AT the time of the crucifixion, when darkness swallowed the world, a great earthquake struck the Vale of Ewyas, ripping a chunk from the side of the mountain above Cwmiou.
Today, nestled among ash, alder and beech, the church of St. Martin seems to erupt from the undergrowth, the gravestones heaving and swaying in waves of bending grass. From the top of the graveyard, where the ancient stones stagger like an old man’s teeth, it looks as if the church has come to life and is lumbering off down the hill. And the feeling of disorientation does not end when you push open the heavy oak door and step inside.
The silence swallows you, the aroma of mildew and a thousand years of Christian faith seep from yellow internal walls that twist and buckle like a living thing making your feet run off of their own accord as you progress along the Welsh flag-stoned aisle. As your brain battles to make sense of the odd angles it is uncannily like being aboard ship. I expect you are wondering why.
The name 'Cwmiou' or 'Cwmyoy' translates as ‘the valley of the yoke’ and refers to the shape of the mountain above, which resembles an oxen’s yoke.
The nature of the geology of the Honddu valley has caused the land to slowly shift and slide and it is this land slippage, upon which the church was built, that has endowed St Martin’s with its matchless charm.
There are no right angles at St Martin’s, the tower lurches north (5. 2” out of perpendicular), while the chancel arch and east window tilt alarmingly to the right. Consequently it confuses the mind, confounds the senses but there are other reasons besides this, for visiting.
The church itself is a simple structure, consisting of nave, chancel, tower and porch dating from the 13th to 16th centuries. An original 15-16th century window bears some wonderful scrollwork and a small stone stairway in the chancel leads to the remains of a rood loft, which was destroyed during the Reformation. (Just a little drive up the road at St Issui’s church at Patricio there is a superb example of a 15th century rood loft and screen that you should really not miss if you ever make this journey.)
19th century restoration work saw some of the windows at St Martin’s replaced and it is believed that the plaster ceilings were removed at that time, but some examples of the original survives in the porch. To prevent further slippage the church is now buttressed at the west end and large iron stays were added in the 1960’s.
The church houses examples of the work of the Brute family, master masons from Llanbedr, who were active from the 1720s through to the 1840s. Thomas, Aaron and John Brute worked in a distinctive style of artisan Rococo and there are a fine collection of tombstones and memorials in this local tradition. Some examples are painted as well as carved, the fat little cherubs surrounded by Rococo wreaths of leaves and flowers.
Look out for some memorable epitaphs too, like the one on the grave of Thomas Price, who died in 1682.
Thomas Price he takes his nap
In our common mother lap
Waiting to heare the Bridegroome say
“Awake my dear and come away.”
Also of interest at St Martin’s is a medieval stone cross that was dug up on a nearby farm in the 19th century. The cross is believed to be post-Norman, possibly a copy from an earlier cross or the design taken from a manuscript. It may well have been a cross marking the pilgrim’s route along the valley to Brecon and on to the cathedral at St David’s. The font is also early medieval and the marks of the mason’s chisel still plainly to be seen.
In this area of unspoiled medieval churches Cwmiou would be unremarkable were it not for its structural irregularities. I have never experienced a building like it and it really is an experience.
The journey to Cwmiou is a pilgrimage in itself. Although it is not far from the busy market town of Abergavenny, you will need to watch out for stray sheep as you drive through sleepy hamlets and along corkscrewing, almost perpendicular lanes and, as the sunlight flickers through the trees and you turn the last bend and glimpse the staggering walls of St Martin’s peeking from the woods, you will know in that instant that you were right to come.