They delved in the meadow where the old stones lie, but deep in my bed, O safe, safe was I. For Christ He was slain where other regions trod, and I shall rise again from thy acre, God.
I have a fondness for local churches, and St. Mary’s at Caerhun has plenty of ingredients to satisfy my historical muse, especially since this particular church occupies the site of a Roman fort, that of Canovium. Even the name itself has a magical, filmic quality. Despite my well-oiled imagination it’s not easy to visualise some 500 Roman guards and over 100 mounted cavalry who were stationed here 2,000 years ago, in such present-day tranquility. Their job would have been protecting the mines and those important trade routes across Snowdonia, and to defend the river crossing as traders moved from Chester to Caernarfon. Scattered in the fields flanking the river are the remains of the ramparts, and a bath-house. The Romans abandoned the fort in the 4th century and thereafter, legend suggests it was occupied by Rhun ap Maelgwn, King of Gwynedd.
It’s presumed the original church here was built around the 13th century but the only datable material is the walls (partly red sandstone blocks which were part of the original fort) and the font. And it was most likely built by Cistercian monks, who had a penchant for dedicating all their churches to the Virgin Mary. It has a twin bell-cote with a date of 1657 inscribed along with the warden’s initials, but no evidence of there ever being a second bell. The lychgate is especially grand, designed to provide shelter for coffins before funerals: the seats at either side were for the pallbearers to sit whilst they waited for the priest. And I love the three yew trees in the grounds, dated at around 1,200 years old. In Christian symbolism yew trees are associated with The Resurrection but the main reason for their existence here was the harvesting of the wood to make longbows! Unfortunately, yew leaves are poisonous to cattle and sheep which is why these trees are usually enclosed within church grounds.
Today, St. Mary’s is a haven for history lovers, bird watchers, walkers and worshippers. And of course, sheep. The birds, the flora and fauna here are well-protected and documented. The church carries a full list of sightings, and from a writer’s point of view, I do like to be able to attach names to local birdsong, to add that all-important authenticity. Buzzards are common throughout Snowdonia, their distinctive circling and mewing always attracts attention, as do the red kites. It’s the smaller species which are more difficult to identify. Apparently, Caerhun is the most likely place in North Wales to see a hawfinch. The finches are attracted by the resident yew trees, along with the mistle thrush, fieldfare, redwing, pied wagtails and brambling. During April, swallows migrate from Africa and nest under the lychgate. These are easy to spot, catching insects on the wing. And down on the river there’s a whole host of waterfowl: egrets, herons, geese and the ever present herring gulls.
Is it a strange pastime to read gravestones? I did this a lot as a child. There was no creepy angle, I think it stemmed more from an interest in people and their lives. One headstone which makes for difficult reading though has been used as edging for the church roof. Apparently it belongs to Richard Hughes of Tal Y Cafn, dated 1702. When restoration work was carried out in 1970, human bones were found embedded into the walls along with a medieval stoup. No one knows if they were anything to do with poor Richard Hughes up on the roof or whether the bones belonged to an important family who needed to remain hidden, perhaps during The Reformation to avoid their destruction.
More conventionally, several victims of The Dolgarrog Dam Disaster in 1925 are buried here along with a 13th century chieftain, the Ferryman and the Nickson family who donated the stained glass window.
Other notables are two Liverpool businessmen, a cotton merchant and a copper-mill owner. Two servants, Jacques Anrioud and Jane Jones married in Paris in 1873 but are both buried here. I’d love to know their story…
Maybe I should write it anyway and it could be a historical time-slip novel, a pulling together of the present and the past. Dashing, romantic Jaques from Paris and a scandalous affair with local Welsh maid, plain Jane from Caerhun.
Words and photography by Jan Ruth.