6 Welsh Churches with a story to tell…

Ancient Welsh churches and chapels are intriguing.  They are usually the oldest building in any town or village, and when you scratch the surface and discover a little of their history – they simply come alive.  Each with a unique atmosphere, and often found in spectacular rural surroundings, here’s six of our favourite Welsh churches…

1) Manorbier Church, Pembrokeshire

Manorbier Church, in its spectacular setting with views across the castle and over Manorbier beach and like so many rural Welsh churches, was founded way back in the 6th century.  Known as the ‘age of saints’ there are hundreds of churches that date from this period here, and it’s clear that the Celtic folk, with their intimate connection with nature and the landscape, knew how to pick a good spot. In this case it was St Pyr who established a monastery here, the circular churchyard or ‘llan’ gives the clue to its Celtic roots, and ‘Manorbier’ in old Welsh meaning ‘belonging to Pyr’.  Rather unfortunately St Pyr is thought to have met his maker after falling down a well when drunk – although it’s not clear whether this took place at Manorbier, or on Caldey Island, where he was the first abbot of the monastery (The Welsh for Caldey is ‘Ynys Byr’ or ‘Pyr’s Island’). 

However, the name has stuck, and the church we see today, with its striking west tower, was rebuilt in the 12thcentury, at the same time as Manorbier Castle was erected by the de Barri family on the facing hillside.  This was the home of no less than Gerald of Wales – famed for his early historical accounts of Wales, and who turned down several bishoprics in the hope of becoming Bishop of nearby St Davids, but had in the end to settle for being Archdeacon of Brecon.  

The Normans conquered Pembroke in 1093 (round here that’s the famous date, not 1066), and this became their power base, with most of South Pembrokeshire under their control.  Why is this important?  Well French influence can be felt everywhere in these parts – from the forms of the buildings to the place name – and Manorbier is no exception.  The long nave of the church, like that at Monkton, shows it was built in the Anglo-French style – unlike most other traditional Welsh churches, which are square and direct the gaze around (like a chapel) rather than forward, to the pulpit.  With a little background and history - ‘reading’ the church can just tell us so much.  

2) Patrishow, St Issui, near Crickhowell, Powys

Moving inland, one of our must-see churches in mid-Wales, if only for its incredible setting on the edge of the Black Mountains, is St Issui’s church.  A Christian hermit who founded the church here in the 6th century, St Issui was reputedly murdered by a passing traveller ungrateful for his hospitality and his hermit’s cell has been a place of pilgrimage and healing ever since. 

The church we see today dates from the 11th century, and contains the shrine of St Issui, and is said to have been built with money donated from a leper who was cured by the nearby holy well.  But this is also one of those very special Welsh churches which retains its rare 15th century ‘rood screen’ – a timber carved division between the chancel and nave (most of them were taken down by Cromwell’s men). 

But what we find really fascinating (and slightly eerie..) about St Patrishow is its iconic 17th century wall painting depicting ‘Death’, on the western wall of the nave.  This crude skeleton has a knife in his right hand and an hour glass in his left, with a spade hanging from his left arm - leaving the visitor with no doubt what’s inevitably ahead!  Outside you can spot the holy well, where pilgrims have flocked for centuries, and you’ll probably bump into the odd walker or two as this is famed Cambrian Way country.

For more information visit: https://www.explorechurches.org/church/st-issui-patricio

3) St Davids Cathedral, Pembrokeshire

With over 300,000 visitors a year, Eglwys Gadeiriol Tyddew is one of Wales’ top visitor attractions, and we could easily spend a day on this vast and alluring site. It’s charm lies surely it its setting – tucked away in grassy hollow, the cathedral appears into view as if by magic – and the interior is no less impressive. The soaring nave of 1181 is dominated by a 16th century carved oak roof, massive stone arcades and carved screen installed by Henry de Gower, Bishop from 1328-47. In the quire beyond, each carved chair is marked with a small carved face or scenes – including a boat of seasick sailors and a green man, thought to link Christainity and pagan beliefs.

The shrine of Wales patron saint, St David, is housed here, where visitors can light a candle and remember to ‘gwneud y pethau bychain’ (do the little things) and there are many fine ‘life size’ carved monuments to admire, despite the 1648 sacking of the cathedral by Oliver Cromwell’s men, who smashed the stained glass and ripped brasses from the tombs.

The cathedral stands on the site of the original monastery founded by St David here –a former river bed - and structural instability plagued the building from its inception until the 19th century when the west tower was built by Sir George Gilbert Scott.  Evidence of movement remains to the eagle eyed visitor  – did you know the cathedral slops a full 4 metres from its west to its easternmost end?  Don’t miss the Treasury, the cloister and the quite shockingly huge ruined former Bishops Palace next door – one of the finest medieval buildings in Europe.

(I have some photos of St Davids if you need them)

For more information visit: https://www.stdavidscathedral.org.uk/ 

4) Mwnt: Church of the Holy Cross, Ceredigion

From the vast to the sublime...Mwnt church has been a magnet for pilgrims and lovers of the wild and remote for centuries, and probably millennia, as it is set over a bronze age barrow high on the cliffs above the Irish Sea. This sweet whitewashed church, originally built as a chapel-of-ease for sailors, oozes tranquility and history, with an ancient 12th century stone font and atmospheric 15th century oak roof.  

The name of the church derives from a tall stone cross that would have stood on top of Foel y Mwnt, the hill behind the church - a focus for worshippers on foot and pilgrims from the sea.  In fact Mwnt was well known in the medieval period as a stopping place for the bodies of saints en route to burial on Bardsey Island, and equally for pilgrims making their way down to St Davids. 

In 1123 Pope Calixtus II decreed by that two pilgrimages to St Davids equalled one to Rome, and three served as a pilgrimage to Jerusalem!  Mwnt remains an engimatic destination for those seeking a spot of mindfullness and solititude today.

For more information visit: https://www.explorechurches.org/church/church-holy-cross-mwnt

5) Salem Chapel, Pentre Gwynfryn, near Harlech, Gwynedd

Our fifth favourite sacred space just has to be the oh-so-modest stone Baptist chapel of 1826 at Cefyncymerau.  With its large stone quoins and slate roof it might look fairly unassuming from the outside, but an iconic painting of its interior is one of the best known images of Welsh rural life in the 20th century. 

In 1908 the English painter Sidney Vosper, who married a Welsh woman and settled in Merthyr Tydfil, painted a snapshot of the congregation just before service, in traditional Welsh costume, with elaborate shawls and tall black hats, all modelled from real life. The central character, arriving late, is Siân Owen, a widow aged 71, who lived at Ty’n-y-fawnog, an isolated cottage where she brough up her son, and two grandsons.  And the Deacon, Robert Williams sits symbolically beneath the clock.

But - on closer inspection of this seemingly pious scene, the face of no less than the devil can be seen in the folds of Siân Owen’s shawl!  He’s also peeping in at the window…  Theories abound as to why the devil appears. The clock shows just a few minutes before ten, indicating that the morning silence preceding the service has already started.  Could it be a moral judgement on Siân, arriving fashionably late for all to admire her very best shawl?  The Deacon is praying, but is he distraught?  What connection lies between him and Sian? 

In 1909 the painting was bought by the industrialist and philanthropist William Hesketh Lever, and used to promote Lever Brothers' Sunlight soap; the box containing tokens that could be collected and exchanged for prints of the painting – at a time when most people could not afford any art at all.   

Its depiction of the simple piety and the comings and goings of rural Welsh village life no doubt struck a chord with the hundreds of thousands of people who had it hanging in pride of place on their walls.  And the little chapel at Pentre Gwynfryn lives to tell the tale.     

6) Cwm yr Eglwys St Brynach, near Newport, Pembrokeshire

Last on the list is a church, or at least part of a church, that seems to resonate at the moment – as Autumn storms begin to whip across rural Wales.  Perched just above the beach, set on the east side of Ynys Dinas Island and a stonesthrow from Newport, the ruined church at Cwm yr Eglwys is one of Pembrokeshire’s legendary sacred places; a monument both to history and the unstoppable power of nature.

Founded in the 12th century, St Brynach’s survived 600 years on this spot, before a ferocious storm on October 25th 1859 turned the tide on the church’s future forever. Lying exposed at the water’s edge, the wild winds and storm that night lifted the sea levels over 4 metres– washing the roof of the church, and most of the walls, clean away; as well as part of the graveyard.  The Haverfordwest and Milford Haven Telegraph described ‘the sea washing right through it”; a schooner and a sloop were lost, and eight bodies washed ashore. The iconic west wall of the church is all that remains today and only the cliffs above bear witness.  Although inaccessible, they are said to be threaded with secret tunnels and smugglers caves, adding to the allure of this fascinating and picturesque place.  

For more information go to: http://www.landoflegends.wales/location/cwm-yr-eglwys