The quest to find Britain's holiest place

Ifor ap Glyn - Holy Isle, Arran, Ayrshire The ancient Christian Holy Island off Arran has been reborn as a Buddhist monastery

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What exactly makes a place holy? Film-maker Nick Watts set out with Welsh poet Ifor Ap Glyn on a pilgrimage spanning almost 2,000 years of British history to find out.

There is an extraordinary wealth of holy places in Britain, many with the power to make us pause for reflection. From the battered remains of Coventry's iconic cathedral to the gothic majesty of North Yorkshire's Whitby Abbey, the inspiration behind Bram Stoker's Dracula.

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The previously pagan landscape was overwritten with a new Christian narrative”

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Today, we live in a richly diverse and multicultural Britain, where religious sites and buildings across the country represent almost every faith and have wonderful stories to tell such as Holy Island near Arran in Scotland which has been reborn as a Buddhist monastery.

But looking further back into our history, what was really happening in Britain's spiritual landscape over the last two thousand years?

Many of the answers will be found in our BBC Four TV series, Pagans and Pilgrims: Britain's Holiest Places, where we had to choose 36 of them, each drawn from a selection of 500 around the UK, included in a book by Nick Mayhew Smith on the same subject.

Ifor ap Glyn - Lady's Well, Holystone, Northumberland Full immersion in Northumberland's Lady's Well meant the beginning of a new life

The series explores the historical relationship between Christianity and the older beliefs that existed before its arrival. Rather than destroying the old symbols of paganism, Christianity simply subsumed them, and the previously pagan landscape was overwritten with a new Christian narrative.

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[Melangell] was so popular her bones were secretly reinterred to save them from the reformers' zeal”

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From crumbling ruins and towering mountain hideaways, to sacred caves and ancient shrines, some of which predate Christianity, we explore the myths and legends running through Britain's spiritual history, and ask what these historical sites tells us about who we are today.

Many of the places we visited were in the grand surroundings of some incredible cathedrals, but the one that stood out most for us couldn't be more different - the Welsh Christian shrine at Pennant Melangell.

Set amid the dramatic North Wales countryside near the Snowdonia National Park, a small farming valley was in the 6th Century home to Melangell, a princess who became a hermit after an unwanted marriage proposal.

Legend has it that one day the local lord came through with his hunting pack, driving the wildlife before him.

Some hares sought refuge under Melangell's cloak, and when the huntsmen raised their horns to their lips to call the dogs in for the kill, no sound emerged. The lord was so moved that he placed the valley and all its wildlife under Melangell's care and it became a place of Christian sanctuary.

In the 12th century a shrine to St Melangell, containing her body was erected. Like many other shrines, it was destroyed during the reformation, but she was so popular her bones were secretly reinterred to save them from the reformers' zeal. During restoration of the church in the late 20th Century they were rediscovered and placed back in the rebuilt shrine.

On the day we visited in October, we were preoccupied with the difficulties of the day's filming. And it was only afterwards that we began reflecting on how calm and moving a place it was.

Welsh poet Ifor ap Glyn visits the shrine at Pennant Melangell, near the Snowdonia National Park.

In the weeks after visiting Pennant Melangell, this simple shrine in a Welsh valley continued to be special. It was still the place we talked about the most.

In the middle of winter, with deep snow on the ground, we decided we had to go back to Pennant Melangell one more time to really capture the magic of the story and the place.

Site of the Welsh Christian shrine at Pennant Melangell The shrine at Pennant Melangell is a humble church in a farm valley and one of the holiest sites in the country

When we finally reached the valley the sun came out. The valley could not have looked more glorious. The church was bathed in the most incredible light and walking up to the shrine was like coming back to visit an old friend. Pennant Melangell was weaving its magical charm.

It is difficult to know what it is exactly about this shrine and this valley that appeals so much.

Partly it is the simple story of a good woman and the glorious unspoilt setting that instantly transports us back almost to her time.

But also this church and shrine still have a special place in many people's hearts.

As you read the prayer cards beneath the shrine and the book requesting prayers, you get such a strong sense of people's pain and despair but also hope. There's a tremendous emotional energy channelled through this place that is very moving.

Many pray for Saint Melangell's help, believing she can provide a cure for loved ones. Whatever your belief, time spent here in this beautiful church, in this un-spoilt valley, certainly restores the soul. Some people have called this one of the holiest places in Britain. It's certainly one of the places that has touched us most deeply.

Pagans and Pilgrims: Britain's Holiest Places continues on Thursday 14 March on BBC Four at 2030 GMT

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