Wales is a country full of chapels and churches. Our places of worship are often sited in wild, remote, sacred and utterly beautiful landscapes, much like their Celtic Christian ancestors. Throughout my study of Welsh History at university, it became clear to me that this ‘remoteness’ and being on the periphery of England has resulted in Wales maintaining a number of treasures in its churches that could have been lost in the Reformation. This historical continuity and steadfastness means there is truly no better lesson in Welsh culture than these old Welsh churches.
For the purpose of clarity, I have not included other places of worship such as chapels or cathedrals in this list. As they slightly differ in purpose and function, I feel they therefore differ greatly in terms of sense of place and atmosphere. This list is based solely on my personal preferences when it comes to the churches of my homeland. I haven’t used some sort of rating system or picked these churches because of their historical significance. I have picked them because of the intangible otherworldliness of the past they possess. I was recently introduced to the term ‘thin places’, a Celtic Christian term for ‘those rare locales where the distance between heaven and Earth collapses’ – I think this perfectly describes the special something these Welsh churches have.
St Mary’s Priory Church, Abergavenny
The first Welsh church on my list is a real treasure chest. St. Mary’s has been called ‘the Westminster Abbey of Wales’ because of its large size and the numerous high status monuments within – the finest gathering of medieval sculptures in any parish church in Britain. There is also a ten foot long, 15th Century Jesse figure, the last and sole survivor in Britain of the giant oak icons. It would originally have formed the base of a full Tree of Jesse. It is unique in Britain – and probably the world – and described by Tate Britain as one of the finest medieval sculptures in existence.
St Martin’s Church, Cwmyoy
If you read my recent blog post about St Martin’s Church, Cwmyoy, you will know I fell absolutely head over heels in love with this church. Often overshadowed by its more famous neighbours – Llanthony Abbey and St Issui’s Church, Partishow – it was chosen by church guru Simon Jenkins as his church of the year in 2006. St Martin’s has also been called the crookedest church in Britain. It suffers from a severe case of subsidence, and the church tower leans at a greater angle than the famous Leaning Tower of Pisa. Inside you can discover a rare medieval wayside cross, and feel like you’re in one of those wacky fun houses at the fairground with all the crazy angles!
St Anno’s Church, Llannanno
St Anno’s is a 19th Century rebuild on the site of a medieval church and possibly an even earlier Celtic monastic foundation. Outside, the church could be described as simple, but inside its a totally different story. There is a late medieval carved wooden rood screen and loft, which is the best example of its kind in the whole of Wales and en equal to any of that in England. Amphisbaenas (or should that be amphisbaenaie?), pomegranates and water plants compete to hold up a loft parapet with canopied niches containing 25 biblical figures. I think part of this church’s charm is its location – its just off an arterial North-South trunk road in Mid Wales, but hidden in a little nook next to a small river. When I visit, hundreds of people probably pass me by on the road, but I always have this hidden treasure to myself.
St Teilo’s Church, now at the St Fagans National Museum of History
‘The church that moved’ – St Teilo’s Church was originally situated near modern-day Pontardulais, but was re-erected in St Fagans National Museum of History near Cardiff in 2007. St Teilo’s Church has been refurbished as it may have appeared in about the year 1530, complete with all the elements associated with a late medieval Catholic church, including a rood screen and loft, altars, carvings and brightly-coloured paintings on all the walls. It can be hard for people to enter a church and visualise how it would have appeared pre-Reformation, but here you are fully immersed in a recreation of the past, and all of a sudden that past doesn’t seem so far away.
St Stephen’s Church, Old Radnor
The ancient hilltop settlement of Old Radnor is now not much more than a pub and church – but what a church! Set up on a hill in a prehistoric enclosure, it is the only church in Wales dedicated to St Stephen. The font is also the oldest (and one of the largest) in Britain, carved out of a prehistoric boulder. Another remarkable find in such a remote country church is the early 16th Century organ case, the oldest of its kind in Britain. Oh, and there’s also some medieval glass and floor tiles to boot! The reason I personally love this church is because it is almost a stereotypical Marcher country church – as T.J. Hughes says in his book Wales’ Best One Hundred Churches its ‘a church that looks English to a Welshman and must feel Welsh to an Englishman’.
St Mark’s Church, Brithdir
Hidden in the hills near Dolgellau is the last thing you would expect to find – a stunning, full-blown Arts and Crafts church. The chancel is painted in bands of earthy blue and red, giving it an almost Mediterranean feel, and the pulpit and retable are constructed from beaten and moulded copper. The Spanish Chestnut stalls in the chancel come alive with a host of animals. Luckily for us this redundant church is now cared for by the amazing Friends of Friendless Churches, ensuring everyone can access this Grade-I listed pre-eminent church of the Arts and Crafts Movement. Photos by Nicolas Keeble.
St Celynnin, Conwy Valley
One that’s high on my to-visit list, St Celynnin is a contender for both the oldest and most remote church in Wales. Its nearest village is Henrhyd in the Conwy Valley. Why is it so special? Well, just look at the photos below (by @howard_wing and @gregsonholmes on Instagram). A small and simple building, its thought to date from the 12th Century, and once stood on an ancient route way in the mountains. There’s also an ancient well, remains of a round hut and 13th Century graves. I find it amazing to think of all activity that would have once taken place around the church in this now deserted landscape.
The Abbey Church of Saint Mary the Virgin, Margam
St Mary’s is the surviving Norman nave of a major Cistercian abbey founded in the 12th century, now used as the local parish church. Two 19th Century Italian-looking towers provide a delightful juxtaposition to the to Norman doorway and arches. Inside you will find marble Renaissance tombs of the Mansel and Talbot families, major players in Welsh history. The church is surrounded by the ruins of the abbey which fell into disrepair after the Reformation. The old medieval school building now houses the Margam Stones Museum, an extraordinary collection of Christian sculpture with some superb examples of early Celtic crosses. (Picture of abbey by @travelmanlarry)
To finish, I must again stress that this is my personal pick of the top Welsh churches. However, I could have just as easily written a top one hundred. There are many, many more beautiful and sacred places out there to explore and fall in love with.
What’s your favourite Welsh church?
Looking for other historical gems in Wales to explore? Then check out my new Welsh History Travel Guide.