Saturday, 21 August 2010

St Gwenog's Church, Llanwenog, Ceredigion

For fifteen years I have lived just a stone’s throw from St Gwenog’s church in Llanwenog, Ceredigion but have only recently found the time to go and have a close look. (I will blog another time about the mystery of where time goes to and what can be done to stop it.)

The Church of St Gwenog is delightful and anyone planning a trip to the area should put it on their list of places to visit. It is only a small church 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’ so, whether the story has its root in fact or legend, it is somewhere else I have always intended to go. But, once again ‘time’ has been my enemy. I will go there tomorrow, I say, hoping that tomorrow will actually come.

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. I circumnavigate the graveyard and 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.

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 previous existence points to the reason for the site being allocated as a ‘Llan’ in pagan times. Water was the earliest form of worship followed by that of the sun until Christianity incorporated elements of those religions into its own.

Inside the church I see thick whitewashed walls. At the altar is 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 gable 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. I am escorted to the door by richly carved pews and I climb a few worn stone steps while the tiny carved heads of the saints watch me as I pass beneath them.

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 (who’s heraldric shield I spy above one of the windows) 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.

It used to sit near the western doorway but has been moved to the south side of the lady chapel. Someone has filled it with a tacky flower arrangement totally out of keeping with the awesome antiquity of the piece. With a finger I trace the marks where the cover (now lost) once rested. The font dates from the Norman period and it is showing its age. The stone is carved with the heads of the twelve apostles. They are worn, not just by time but from centuries of visitors drawn to touch the primitive features as I am doing now. These carved faces have been 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 that worked it.


  1. Thanks for such a descriptive post of your tour. It's not a place I've ever visited but I felt as if I were there with you, especially tracing my fingers in the carvings on the font.

  2. Glad you had good weahter and a romantic time together! A really interesting post, packed full on information.

  3. Hi Judith. Found your blog a few months ago. I have ancestry from Llanwenog, so was interested to read this story and see your beautiful photos. This got me to see your books! I am also a genealogist and can trace one line to Gruffydd ap Llywelyn - not through my Welsh ancestry - but via my Norwegian ancestry. (BTW I live in the USA.) So I am now reading "Peaceweaver". I have read several other historical novels (from other authors) on some of my Scandinavian ancestry. Anyway, thanks for this post.