Wales has an intriguing religious heritage, from humble, mountain-top chapels to historic abbeys and cathedrals. Each one has a story to tell. We joined writer and historian, the Reverend Lionel Fanthorpe, on a day of discovery in the far corners of Monmouthshire.
Our journey starts with a fairly simple idea. If you want to find out about the heritage and history of a country, then you’d do well to explore its oldest interiors. There are places of worship in Wales that date back a thousand years and more and the majority of these churches, chapels and cathedrals continue to be in daily use. These ancient places are wonderful capsules of history – where you can see the sights, hear the sounds and breathe in the same air as people have done for centuries.
This is exactly how it feels to be standing in the small hillside church of St Issui, Partishow, above the remote Nant Mair Valley in the Black Mountains of Mid Wales. It’s a place that would appear to have been an active place of worship since the Celtic Christian Issui settled here in the 6th- or 7th-century. The church was built around 500 years later and has remained a place of worship that feels completely tucked away from the rest of the world – one of those very rare places where you get a sense of being completely suspended in time.
The unusual sight of a chap wandering among the gravestones, wearing a dog collar and a Harley Davidson leather jacket brings you back to the 21st century. The Reverend in question is Lionel Fanthorpe. He is the author of hundreds of books, from prayers to science fiction, talking stones to mysterious murders. He has presented TV programmes for almost as long as television itself has existed and is a prize-winning poet. He is also a member of Equity and Mensa. He’s clearly in his element in what he describes as “these holy mountains.” “One of God’s greatest gifts,” he points out, “is our sense of curiosity, our desire to find out, to unravel mysteries that have been there for hundreds of years. And when you come to an old and very intriguing church like this one at St Issui, then you begin to look for the mysteries it may hold. There are the mysterious medieval paintings on the walls, the intricate wood carving of the 16th-century rood screen, the ancient churchyard cross… There’s a strong feeling of intrigue and mystery and that’s something that fascinates me.”
It’s just a short drive of around eight miles (12.8km) to Cwmyoy in the Vale of Ewyas in the Black Mountains, named after the small Welsh kingdom of Ewias, established after the retreat of the Romans from Wales in the 5th-century. Cwmyoy is situated near Offa’s Dyke which marks the border between Wales and England. The area is well known for the Grade 1 listed ruins of Llanthony Priory, established early in the 12th-century. Nearby, the remarkable St Martin’s Church dates back to the 13th-century and is best known, above all, for still being structurally intact. It’s claimed that St Martin’s is the most crooked church in Britain, with the church tower listing over six feet (1.8km) which is apparently more than the leaning tower of Pisa. There’s a bit of creative licence in the claim that the crooked nature of the church structure is a result of a terrible earthquake, which occurred at the precise moment Jesus Christ was being nailed to the cross on Calvary. Nonetheless, St Martin’s still has to be seen to be believed.
"The other interesting element to the church is a cross dating back to the 13th century," adds Lionel. "Apparently it used to mark the pilgrims’ route up to Brecon and onwards to St David’s in Pembrokeshire. The cross was housed for safekeeping in the church, but disappeared in 1967. It was tracked down by a local woman to an antique shop in London and was retrieved. It’s now permanently fixed to the floor of the church."
We close the door to St Martin’s as gently as we can, just in case it’s the fateful click that causes the entire building to collapse to its foundations. As we breathe a sigh of relief, Lionel whispers mischievously: “You’re going to like this next place.” The journey itself is certainly more than we could have bargained for, even though it’s just a short distance across the valley and north towards Gospel Pass, named after the route taken by 12th-century fundraisers for the Crusades. We find ourselves trundling slowly in the wake of a tractor with an enormous trailer stacked with hay bales. The overhanging trees scraping the bales creates a snowstorm of hay, and an oncoming bike rider lurches past us, missing the car by inches.
The cyclist is none other than Eddie Butler much-loved BBC sports commentator and a man renowned for his rich use of the English language. In this case the communication directed at us is distinctly Anglo-Saxon and certainly not fit for broadcast. It’s appropriate that there’s almost a sense of farce to proceedings as we pull up at St Mary’s Church in the hamlet of Capel-y-ffin near Abergavenny. There it is, this tiny place of worship, just 26 feet (8m) long and 13 feet (4m) wide, with its wonky turret, as if a beehive has just landed on the roof. Inside, there is a pulpit, a church organ and even a gallery. It’s a truly remarkable little building, built in the 18th-century, on the grounds of a 15th-century church fallen to ruin. St Mary’s has been immortalised by the 19th-century clergyman and diarist Francis Kilvert (who compared its curious looking exterior with the expression of an owl), as well as 20th-century artist and poet David Jones
Jones was part of a community of artists who were led to Capel-y-ffin in the 1920s by Eric Gill creator of the Gill Sans and Perpetua typefaces. Gill is said to have cut two of the headstones in the churchyard. Gill, Jones and the gang lived for four years along the road at Llanthony Tertia, another location with an eccentric history worth exploring. “Homely isn’t it,” smiles Lionel. “I’ve sometimes been asked to come and speak at a house church and this reminds me of that certain feeling you get from stepping into someone’s home, that is quite different from a traditional church.”
We leave the remote foothills of the Black Mountains and repair to the Skirrid Inn in the village of Llanfihangel Crucorney. As with these things, it’s impossible to know whether the Skirrid is the oldest pub in Wales, but there can’t be many other drinking establishments with a more colourful history.
If you think that a pint of cider in a haunted pub is a hard act to follow then you’ve never visited Tintern Abbey . It’s just a 30-mile (48km) drive from our first port of call to our final destination in the Wye Valley but the modesty of Partrishow is in direct contrast to the grandeur of Tintern.
It has been immortalised by an unlikely trio of poets – William Wordsworth, Alfred, Lord Tennyson and Allen Ginsberg – and has been painted by eminent landscape artist JMW Turner. Tintern’s origins hark back to the 12th century, when it became home to the first community of Cistercian monks in Wales. That community thrived for the best part of four centuries – its reported annual income in 1535 was £192, making it the wealthiest abbey in Wales. A year later, however, the Abbey was surrendered in the first Act of Suppression, following a breakdown in relations between the Church in Rome and King Henry VIII. Having fallen into ruin, Tintern had an unlikely comeback in the 18th-century as one of the first tourist attractions in Wales.
The Wye Valley became very popular with visitors in search of ‘the picturesque’, a new concept created by the Reverend William Gilpin, a one-man Trip Advisor of his time. Mention of Tintern in his book Observations on the River Wye, drew people from far and wide to visit its splendid ruins. But for Lionel, it’s the community created in and around this magnificent place of worship that gives Tintern its magic all these centuries later. “People seem to come here to contemplate,” he says, “to wonder, in the traditional sense of the word.”
Well, as we’re in this place of contemplation, it seems appropriate to do just that. In one day we’ve learned a lot. We’ve asked a lot of questions, not all of which have been answered. We’ve visited the birthplace of Christianity in Wales (arguably) and seen some sights to baffle the keenest building regulations experts. Above all, it feels like we’ve really got to know this beautiful and mysterious part of Wales.
“Although I believe that each of these separate places has a spiritual donation to make to the visitor,” says Lionel, “you don’t have to be a Christian worshipper, or of any religious faith for that matter, to get something wonderful from visiting these churches.
“These are places where acts of goodness took place – where people practised their faith and learned about acts of good nature. They vowed to be loyal, forgiving and kind, not just to God, but to each other. “The remarkable thing is that this didn’t happen at these locations for a few years, or decades, but for centuries. In my mind it’s inconceivable that these special, ancient environments, can be anything other than a little magical.”
It’s not the easiest concept to grasp, admittedly, but the Reverend makes a valid point. We’re talking about tiny patches of ground with great big stories to tell. These are places that have drawn visitors for many years – and will continue to do so for many more.