A Welsh Church Wonder
Llangar old church, near Corwen, Denbighshire is one of the greatest church wonders of Wales. A small simple church situated on a steep slope on the south side of the Dee Valley, this ancient church and churchyard is a perfect place to learn about the appearance of an historic Welsh church and its churchyard because the site was abandoned following the building of a new church in Cynwyd in the 1850s. By the 1870s Llangar was only used for burials. It thus is a ‘fossil’ without later alterations, subject to archaeological excavations and restoration in the 1970s following its transfer into guardianship in 1967.
Now under the guardianship of Cadw, the site is served by a lavish guidebook together with Rug Chapel, Gwydir Uchaf Chapel and Derwen Medieval Churchyard Cross.
The medieval church is mentioned in sources from the 13th century and revealed in the form of the building as well 14th- and 15th-century wall paintings. The roof dates from at least the 15th century. There is a medieval font surviving near the south door.
There are good 18th-century descriptions of the church, and an illustration from 1794. Graffiti suggests a major rebuilding in the early 17th century and archaoeological evidence suggets a mid- to late-17th century rebuilding of the western end of the church, and again another in the early 18th century. This repeated rebuilding phases probably relate to structural weaknesses caused by being built on made-up ground.
Most of the interior fittings are of early 18th-century date, with a pulpit halfway down the north wall. With one exception for the rector’s family, all of the pews are on the north side. There is also a painted cupboard.
Open benches are placed on the south side. The gallery is fabulous; giving the best view of the church and was intended for use by the choir. It has a rare pyramidal music stand.
In addition to the medieval wall paintings, there are multiple phases of post-medieval wall paintings revealed by the archaeological research. Most striking is the huge Death figure – holding a winged hourglass and arrow, with a shovel and pick between his legs. A cheery scene to remind all visitors and worshippers of their inevitable mortality.
The gravestones and tombs of the churchyard are a rich historic resource, informing us not only about those that lived in the township but also their modes of commemoration during the 18th and 19th century. I was particularly taken by the coffin-shaped grave-kerbs.
Like Pennant Melangell, this churchyard has a clear southern preference, with the earliest gravestones (pre 1750) found around the south wall. What is also striking is the steepness of the churchyard – this is very much 3D mortuary topography.
Later 18th-century gravestones are found to both the south and north and immediately hugging the west and east ends of the church and also along the south of the approaching path.
19th-century gravestones around throughout the rest of the churchyard, and despite the topography encouraging the use of the north-west of the church which is flatter, the preference is clearly for the higher, steeper ground on the south of the church.
The cumulative arrangement of gravestones and tombs in rows, and their composite character in some family plots, are further striking features of the churchyard.
I was also taken by the decay of gravestones – the slate shearing off vertically and horizontally. There are some striking examples where gravestones ‘help each other out’ by resting against each other.
In addition to the in situ gravestones, many of the slabs used to make the modern path are reused gravestones: a strategy typical churchyards elsewhere in Wales and elsewhere.
Other notable features of the churchyard including the typical yew trees, lychgate (18th century) and the surviving approaching path from the south-west. The drystone churchyard wall is also a definitive feature, of 18th-century date again in its most recent arrangement.
I thought visitor access to the Pillar of Eliseg was difficult enough but Llangar Church is also a bit of a minor heritage nightmare. There is no designated parking; indeed the sign pointing in the direction of the church appears after you have past the nearest lay-by when coming from Corwen/Rug Chapel. The Cadw website explains this with particular inadequacy as:
‘rural location with uneven access. Lay by parking for 6 cars across the road from the start of the track. No dedicated disabled parking available’.
Not really encouraging for the visitor.
Under the website heading ‘Enjoying your Visit’, Cadw list starkly:
Again, not really encouraging.
If you are lucky enough to be able-bodied, not have to push a wheelchair or pushchair, and know where you are going, you can walk for 5 minutes down a steep lane and through a gate and along a path to get to the church. If you are also lucky enough to be there in the few hours on a few days in summer months when the site is open, then you can go into the church. Of course you are then stuffed if you want to go around the church but haven’t visited Rug Chapel first, because then the man at the door will quiz you about the whereabouts of your ticket. The idea that people might want to go to Llangar and not Rug Chapel, and might be happy to pay but do not want to go to Rug Chapel simply to buy a ticket, clearly hasn’t occurred to Cadw.
As it happens, I was allowed access and gave a donation that was equivalent to the entry-fee to Rug Chapel but it left a bad taste in my mouth.
A brilliant site, but it left me wondering why anyone bothers to come here with such an awkward access arrangement. And the sad point is that I don’t think many people, even locals, ever do go there to enjoy this national treasure. Still, I encourage anyone to visit this splendid site, whether the church itself is open or not, and enjoy its location, its architecture and its many fascinating churchyard memorials.