After encouraging people on the Irish Chaplaincy summer retreat to, amongst other things, find a sacred space and return to it regularly, I had the great fortune the following week to re-visit an extremely sacred place in my own life.
The Barmouth week began in 2000 as a millennium reunion for a group whose friendships had been formed in the 1980s through the Sheffield University Catholic Chaplaincy and SVP, St Vincent de Paul Society. That first gathering, at the large Jesuit House on the North West coast of Wales, included spouses and our, then, young offspring. It was such a success that it happened again each year at the start of August: each year that is except for 2020 when it became yet another Covid casualty. We were all delighted that the holiday could go ahead in 2021, although inspired by Euro 2020 and Tokyo 2020, both of which took place in 2021, we decided to christen the week ‘Barmouth 2020’.
Various traditions have grown up around the week, and probably my favourite remains the early morning run. Initially it was a man thing. A few of us would jog the couple of kilometres or so down along the promenade into town to a statue of a dolphin, from which we can see the iconic railway bridge over the estuary and the mountains of Snowdonia in the distance. We have a little rest and a bit of banter before jogging back and going in the sea. It’s not warm but having been in the sea off the Isle of Skye this year I can say that it’s by no means the coldest place to swim in the British Isles! There’s more good-natured banter in the water before we wander back up the very steep hill to the house for a hot shower and a well-earned breakfast. As the years went by some of our sons began to join us and they gradually became both more numerous and quicker than us. That’s life, and I like to think we’re ageing gracefully. One of the lines in the chorus of the song ‘(I ain’t got no) Barmouth Blues’ which I wrote some years back and which has been sung with gusto every year on the concert night is, “I like to hang out with my friends, with whom I’m growing old and grey.”
One of this year’s runners, Tim, wasn’t even born when Barmouth began: he made his appearance in the world a couple of weeks after that inaugural gathering. Growing up he was known as ‘little Tim’ to differentiate him from ‘big Tim’! Now ‘little Tim’ is approaching his 21st birthday, he’s taller that ‘big Tim’ (who can’t run anymore but still comes down for the swim) and he leaves us miles behind on the run; but waits for us at the end by the sea wall so that we can enter the ocean together. Charlie, who also didn’t exist at the first Barmouth, has just done his first year at Uni, and like Tim, is great company on the run and in the sea. It’s such a privilege to have watched them, and the other ‘children’ (most of whom are unable to be with us now for this week) grow up; also to witness the friendships which have developed amongst our offspring. One of the photos which appeared this year on our ‘Barmouth Blues WhatsApp group’ was of our Kieran and Sean out for a drink with Charlie.
We were recalling on one of the runs how some traditions have fallen by the wayside. One was the men’s early morning walk. For several years we got up at 4am in the pitch-dark, went for a long trek in the hills and then had an enormous cooked breakfast at ‘Rosies’ in the centre of Barmouth and were back in time for a ‘child-friendly’ Mass in the chapel at 10.30 (another tradition long gone, with us nowadays having a short and simple ‘Night prayer’ around the meal table). Problem was we were shattered for the rest of the day and not fit to do our share of the child-care. The women have also ceased to have their ‘Ladies Night’, when they would head off somewhere and the men would be entrusted for a whole evening with the care of their young ones! I think we all watched videos together!
Even if we no longer feel the need to get up at 4am there’s still plenty of walking during the week and most trails in this part of the world will have the reward of an incredible view at some point or other. On a couple of days there was also the reward of a pub lunch in town. It just about keeps us going till the evening when a banquet is served up by a different family each day. That’s one tradition in the week which has never changed. If the weather is warm we might have a little pre-dinner drink in the garden whilst looking out over Cardigan Bay. It’s one of my favourite views in the world; both for its vastness and beauty and because of what it represents: hanging out with friends, with whom I’m growing old and grey.
I’m always touched by the connections which exist amongst and around us. One of the participants on the Irish Chaplaincy retreat was Ged of CSAN. Another was a lady called Ann-Marie in Lancaster who shared during the week that she had met Ged at an event in the 1980s and had been struck by the care with which he had been supporting somebody in a wheelchair. This memory was particular poignant for Ann-Marie, she explained, as she now uses a wheelchair herself. Ged had himself been staying at the Jesuit House just three weeks before, together with one our group, Paul. Just as they had done two years previously they had made the 91 journey from Rainhill, near Liverpool, by bike. Paul recounted this to me one morning as we bobbed up and down, post-run, in the tall waves.
One of the themes on our retreat had been ‘reflecting on grace-filled moments’. I had one such moment on the second last evening. It took me quite by surprise, as they usually do. Yim Soon and Miran and I had prepared what we all realised was our last shared meal together. Some of the group were leaving on the following morning and in the evening we would have fish and chips so as to avoid last-minute cleaning of the kitchen. Feeling nicely full from my Korean-style chicken teriyaki followed by lemon drizzle cake and with a few minutes to go until the prayer (which would be followed by a game and the latest episode of ‘Love Island’!) I wandered out into the front garden. I was pleasantly enveloped in a strong wind as I gazed at the sunset over the distant Llyn Peninsula on the North side of the bay. How many times we’ve sat and watched that sky in all its glorious shades. How many times we’ve heard the clink of the metal gate as a procession of children set off for the beach, buckets and spades being replaced somewhere along the line by body boards. How much laughter has echoed through this big old house. As I looked out at the sea and then back at the house those two decades of goodness somehow all flashed before me and there was such a profound sense of gratitude.
The week flew by, as it always does. We cleaned the house ready for the next group; we packed our bags, we said our final goodbyes, and then we went our separate ways.
Roll on Barmouth 2022, which, please God, will indeed take place in 2022.