Beautiful is the large church, with stately arch and steeple. Neighbourly is the small church with groups of friendly people.
Reverent is the old church with centuries of grace, and a wooden church or a stone church can hold an altar place. And whether it be a rich church, or a poor church anywhere, truly it is a great church if God is worshipped there.
It’s a long, long climb from the village of Llanwrst but well worth the effort to scramble up through Gwydir Forest above the spa-town of Trefriw, to visit the oldest church in Wales, dated 11th century.
This remote location above the Conwy Valley may have been used for Christian worship since the 6th century. Rhychwyn, or Rhochwyn, was one of the 12 sons of Helig ap Glannog, who lost his court, known as Llys Helig, when the sea inundated it. As a result of this loss, the sons lived devout lives, some as monks. The church is also known as Llywelyn’s Old Church and the reference to age is perfectly justified. Llywelyn Fawr, Prince of Wales, and his wife Princess Joan – the illegitimate daughter of King John of England – worshipped here in the early 13th century when they stayed at their Trefriw hunting lodge at nearby Lake Geirionnydd.
Joan, also known by her Welsh name Siwan, complained that the walk to church was tiring; 2km uphill from Trefriw followed by 2km downhill. It’s said that Llywelyn founded St Mary’s Church in Trefriw to save her this effort. Since we chose to walk this route on a humid summer’s day, I could fully sympathise with her! At least the long trail through Gwydir Forest was shaded. We passed several warning signs about the old mine workings in amongst the bracken and the broken stone walls. The heyday of metal mining here was between 1850 and 1919. Both timber and metal was transported from the forest to the quay at neighbouring Trefriw, from where it was shipped downstream to the coast. This historical industry is blamed for the lack of fish in Geirionnydd today: the result of the poisoning of the waters from the metal mines?
Interesting that there are literary connections to this diocese too, the most notable being Taliesin – a 6th-century Welsh bard living on the shores of the lake – and the earliest poet of the Welsh language whose work has survived.
Once out of the forest, the climb continues past hill farms and uphill through twisted iron kissing-gates, into fields where only sheep manage to remain upright. Any sign of the original settlements here have long gone and the historical relevance becomes more pronounced. Once the past is delved into, these cruel and pretty surroundings give tremendous weight to their own stories and I couldn’t wait to get inside the church. Although we were surrounded by the magnificence of Snowdonia the immediate location of this lovely building is rather nondescript, not as pretty as St Mary’s church on the river, nor does it hold the charm of St Celynin’s church in the hills. It seems tucked away in a corner and hidden by trees, and rather strangely, the back of the church faces outward. But the sense of history here is both compelling and unique. The ancient wooden door, complete with wooden hinges, closes behind you with a thunk, and those thick walls block out every sound apart from the wind as it continues to find a way through the innumerable gaps and crannies of the building. It really does feel like you’re inside a time capsule. The roof beams are some 800 years old and the bell is reputedly from Maenan Abbey. The east window has coloured images of the Virgin Mary and of the Holy Trinity. Apparently, this type of colouring is rare, and this example is probably the oldest of its kind in Wales. There are a number of dusty Welsh bibles still open on the creaking pulpit, and services are still held here despite its lack of nearby road or level track. There’s something mystical and magical about buildings as old as this, so I can fully understand why someone would still choose to attend a service here and brave the incline.
I think I spent almost as much time wandering in the churchyard and reading the wonky gravestones, bordering the path like a set of crooked teeth. No point looking for Llywelyn here… The church in Llanrwst is now famous for containing his carved stone coffin, whilst his wife rests in Beaumaris church on Anglesey. Although this was an arranged marriage, it was clearly a love story too. In 1230 William de Braose, a young Marcher Lord was discovered with Siwan in Llywelyn’s bedchamber. De Braose was hung for adultery and Siwan was placed on house-arrest for 12 months. In time, though, he came to forgive her and Siwan was restored to favour. She gave birth to a daughter in 1231 and died at the royal home at Abergwyngregyn, on the north coast of Gwynedd, in 1237.
As for Taliesin, he is at the bottom of the lake…
Words and photography by Jan Ruth.