Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Welsh Idylls with Judith Arnopp Part One: St Gwenog's Church

Llanwenog Church, Ceredigion
Just a stone’s throw from my home in the parish of Llanwenog is St Gwenog’s church. I have only recently found the time to go and have a close look and thought I would share my visit with you.
The Church of St Gwenog is delightful and anyone in love with ancient churches and planning a trip to the area should put it on their list of places to visit. It is only a small building and does not take long to explore but entering the church is like stepping into another world.
A memorable battle was fought in Llanwenog in 981, between the Dane, Godfrid, and the native Welsh chieftan, Eineon ab Owain; a battle in which the Danes were totally defeated.  Nearby there is a field on a farm named Ty Cam where the engagement is believed to have occurred.  The field is called Cae'r Vaes, or roughly translated, ‘the battle field,’ although whether the story has its root in fact or legend is open to debate.
In ancient, pagan times the word ‘Llan’ was used to denote an enclosure or sacred place. Early Christians built their churches in such places in an attempt to displace older religions.  By utilising ancient religious sites, Christian priests thought to encourage pagan worshippers to abandon the old gods and adopt the new teachings.
There are many such sites in Wales and Llanwenog is possibly one of the oldest for, although most of the extant building dates back to the 13th century, the foundation of the earliest church dates to the 6th.  As I circumnavigate the graveyard it is still just possible to detect that the original enclosure or ‘Llan’ was circular, or oval, in shape although it has now been extended and squared off at one end.
St Gwenog
We know almost nothing about St Gwenog.  She is mentioned in the Laws of Howell Dda copied in the 15th century and in the 18th century an annual local fair, held in January, was known as Ffair Gwenog’s.  Links have also been made with St Gwennlian who was active locally but it is a link that is difficult to establish. Even St Gwenog’s Well, once famous for its healing properties, has long since disappeared.  Its existence points to the reason for the site being allocated as a ‘Llan’ in pagan times as water was the earliest form of worship followed by that of the sun until Christianity incorporated elements of those older religions into its own.
Inside the church I see thick whitewashed walls and, at the altar, an early stone carving of Mary and St John at the foot of the cross. It is very badly weathered having originally been built into the exterior end of the side chapel. Now it is safe and sound in the new altar, the figures barely discernible.  I turn away and spy an early wall painting of the Apostles and the Ten Commandments, the faces peer out at me through the fog of time while, above me, the beautiful ceiling rafters smile down.  Richly carved pews escort me to the door and I climb a few worn stone steps while the tiny stone heads of the saints watch me as I pass.
Outside the battlemented tower draws my eye from the older, softer parts of the church. It is an imposing feature, providing protection for the village in times of strife.  It was a later edition to the building, built in the 15th century by Sir Rhys ap Thomas whose heraldric shield is displayed above one of the windows. The building was to commemorate Henry VII’s victory over Richard III at Bosworth in 1485.  Many men from Llanwenog parish fought and died for Henry in his quest for the throne but, once established, the Tudor dynasty did little to enhance the fortunes of their Welsh countrymen. 
I sit for a while among the markers of the dead and think about what I have seen.  I am touched by the peace and the great age of the place and love every inch of it.  But for me, the best thing about the visit is the font.  I slip back inside for another look. 
Llanwenog Church interior
It used to sit near the western doorway but has been moved to the south side of the lady chapel.  Today it is filled with a tacky flower arrangement totally out of keeping with the awesome antiquity of the piece. I take away the flowers and with the tip of one finger trace the marks where the cover once sat.  It dates from the Norman period and is showing its age.  The stone is carved with the heads of the twelve apostles, worn from centuries of visitors drawn to touch the primitive features as I am doing now. I have seen these carved faces described variously as ‘crude’, ‘grotesque’ and ‘rough’ but to me, they are beautiful. The tracks of the ancient chisel giving voice to the long dead craftsman.  I wish I could spend longer here. I run my fingers over the surface and feel as if I am clasping the gnarled hand of the mason that worked it.
font, featuring the twelve apostles, circa 11th century

Information about Judith Arnopp and her books can be found on her webpage:


  1. That was beautiful! Thank you for sharing!

  2. Just like being there. Thanks!

  3. Must everything about Wales include a sample of victim = "did little to enhance the fortunes of their Welsh countrymen" (Henry wasn't terribly Welsh anyway!)?

    Isn't it time for Wales to leave all that poor us stuff behind?

  4. Thanks -- this was just lovely. I like the faces, too, and was interested to know that 'Llan' meant a sacred place.

  5. Thank you for sharing, and feeding my thirst for Welsh history and lore!

  6. Thank you for letting me tour through your eyes and thoughts. Wonderful post!


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