Monday, March 2, 2015

Everyday Pilgrimage

St. Aidan's, Magilligan
We live in an era when shops throughout much of the world are standardised to such an extent, and exported goods so easily available, that being asked to procure something "local and unusual" from one's neck of the woods for curious friends can present a daunting challenge. Luckily, in this remote corner of Northern Ireland I have a few tricks up my sleeve for such purposes. Pulling one of them out this windy morning, I set off to visit St. Aidan's Well.

Two miles down the main road from my house, a modest sign points to this local landmark. The back road it invites you to take then winds its way up the looming Binevenagh mountain. From this vantage point, the mountain has a stacked, tiered appearance - resembling a misshapen cake. First come the grassy tiers, then the forested ones, finally giving way to the flat-top cliffs. The well is located along one of the forested tiers.

St. Aidan's, Magilligan
The 1 mile climb to this spot is manageable on my low-geared transport bike. I have done it so many times, there is almost a sense of my legs "knowing" it, and anticipating when the changes in elevation will come; it is like a familiar staircase.

St. Aidan's, Magilligan
But when I turn around, the view reminds me that the climb is indeed considerable. Those flat green fields in the distance are where I've cycled from.

St. Aidan's, Magilligan
The steep pitch continues as the road proceeds past the carved wooden sign, until at length the stone walls of a graveyard are revealed. Then, a glimpse of a small tidy church.

In Northern Ireland, Catholic churches are referred to as "chapels." While Presbyterian and Church of Ireland churches tend to be situated prominently along main roads, Chapels are more likely to be hidden out of the way. They are also likely to be smaller and more low-key in appearance than the Protestant churches. This goes back to the restrictions placed on Catholicism in Northern Ireland, lasting into the late 19th century. But while remote locations are typical of local Catholic chapels, St. Aidan's situation has greater significance.


Originally, this Foyle-facing side of Binevenagh Mountain was a pre-Christian spiritual site that had developed around two natural springs. Early celtic and pict peoples worshiped here, and the area is said to have been a hub for Druid practices. This went on until St. Patrick happened upon the site, declared it holy, and introduced the locals to Christianity. After his death, a disciple of his, named St. Caidan, established a church beside one of the springs, which in later centuries became known (through a spelling error, hence the omitted “C”) as the Church of St. Aidan.

Today, a crumbled piece of wall is all that remains of of the original Church of St. (C)aidan. The structure that replaced it in the 13th Century is somewhat better preserved, standing in the graveyard next to the modern-day Chapel.


In fact, on the day of my most recent visit it was undergoing maintenance work by the Northern Ireland Environmental Agency - clearing vegetation and making stonework structurally sounder.

St. Aidan's, Magilligan
The current St. Aidan's was built in 1823 to replace the medieval structure once it feel into disrepair. It was originally a Protestant Church, as the practice of Catholicism was prohibited entirely under Northern Ireland's Penal Laws at the time. When these laws were relaxed, St. Aidan's was returned to the local Catholic community and has served as a parish chapel ever since.

And what of the pagan sacred spring, which had inspired this sequence of spiritual sites since early times? Under St. Patrick it was refashioned as a Christian holy well. Specifically, it was said to have the power to cure ills and pains, if poured over the affected area. Locals would make weekly pilgrimages to the well to stock up on its medicinal waters.

St. Aidan's, Magilligan
Today St. Aidan's well stands surrounded by manicured stonework and is actively maintained.

Parishioners still pray here and collect the well's water. Pilgrimages from further afield are probably mostly made by historians these days.

St. Aidan's, Magilligan
As the weather alternated between sunny and dry to full-on hailstorm mode, and back, I filled an empty glass bottle with water from St. Aidan's well.

Eau de St. Aidan
My mission accomplished, I tucked the bottle into a padded bag inside my bicycle's basket before proceeding with the riveting descent toward the main road. While I cannot guarantee the water from St. Aidan's well will heal wounds, something "local and unusual" that you can't buy in a tourist shop it certainly is.

St. Aidan's, Magilligan
I come to St. Aidan's often. Not because of the well or the church, but because in the wooded lot in the back is the start of a hidden hiking trail up the side of Binevenagh Mountain. The trail is steep and muddy and overgrown with twisted roots; at times I need to use my hands to support myself. Unsurprisingly, not many people come here, except on the driest and sunniest weekends. And perhaps because of this, the trail remains utterly wild, beautiful and serene - one of my favourite local spots.

Untitled
When the mood strikes me, I cycle as far as the churchyard, park my bicycle at the gate, then walk the rest of the way to the top of the mountain. Usually I come to photograph, but sometimes I come for no reason at all. There is something about this part of the mountain that draws me to it. It's a feeling, an energy. And it is utterly compelling. No doubt it is the same energy that made it a place of spiritual interest to the area's earliest inhabitants, inspiring settlements and pilgrimages.

27 comments:

  1. How beautiful! This reminded me of my own rides from Colorado Springs to Manitou Springs to get my fill of natural spring water from one of the dozen unique springs. Just 10 miles away and 1000 higher in altitude. I fill my two bike bottles with effervescent water which almost always pops the water bottle lids off on the way home.

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  2. Nice post. I like your bag/basket. Where did you get it? Thanks

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    1. Bagsket. It's a custom by Dill Pickle, made to accommodate Brompton's folding-basket hardware. Or you can get Brompton's own version in black (look up "Brompton folding basket").

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  3. It is interesting that you prefer to ride the 2 miles from your house, then hike up the mountain, rather than walk the entire way. I am the same and wondered whether it was the remnant of a driver's mentality!

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    1. Actually it's over 4 miles from my house to the start of the hiking trail. I live .7 miles off the main road, then it's 2.3 miles along the main road, then a 1.2 mile climb. So, with 4 miles each way, taking the bike is primarily a time saving measure, since I want to do most of my walking in the forest and not on the paved road. I would call it a transportationist's mentality" rather than a driver's mentality : )

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    2. Sorry! I misread that as 2 miles, I completely agree with your reasoning!

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  4. Thank you for sharing this piece of local history. Your travelog posts are among my favorites.

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  5. Very interesting and beautiful photos - thank you for giving us this window on your part of the world.

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  6. "...the power to cure ills and pains, if poured over the affected area." Ah, so like when Harrison Ford poured water on Sean Connery's gunshot wound in Indiana Jones. That seems like a pretty useful spring you've got access to.

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    1. And I forgot to mention that it also works as a wishing well. A very useful service indeed.

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    2. But, does it do what it claims? I hope a review is forthcoming!

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    3. Well to be fair, the makers of the water don't make any claims; its reputation was perpetuated by consumers. I have not tried the healing function yet. But I've tried the wish-granting function, twice, and it worked 50% of the time.

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  7. "This went on until St. Patrick happened upon the site..."

    Thanks for making me smile. The Druids practicing (volleyball?), then St. Patrick happening to them. Brilliant imagery!

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  8. Thank you — what a lovely morning's excursion!
    ~ David Miller

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  9. I see the potential for a market-leading brand in the boutique water segment:
    "St. Aidan Magical Water. Fetched Daily by Pedal Power." No doubt Brompton would love to co-promote it.

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  10. Beautiful photos, but the earlier badger post makes me want to see more of your drawings. An illustrated blog, now that would be unique! How about it?

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    1. My ideal blog format would actually be in the style of an illuminated manuscript - the text in gothic calligraphy, and illustrations in tempera with gold leaf. Perhaps next time I upgrade the design.

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  11. There are actually many bike related illustrated blogs out there -- and fantastic books, too -- which feature exceptional drawings and writings of daily riding through all sorts of places and conditions, from all sorts of points of view.

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    1. Yup. Share some of your favourites?

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    2. Have a look at www.glowinggarage.com, which has great images centered around vintage bicycles and design, from around the US, inland and coastal, natural & urban. Check it out!

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    3. I see no illustrations on the blog you mention above, Derek

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  12. based on these photos your winter looks mild and wonderful. my everyday pilgrimage takes me to the same bench to watch the sunset. it's about a five mile ride. most days are nice but winters are dicey. the cloudily, foggy, wet days are the ones which make pilgrimage especially alive and the results worthwhile. routines always bring surprises.

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  13. So can someone in N.I. organize some sort of search party for Velouria? I fear she's come to grief in some horrible way, grabbed by a Water Kelpie or trapped in a Faery Ring or something. Last seen at St. Aidens Well but who knows where she's gotten off to by now, the Lady does tend to cover a lot of ground.

    Spindizzy

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  14. Fell into the well. Surfaced in Boston. Dug myself out of a 9ft snow bank. Sty tuned for the rest.

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  15. Sounds very exciting - happy to know you are okay.

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  16. Your writing makes me at once sad and exalted. I have been absent from your tomes too long, and have checked in on this long weekend. Singularity atop a mountain invites such longing, today I walked to the local park, amongst a cavalcade of autumn staunchly advancing - seeking that same anonymity that sacred peaks afford.

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