite a story, and a ripe enough reason for following in the lucky man’s footsteps. The problem is: we don’t know which route he took.
“There’s no map of the journey taken by Cragh,” explains Dr Catherine Clarke, a medieval specialist at the University of Southampton and lead researcher on the project.
“The only reference to his pilgrimage is a small note in the manuscript in the Vatican Library which records the miracle of his resuscitation. Medieval records at Hereford Cathedral also log Cragh’s visit.”
Dr Clarke, with a team of medievalists, has plotted his likely route through informed guesswork, studying the medieval road network, typical stopping-places for travellers and river crossings. Ogilby’s 1675 Britannia atlas, which covers London to St David’s – a classic pilgrim’s highway – also helped.
“There are places where the Way follows Cragh’s likely route very closely,” notes Dr Clarke. “But in others, we’ve chosen to include locations which help us to tell the story of the March of Wales, and culture and belief in this medieval borderland, in the most compelling and engaging way possible.”
When I stopped for tea or a rest, I dipped into the website, which contains circular walks and historical anecdotes associated with the main settlements along the 121-mile Way, from Swansea through Margam, Ewenny, Caerphilly, Usk, Abergavenny, Longtown, Kilpeck, to Hereford, and a few stops in-between. Trains and buses ply the route, so it’s easy to hop between most of the places if you don’t have a week free to walk it.
After my industrial coast mediation, I decided to do the Longtown walk – seven miles along uneven ground (so a proper walk) and it included a castle, a church dedicated to a martyred king, a medieval dip well, Offa’s Dyke and fine views from the Hatterall Ridge – bang on the English/Welsh border.
Dr Clarke has her own favourites; “the walk at Ewenny is beautiful, including the medieval stepping stones where Cragh probably crossed the river, Ogmore Castle and Ewenny Priory.
“But there’s also a lovely cluster of locations nearer the Hereford end of the route. Usk is very pretty and includes a castle with views. Abergavenny is a short, semi-urban walk, but takes in the beautiful Priory, Castle and lovely views.”
Kilpeck is worth a visit even if you don’t do the walk – for the impressive Romanesque sculpture on the church. In these small, unspoiled towns along the St Thomas Way you can also capture something of the sounds, smells and rhythms of medieval life.
So can it take on the likes of the Camino de Santiago? Some will argue English cider can’t compete with Spanish Rioja, and that a picnic of jamón serrano and padrón peppers knocks laver bread and faggots into a wide-brimmed hat.
But you’ll always have your Doubting Thomases. The landscape of the Welsh borders is among the most beautiful in Europe, and our new Anglo-Welsh Way skirts the Brecon Beacons as well as the Black Mountains.
Dr Clarke is hopeful. “The Camino de Santiago obviously has a much longer-established modern revival,” she acknowledges. “But there’s increasing interest in these Ways, and I think there’s huge enthusiasm for one in the UK. I think the big shift is the growing recognition that these Ways are not just for people of religious faith, but that they can offer everyone opportunities for recreation, reflection and renewal.
“The recently-discovered Newport Medieval Ship – a suggested stop on the Way – was probably built in northern Spain and was likely used in trade with that region. So, it may well have carried pilgrims across from Britain to Santiago – and maybe even vice versa, to Hereford and the shrine of St Thomas!”
The St Thomas Way
Chris Moss is the author of Wales Coast Path: Tenby to Swansea (Aurum).