If you go down to the Black Mountains today, you’re in for a big surprise. Most people will head straight for either imposing Llanthony Priory in its picturesque setting, or the nearby Church of St Issui at Partishow with its famous wall paintings. However, there is a hidden treasure of a church that tops them all – St Martin’s Church, Cwmyoy.
And its not just me that thinks that St Martin’s is special. In 2006, Simon Jenkins himself called St Martin’s Church, Cwmyoy his ‘church of the year’ and I can totally see why. Like most ancient churches, when you enter you sense slipping back in time, but in St Martins for some reason this feeling is even more pronounced. Both the gravestones in the churchyard and the memorials are extraordinarily well-preserved. You feel like they were erected only 100 years ago, not the 300 they actually were.
And the church definitely has character – a crooked character! St Martin’s is often called the most crooked church in the UK, on account of its church tower which leans more than the famous Leaning Tower of Pisa. Pisa is a mere 4.7 degrees out of alignment, while the tower of St Martin’s leans at an eye opening 5.2 degrees. Inside, the weird angles and lines play tricks with the eyes – it definitely is an ‘eccentric Alice through the looking glass church’.
Standing in the church is an assault on the senses. I totally agree with Jenkin’s statement that when you are in St Martin’s you feel like you are on ‘a galleon in a storm, with half the contents about to disappear through the poop window’. No angle seems to be as it should be, and I distinctly remember having to hold on the walls and pews as I moved around I felt so off-balance!
Historians have been unable to pinpoint an exact date for the founding of St Martin’s. However it seems likely that, given the location of the church on an ancient pilgram’s way to St David’s, Pembrokeshire, there was a church somewhere near the present day site before the Norman Conquest.
The church is built in the Gothic style in a local grained red/grey sandstone . The walls and tower are medieval with considerable repairs and rebuilding as a result of ground instability. There are several substantial buttresses supporting the building and metal rods have also been inserted into the walls.
The reason the church suffers from all these crazy angles is that it was built immediately beneath the site of a spectacular landslide, and so suffers from a bad case of subsidence. Considering the amount of stress the church has had to endure, I think its amazing that so many original features survive – if you visit, be sure not to miss the original medieval nave roof.
Another unusual feature of St Martin’s is the chancel – its a great example of a ‘weeping chancel’. This is where the axis of the chancel is out of line with the axis of the nave. The nave represents Jesus’ body on the cross, and the chancel represents his head falling sideways in death.
The Cwmyoy Crucifix
In the nave of the church stands a rare and beautiful stone cross, sometimes referred to as a wayside cross or crucifix. It has been dated to the 11th/12th Century and has special status as it features a rare carving of Christ on the cross, complete with an almost mitre-like headdress. One theory suggests the strange headdress is derived from the time of the Holy Roman Empire, but similar designs are also found on 16th Century Irish crosses. The cross would have originally stood in the churchyard to be visited by pilgrims travelling through the Black Mountains.
Local legend states that during the Reformation the cross was buried in the churchyard for safety, but Henry VIII’s soldiers never came to Cwmyoy because of the sheer remoteness of the place, so the cross was eventually dug up again in 1861 and kept in a farm garden before it was returned to the church in 1935. However, in 1967 it was stolen from the church and somehow ended up in London. By sheer luck it was spotted in an antique shop, by the Keeper of Sculpture at the British Museum no less, and then returned to the church again, alas without its stepped base.
One thing that immediately strikes you about the memorials and tombstones in the church is how beautifully artisan rococo they are. A lot of that is due to the famous family of masons, the Brute family from Llanbedr near Crickhowell. The Brutes were prolific throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries, and their memorials adorn numerous churches in the Black Mountains. Their memorials are full of depictions of cherubs and baskets of flowers, and some are so well preserved you can still see traces of the original colours.
It may be remotely sited and a bit of a bugger to get to, but if you are ever in the area, I thoroughly recommend a trip to St Martin’s Church, Cwmyoy. Its my church of the year and, after you visit, I guarantee it will be yours too!