Sunday, 5 September 2010

St Brynach's Church, Nevern, Pembrokeshire

I seem to be stumbling upon wonderful small churches lately. At the weekend my old fella and I hitched up the caravan and set off for Pembrokeshire. A whole hour later, all the way in the next county, we arrived at Dinas Island Farm Camping site and set up camp.
That evening we wandered down to the cove to watch the sun slip into the sea; it could have been a breath taking romantic affair but, in actual fact, we sat on a damp seaweed shrouded rock in the companionable silence that only twenty five years together can produce. Together we watched it happen, as it always happens, fresh and different every time.
The sunset was outstanding, the romance, unfortunately, wasn’t but there are compensations. Back at the caravan, while I donned snugly pyjamas and crawled beneath the duvet, my old fella made me hot chocolate and a bedtime snack. In my opinion a much better indication of devotion than insincere romanticisms – he knows the way to my heart.
The next morning we went to St Dogmaels ( I will blog on that another day), onto Poppit Sands for a picnic and a paddle and then I suggested we return to camp via Nevern as I had heard of a churchyard with a standing stone bearing both Ogham and Latin inscriptions.
We parked the car in the shade and walked through the gate. We stopped in our tracks struck by the eerie beauty of the place before progressing along an avenue of ancient Yew. The branches twisted and turned, leaned down to stroke the leaning, mossy headstones beneath. Entranced, camera clicking, we followed the path to the church.
It was not possible to continue without taking photographs, the atmosphere was awesome, particularly as one of the trees is famous as a bleeding yew. This Yew tree 'bleeds' a red liquid that baffles both scientists and arborists. Legend states that the tree has bled in this manner ever since a man was hung from the tree. Some people believe that it will continue to bleed until a Welshman sits on the throne in Nevern Castle. Sadly, that day seems long in coming. Damn those Normans.
Close by the church door is the Vitalianus stone. I love standing stones, I photograph them, draw them, paint them and write them into my novels. I love their age, the atmosphere they emit and the secrets that they keep. This particular one has been dated to the 5th century AD It bears inscriptions in both Latin and Ogham and it is bilingual stones such as this that have helped provide the key to understanding the lost Celtic language of Ogham. I just had to make its acquaintance, I hugged it and traced the marks of the ancient chisel with my finger, helping no doubt to wear it away a little more …but I could not help it!
Brynach was an Irishman who settled in Pembrokeshire, a friend and colleague of St David. The local chieftain of Carn Ingli, whose hillfort that can still be seen on top of the nearby hill, granted him the land for his church. The original church was founded by St Brynach in 540 AD but the present building is believed to be 12th Century in date. The tower is Norman but the rest dates to the 15th –16th century, vastly restored in the 18th and redecorated in 1952.
Luckily elements of ancient days exist in the walls of the church, two stone slabs are embedded in the window sills of the Trewern-Henllys Chapel. The Maglocundus Stone is 62.5 inches long with a portion broken off one end. The inscription is again in both Latin and Ogham and inform us that it is the monument of Maglocunus, son of Clutorius. It dates to the 5th century. It is not a prettily ornate thing, the writing puts me very much in mind of modern day inscriptions made in wet cement but the fact that it was carved so long ago sings out to me and I hover close to it for a long while, making my old fella impatient.
Another stone bears a carving of a cross or possibly a sword. It is in the style of Celtic knot work with two bands of carving interwoven to form the shape. The bumph in the guidebook says the origin is unknown. Above the Vitalianus stone, high up in the wall hides a corbel of a male face, the story it is part of long forgotten. In the reconstructed walls traces of the old windows can be seen and a consecration cross, made when the church was consecrated, is hidden on the exterior wall of the Glasdir Chapel.
Best of all in the church yard is the Great Cross. It has been described as one of the most perfect specimens of its kind, equalled only by Carew Cross and the Maen Achwynfan. It is an impressive thing, thirteen feet high and 24.5 in diameter, the style of decoration points to the 10th or 11th centuries. I am amazed at how well preserved the carving is, particularly the side nearest the church wall that suffers least from the wild, Welsh, weather.
On each of the four sides are blocks of interlaced symbols, representing eternity. Two compartments contain primitive crosses where an error occurs in the pattern. The upper cross having the angulated end of its left upper arm reversed, it is easy to see, once you know where to look, that the adjoining decoration has been adapted to fit.
Errors of this kind are also found in illuminated manuscripts and some historians believe that they were intentional faults incorporated into the design to preserve the artists earthly humility. It didn’t do for a mortal to achieve godlike perfection. I have always liked this explanation for it suits my romantic view of early Celtic Christianity.
The legends of the cross tell us that on the seventh of April each year (St Brynach's feast day) the congregation gathered at the cross, awaiting the return of the first cuckoo. The bird would land on the cross and begin singing to announce the arrival of spring. On one particular occasion the bird fell dead before it could herald in the spring. Of this the chronicler George Owen states, ‘This vulgar tale, although it concerns in some sort church matters, you may either believe or not, without peril of damnation.’

There is so much to see and speak about at Nevern that this blog entry could become tiresome so I will stop now. The best thing is to visit it yourself, it is a tiny building but so rich in history that it transports the visitor from the pre-Christian days of megalithic tombs and Druids through early Celtic Christianity to the coming of the Normans and beyond. Go there, take your time to look around, make discoveries and when you leave please give a donation to help preserve this tiny but sparkling gem of British history.


  1. Glad the weather was kind and sounds like you both had a good time. A really interesting post full of facts.

  2. Thanks, Rachael. I did intend to post a lot of the photographs i took but i seem to be having technical problems.

  3. George Owen's account of the cuckoo states that the poor cuckoo landed on St Bynach's STONE; he does not mention a crosshead on top of the stone, from which it may be assumed that only the shaft was standing in 1601; the crosshead now on top of the stone fits very poorly, and while contemporary, may not be the original. The church tower is fifteenth-century.