Bardsey Island - or Ynys Enlli in Welsh - is a landmark in the Celtic imagination. Known as the Island of Twenty Thousand Saints after the anchorites whose bones thicken its soil, Bardsey is a fit place for dreams of eternity.
Seen from the cliffs of Mynydd Mawr as the sun dips to the horizon, hammering bronze onto the waves, the island vanishes into silhouette. It flickers: vast, substantial, there. Then: a shadow, a suggestion, gone.
The writer and artist Brenda Chamberlain first visited Bardsey in the late summer of 1946. She spent two days exploring its cliff tops, poking into caves and bedding down in the dusty, airless rooms of an abandoned farmhouse. She returned in the spring of the following year with her partner, Jean Van de Riji and settled in a sprawling cottage in the middle of the island which was to be her home for the next fourteen years.
Chamberlain was captured by Bardsey in a way that no place before or afterwards could touch. Tide Race, the extraordinary account she wrote of her time there, begins by confessing her infatuation:
Listen: I have found the home of my heart. I could not eat: I could not think straight; so I came to this solitary place and lay in the sun.
Like any love affair, Chamberlain came to Bardsey trailing the skeins of previous relationships and past pain. She had separated from her husband John Petts three years before. They had met at the Royal Academy of Art and married in 1935, a romantic and creative union that sustained them through the darkness of World War II. Holed-up in a cottage in Rachub, a small village in the mountains of Snowdonia, they ran the Casseg Press, producing chapbooks, woodcuts and poetry. But when their collaborator, the poet Alun Lewis, was killed in action in 1944, their relationship began to falter. Chamberlain fell into deep depression and work stuttered to a halt. By the time she moved to Bardsey in 1947, she had produced no art and little writing for seven years.
On moving to Bardsey a profound creative and personal renewal took place. In a letter of 1955 she wrote a snatch of prose poetry that seems to comment on that period of regeneration:
A complicated life, a complicated world, in which it is difficult to find the heart of the maze. How can I get out? How can you get in? The new ships have no charts: they must give themselves up to the ocean currents.
Life on Bardsey became a site of creative self-fulfilment, an anchoring point giving direction in ‘the heart of the maze’ of life. But in this extract, we glimpse also the wild danger of those first weeks and months, when the certainties of the past were abandoned and Chamberlain committed herself to an island life with ‘no charts’.
Where did the infatuation come from? One answer is Bardsey’s combination of isolation and accessibility. Its currents - the tide race which gives Chamberlain’s book its name - did, and still do, make the crossing dangerous. But in truth it was not so far from mainland life. Chamberlain’s family lived close by in Bangor (though she hated the place with a passion), and the letters and journals she kept throughout her time on Bardsey do not indicate a life of monastic self-denial. On the contrary, they record a busy social calendar of visits, excursions and frequent trips to London to meet with literary agents and arrange exhibitions of her work.
And yet, it would be impossible to overstate how much the island’s resonant history of witness, pilgrimage and devotion gripped her. Time and again in Tide Race, Chamberlain’s attention snags on its evidence; she stumbles on its remains. It is as though she could not shake her awareness that she was living on the ‘Rome of Britain’; a site which has called souls since at least the sixth century. This sensitivity to the island’s deep history plays a curious trick on the book’s chronology. Time becomes mutable: wayward and fickle. It telescopes, compresses and expands.
Chamberlain assigns herself the role of part archaeologist, part medium as she excavates and channels the strata of story and superstition that had drifted thick on the island: This land does not forget its past, but merges all time in the present, so that the cargo boat that was salvaged last year off Maen Bengail, the illicit wine of France, the shipwreck of Arthur, are of equal importance and freshness to us.
This perceptiveness makes Tide Race a profoundly haunted text. As Damian Walford Davies has suggested, it might even been read as a breed of Welsh island gothic. There is indeed a toothsome relish to Chamberlain’s descriptions of the island’s ruins, its destitution and its cast of crazed and lonesome inhabitants. The wind-abraded remains of the abbey, for instance – whose stones, incidentally, were used to build Carreg Fawr, Chamberlain’s house – are summoned as ‘the broken tooth that once housed God.’ And threaded throughout the book is the motif of the island as one vast holy ossuary: ‘The bones of the faithful make for fertile soil.’
For me, there is something deeper at work in the hauntedness of Tide Race. Chamberlain’s Bardsey is an archetypal in-between place; a threshold between this world and another, a spot where rationality is shrugged off as easily as sea-soaked clothes. It is an alchemical landscape; a Magic Eye illusion. You look and look, seeing nothing, until the eye slips, the vision recalibrates and suddenly an image appears where it always has been, hidden behind the patterning.
Colours evoke images, images evoke words, words evoke other words, wall of jasper, tower of ivory … How can a common sea cliff be a wall of jasper? … I would, knowing this salt channel and these rocks, make a new hymn to the Virgin, say that she was a wall of jasper, with eyes green as the running tide.
This sense of rapturous emancipation only ran so far, however. The actuality of life on Bardsey was, as Chamberlain’s notes reveal, an environment of social stricture and ‘rigid’ mores. There is a fascinatingly candid commentary which runs alongside one of the maps she drew in her journals.
People imagine a lot of romantic moonshine about islands, talking of complete freedom and the like, when actually, it is a life of strict behaviour, self-discipline, self-reliance and duty to one’s neighbours: a highly critical code of behaviour that evolves elasticity to fit new situations.
Though it is perhaps easy to overlook amidst the soaring lyricism, this ‘highly critical code of behaviour’ is embedded in Tide Race. It is occasionally a gossipy book, especially in its waspish critique of the character of Cadwaladr, a ‘bull-necked’ farmer and fisherman, whose petty persecutions and domestic tyranny crown him as the story’s pseudo-antagonist. Towards the end, Cadwaladr is abandoned by his wife, Nans, and their two children who flee to the mainland to escape his despotism.
There is a sense of Chamberlain inhabiting two islands simultaneously. On the one hand, there is the myth-rooted island of her imagination with its ‘Jaspar walls’ of sea cliffs; and, on the other, a contemporary fishing community where, as a free-spirited woman, she chafed against stultifying parochialism and patriarchy. ‘Life on a small island I found almost at once is almost entirely public as far as one’s outside movements are concerned,’ she writes: ’There was almost no privacy; wherever one went, one was watched, usually through a telescope.’
There is an element of exaggeration here – the ‘telescope’ a humorous dig – but you can feel her bristle when she is told by Cadwaladr that, ‘It’s no use for a woman to try living her on her own, because she’s just a liability to everyone.’A single woman, Cadwaladr suggests with all the gnomic confidence of folk wisdom, is a snag in the smooth running of the island; she will catch the loose threads of community life and make trouble with them.
To live on Bardsey is to live on an edge; and Tide Race shows Chamberlain to be acutely sensitive to the faultline between life and death that ran close beneath its surface. There is, for instance, a moment late in the book when, after reflecting on the boats which have sank around its coast, she makes a startling confession, ‘I made a drawing of Owain swimming, but it became against my will an unknown man about to drown.’
In the image which accompanies this observation sharp, bold ink lines are cast up unexpectedly, like drift wood, on the white space of the page - bleached, ossified, salvaged. As with Tide Race’s other illustrations, it appears to emerge from a different mind to the lush, lyrical prose; thicketed and heavily cross-hatched in style, it speaks to a confidence, or an anger, that is elsewhere soothed and buried. But the original, which I saw at her archives in the National Library of Wales, sent a cold breath running down my spine. Its penmanship, thick and austere, looks freshly scrawled on the page, and the man’s face is rendered sightless and anonymous; eyes blind pools of shadow, mouth torn wide in horror. He is about to fall through the surface of the page, into the surrounding sea.
Brenda Chamberlain died on 11 July 1971. Six days earlier she had taken nineteen sleeping pills and was rushed to hospital. The coroner recorded a verdict of accidental death. She was 59.
The remaining ten years of her life after her stay on Bardsey were much as they had been before: turbulent, chaotic: always travelling, always moving, never staying long. She exhibited widely and produced a further four books, but none achieved the recognition of Tide Race. At the end of her life, she was living in Bangor, in a small flat that looked out across the sea to the island of Anglesey. Her letters make clear her struggle with depression, a shadow that accompanied her throughout her adult life.
In Tide Race, Chamberlain wrote that Bardsey was ‘the alighting place of my heart, the point of seeing with a clear eye and mind.’ Perhaps its loss proved inconsolable. In her archives, I found a series of headings scribbled on the inside back-cover of one of her densely packed journals. Though they make no appearance in the final, published edition of Tide Race, they read as a sequence of journeys, pilgrimages, departures.
The first says, ‘First coming: From that day, the island is in me.’
The second, ‘Second coming: Alone by choice.’
The third, ‘Third coming: Island labours.’
And the last, ‘Fourth coming: Preparations for a new life.’
Preparations for the journey out.
Alex Diggins is a writer and journalist based in London. He has written for, among others, New Welsh Review, Wales Arts Review, The Cardiff Review, and The Bristol Cable. He is published in the forthcoming anthology, Rife: Twenty Stories from Britain's Youth (Unbound). He is working on a book about holy islands and climate change. @AHABDiggins
Brenda Chamberlain on a boat transporting cattle, during a pilgrimage to Bardsey Island, August 1950.
Geoff Charles Collection at the National Library of Wales.
Carreg Fawr, Bardsey Island. People’s Collection Wales.
Brenda Chamberlain Archives, National Library of Wales.