If you live in Wales, there is a good chance you have passed this treasure chest of a church and not even realised. On the A483 between Llandrindod Wells and Newtown the small church of Llananno sits in isolation, hidden in a small dip of the valley next to the River Ithon. It has almost been forgotten, but for a medieval treasure that is one of the best of its kind in the whole of Britain.
Nothing is known of the early history of Llananno. An early medieval origin may be suspected from its dedication and location, and the fact the churchyard is still rounded in some places. The identity of Saint Anno is also a mystery, and is most likely a corruption of another saint.
There’s also no mention of the church in either the 13th Century Taxatios or in the 1535 Valor Ecclesiasticus – which is a bit weird as there are an abundance of records recording and describing the former medieval church by the Victorian renovators. Its all rather mysterious and enigmatic!
St Anno’s Church, Llananno is a simple small single cell church in 19th century gothic style.
The old church was completely rebuilt in the 1870s by David Walker of Liverpool at a cost of £1500.
There is only one feature you can really talk about in relation to St Anno’s – the amazing, fantastic, out-of-this world medieval rood screen! There really are not enough superlatives to describe this wonder, which dates from the late 15th/early 16th Century.
To put in context how amazing it is for the screen to have survived almost intact, only circa 1,000 substantially or partially complete medieval rood screens survive across England and Wales. Prior to the Reformation the figure was nearer to 10,000. Today just 24 substantially complete medieval rood lofts survive in Britain, with 13 of these being in Wales.
But what is such a beautiful and complex screen doing in a small wayside church in the middle of nowhere? The screen is very similar in design and construction to that of the church in Llanegryn, Gwynedd. Llanegryn’s screen is connected by tradition to the nearby Cistercian Cymmer Abbey. I wonder then if Llananno’s screen is connected to that of nearby Abbey Cwmhir, which was only a few miles away over the hill?
The front or western side of the rood screen is a true joy to behold. The bressummer beam supporting the parapet includes an amphisbaena, an allegorical dragon-like creature with two heads. Below is a pomegranate motif – none of the literature suggests it, but given the potential construction date of the rood screen perhaps the fruit is a tribute to Catherine of Aragon who married Prince Arthur of Wales in 1501? Underneath that the headbeam has a flowing ornament of skeletal leaves with flowers. Below it the ten bays have traceried heads of various intricate designs.
In 1880, soon after completion of the new church, the canopied niches of the loft parapet were re-filled with figures – some replacement, some original. The set comprises 12 kings and prophets to the north, Christ in the centre, and the 12 apostles to the south.
Its almost a screen of two halves – as you move to the rear/east of the screen it becomes much plainer. Yes, there are delicate interlaced stems and tiny rosettes, alongside finely carved water plants, but it is very different to the front side of the screen. The east underside of the loft does has several fascinating carved head bosses, including a two-headed figure representing God the Father and God the Son with nails stuck through its eyes.
But sometimes the most interesting touches are the most simple – immediately to the right of the screen entrance the wainscot panel is marked with a carpenter’s numeral.
The only possible criticism that could be made about the rood screen is that, while it is a small miracle that this medieval rood screen has survived, let alone with its roof loft intact, we have lost what would have been an original, bright and vivid colour scheme. We just have to leave it up to our imaginations!
Aside from the rood screen, other historic features include the hatchment of John Stephens, High Sheriff of Radnorshire, a medieval water stoup, and a beautifully carved 17th-century vestry made from a 17th-century warden’s box pew.
As you can probably guess, for a small, rural out-of-the-way church in Mid Wales there are no prime ministers or army generals buried in the churchyard. However, the renowned Welsh poet and cleric R.S. Thomas regularly visited the church as he loved its sense of place. He even wrote a poem about the place entitled ‘Llananno’, which hangs by the church door.
It would also be worth however talking about the people who could have built the amazing rood screen. The screenwork at Llananno is closely related to others found in the Welsh borders. They are all attributed to the Newtown School, called so because the basis of its possible location.
Luckily for all of us, the amazing charity Friends of Friendless Churches that rescues redundant historic churches threatened by demolition and decay will soon start taking care of this hidden treasure. St Anno’s Church will be in very safe hands, and this marvellous medieval rood screen will be preserved for generations to come.