Saturday, 30 April 2016

A470: Part 8: Rhyader to Diserth

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This week I completed a new type of V-log for Uncle Travelling Matt: Talk with a Traveller. the idea is to have a chat with a seasoned traveller and see what we can learn off them. As soon as it’s been edited then you can see my interview with KFA Chairman Dr. Dermot Hudson. In the meantime though, back to Wales…

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Flickr album of this trip

Links to all parts of this travelogue

Part 1: Introduction

Part 2: Llandudno

Part 3: Llandudno to Dolwyddelan

Part 4: Dolwyddelan to Blaenau Ffestiniog

Part 5: Blaenau Ffestiniog to Dolgellau

Part 6: Dolgellau to Caersws

Part 7: Caersws to Rhyader

Part 8: Rhyader to Diserth

Also check out my other Welsh travelogues:

The Sacred Heart of Wales

Across the Sound

V-log: Llangelynin

V-log: Barmouth Cliff Walk

V-log: Walking Pilgrimage to Bardsey Island


Part 8: Rhyader to Diserth

We took a side-trip from Rhyader. One of the great pleasures of motoring in Wales are these side-trips, down narrow winding lanes to picturesque villages or hamlets untouched by the tourist hordes. My favourite is to Gwytherin, ten miles or so off the A5, reached by negotiating a stretch of wild moorland, its beauty only enhanced by the farm of wind turbines on the top silently harvesting the gusts. Gwytherin, a pretty little village with its church in the centre, holds a special place in the Welsh national story for it is the home of St. Winifred, one of the country's most famous saints whose main shrine, the healing well at Holywell in Fflintshire, is visited by thousands and nicknamed 'The Lourdes of Wales'.

Abbey-cwm-Hir, another pretty village reached by several miles of winding lanes through rolling hills, red kites soaring above and rabbits gambolling across the road in front of us seemingly oblivious to the dangers, also has a special place in the Welsh national consciousness. Like Gwytherin it has a religious element to it: the ruins of the mediaeval Cwmhir Abbey from which the settlement gets its name, but the main draw here is secular, not sacred; it is the grave of a man who was buried within the abbey precincts. Abbey-cwm-Hir is the resting place of Llewelyn ap Gruffudd.

Llewelyn ap Gruffudd is sometimes described as the last Prince of Wales. He is not. After all, we have one today, Charles Windsor, invested with great pomp in Caernarvon Castle in 1969. Nor too is he the last Welsh-born Prince of Wales. Legend states that after Edward I won the country for England, he promised the Welsh “a prince born in Wales, who did not speak a word of English” before then producing his infant son and heir to the throne Edward, who had been born in Caernarvon Castle. Thus it is that the first-born son of the reigning monarch is always the Prince of Wales. No, poor Llewelyn cannot claim that honour and nor too can he claim to be the last Welshman crowned without any English involvement. As we have already learnt, Owain Glyndŵr claims that honour.

But what Llewelyn was, was the last in a long line of Gwynedd princes who had claimed the throne of Wales, the man under whom the flame of Welsh independence was finally snuffed out, never to be lit again save for that brief flicker under Glyndŵr. It was Llewelyn ap Gruffudd – Llewelyn the Last – who died bravely in vain, fighting the English invaders of his beloved homeland, taking the hopes and dreams of an ancient nation with him to his grave.

Or so the romantic version goes. The truth, as always, is a little murkier. For starters, Llewelyn's Wales was not the country outlined on the map today. Successive buffetings by English armies, not least the heavy defeat inflicted on him by King Edward I in 1277 had reduced it to a rump, barely extending beyond the mountains of Snowdonia. Remember when we passed through Llanrwst, the town which declares “Wales, England and Llanrwst!”? Well, that's because after Llewelyn's defeat, that is where the border between the two countries lay. And what is more, after having demonstrated his might, Edward wasn't particularly bothered about absorbing that minor princedom on his borders, just so long as Llewelyn kept on paying his tribute and acknowledged Edward as his sovereign then the mighty Longshanks was happy. Llewelyn however, was not; Llewelyn rebelled and, rather predictably, Llewelyn lost. Anyone who has explored the castles of Conwy and Dolwyddelan further up the A470 can be in no doubt as to why the English won. The two monarchs were worlds apart in wealth, power and military sophistication. Sad though it may be, Llewelyn never stood a chance.

And so there, in that beautiful green valley, by the babbling waters of the Clywedog in amongst the stones of Cwmhir Abbey, it is a good place to stop and think awhile by the stark black stone which marks his resting place. Was the man whose mortal remains lie thereabouts a national hero, the last valiant defender of Wales, or was he a delusionist who did not grasp the harsh political realities of his day and who threw away the legacy of his illustrious forefathers?

photo-28-06-2014-18-17-30_14485601389_o At the grave of the last prince

We started looking for a place to sleep beyond Rhyader and when we saw a campsite signposted at Newbridge-on-Wye we turned off to check it out. It turned out to be just what we were looking for, a pleasant field by the river, situated next to a beautiful old church. The idea of waking up and seeing that church in the morning appealed and so we booked it and erected our tent.

After settling in I went to have a look at the church itself, and it turned out that we had stumbled upon an absolute gem. Diserth (sometimes spelt ‘Disserth’) Church is dedicated to St. Cewydd, another of those early Welsh holy men whose history is shrouded in myth. According to a book in the church, he was what is called a “weather saint”, that is to say, like St. Swithin in England, a saint whom one would call upon for a particular kind of weather. Since he was also known as Cewydd y Glaw (“Cewydd of the Rain”), one assumes that it was to him that one would pray if one desired a downfall. This may explain why he is not so celebrated these days: the amount of rainfall that Wales gets suggests that either he was very rarely needed in the first place or that he was so successful that he has made himself virtually redundant!

The present structure dates from the 16th century, (although there has doubtless been a church on the site for centuries before that), and even that was heavily “restored” in the 17th century when the parish was a wealthy one. Even so, there is something timeless and something very Welsh about it. Outside, the nave/chancel is whitewashed – something that is extremely rare in England – though the tower is bare stone, whilst inside it contains some exquisite box pews although the overall impression, to my English eyes at least, was one of austerity and simplicity. Welsh churches are often so, bare whitewashed walls and an absence of the decoration and flamboyance of the average English parish church.

But then the spiritual history of Wales is quite different to that of its neighbour across the Severn and that history more than anything else has helped shape – and maintain – a Welsh identity as a separate nation during the long centuries when, politically at least, it was not. I have already discussed several of the hundreds of hermit saints who evangelised the land centuries before Saxon England was converted by Lindisfarne and Augustine. Those more monastic and Celtic traditions persisted much longer than they did in England, with the Welsh refusing to accept Augustine Christianity. However, by the time of the English conquest, the Church in Wales was part of the see of Canterbury although even then the parish system never quite took hold with the same vigour that it did in England and when the Reformation came about, whilst there was little resistance, there was little acceptance either. Why was this? Perhaps it was due to the Reformation being seen as being yet another English imposition on the Principality, (the Church was only disestablished in 1920 and up until then the Established Church in Wales had been the Church of England), or perhaps there was still a lot of affection for the Church of Rome. Certainly, the remarkable shrine at St. Winnifred’s Well at Holywell persisted throughout all the years of Catholic persecution in a way unthinkable in England, let alone Calvinist Scotland. But I think that the real reason may be that, unlike its larger neighbour but like both Ireland and Scotland, prior to the 19th century, Wales possessed few if any urban centres and her villages were never clustered around a green with pub and church, but instead are strung out along a road or scattered across a certain area and so were never as likely to be drawn to a particular central or focal church.

Whatever the reasons, when Dissenting movements came about like Rowland Ellis’ Quakers in Dolgellau, they found fertile ground in Wales although in the end it was the Evangelical Dissenters – Calvinists, Baptists, Methodists and the like – who won the majority of Welsh souls, and no symbol of Wales is more potent nor omnipresent than that of the restrained classical edifice of a chapel, each with a foundation stone laid by a local 19th century worthy. The Welsh took to their chapels like no other nation, often attending several times on a Sunday, and it was those chapels which did more than anything else to preserve the Welsh language with Bible and hymns being belted out in Cymraeg to packed congregations who lapped all up with gusto.

Yet nowadays, that picture of the Principality is all but unrecognisable. Since World War II the Welsh have abandoned organised religion in droves and as the 21st century dawned, most communities struggled to support one chapel, let alone several. Wales is now amongst one of the most secular parts of the (extremely secular) United Kingdom with only 57% of the population identifying themselves as Christian in the 2011 census and only 10% being church or chapelgoers.[1] What is more, those trends show no signs of reversing. And so, her beautiful churches and great chapels are today either derelict, converted into shops or houses or, like the gorgeous church at Diserth, largely devoid of worshippers, loved more as historical monuments rather than living temples of faith.

And so I prayed alone as the sun sank, in a quiet rural church where once the inventor of the steam engine, James Watt, had drank in the sermons. However, it is quite understandable that the great man did choose that church for his weekly worship for its main claim to fame is a sermon that was once preached there and which is said to be the shortest on record. The rector, or so the story goes, had forgotten to bring the text that he had prepared along one Sunday and so instead he ascended the pulpit stairs and preached the following:

“Ha, yes, here we are. And it is a fine day. I congratulate you on a fine day, and glad to see so many of you here. Yes, indeed. Ha, yes, indeed. Now then I shall take for my text … Yes, let me see. You are all sinners and so am I. Yes indeed.”

And with those words he sat down.

Now, if only our vicar would follow suit…

photo-28-06-2014-19-34-19_14672240375_o The Church of St. Cewydd, Diserth

There’s an unusual gravestone in the churchyard at Diserth. It initially caught my eye because of its shape; spartan and wide, like three standard headstones pushed together, but it's made out of one piece of stone. It commemorates three people. Reading from right to left, the first is one Archibald Francis Freeman, born 1889, died 1940. The second name is Enid Gertrude Freeman “His Wife”, born 1889, died 1976. But it is the third name on there that catches one's curiosity: “Elena Vigliano, Their Lifelong Friend and Companion, Born in Italy December 16th 1898; Died September 13th 1975.” However strange for a friend to be interred next to a man and wife, and a foreigner at that in this, a most rural and uncosmopolitan community. I pondered awhile the love of friends, different and distinct to erotic, filial and marital love yet vital to humankind before then moving on my way.

photo-28-06-2014-19-34-56_14485604108_oIn Memorium…

As the sun was setting we decided to have our evening meal. The campsite owner had recommended a particular pub as being good for food and so we decided to head for there. The Red Lion at Llanafan Fawr turned out to be rather further away than we’d anticipated but an excellent choice nonetheless. It was an ancient and atmospheric building, with low eaves that, according to its website at least, dates back to 1472. The history of the hostelry however, goes back even further than that with no less a figure than Gerald Cambrennis (Gerald of Wales) staying there in 1188 whilst recruiting for Richard the Lionheart’s crusades, he making a beeline for the village in order to pay his respects to St. Afan’s remains.

Geraldus Cambrennis is an interesting character and no book on Wales would be complete without giving him a mention. Born in Manorbier Castle near Tenby around 1146, he was of mixed Norman and Welsh ancestry. His grandmother was Nest ferch Rhys, a princess of colourful character who was famously abducted from Cenarth Bychan (possibly Cilgerran Castle), by one Owain ap Cadwgan, an act which caused her Norman husband to seek revenge and thus began a war between the Welsh and Normans, earning her the title of “Helen of Wales”.

Indeed, her abduction was not the only remarkable incident in this redoubtable lady’s life. At twelve years of age her father, King Rhys ap Tewdwr[2] of Deheubarth was killed in battle and she was taken by the Normans whom he had been fighting and held hostage in England where she caught the eye of Prince Henry and became his lover, bearing him a child. When he became King Henry I he had to make a political marriage but provided for her and arranged her union with Gerald de Windsor with whom she returned to her native Wales and bore him four children. It was then that she was abducted from Cilgerran Castle by her outlaw cousin Owain who she also enjoyed intimate relations, with most sources saying that these were entirely consensual, (apparently the two had been betrothed as children and she knew him well). This then caused a war between Owain and Gerald which the latter won, causing Owain to flee to Ireland and Gerald to regain his wife plus the added bonus of Owain’s lands. However, even this was not the end of the road for Nest, since after Gerald died, she married again to another Norman lord, Stephen of Cardigan, with whom she bore several more children before finally passing out of history, once assumes rather exhausted.

I first heard of Nest and her exploits when a friend of mine named his daughter after her. Never having heard the name before, he explained to me where it came from and I must say that, whilst I admire his originality and commitment to preserving Welsh traditions, I do wonder if he and his wife fully realise what they have let themselves in for giving their child such a role model to follow. If one thing is to be predicted, she won’t be having a quiet life in the decades to come…

But to return to the original Nest’s grandson, Gerald took Holy Orders and later acted as a mediator between King Henry of England and Prince Rhys ap Gruffydd of Deheubarth. He accompanied one of the king’s sons, John, on a journey around Ireland in 1185 which resulted in him writing ‘Topographia Hibernica’, an account of his journeys around Ireland and a valuable source of information on the country at that period. Having demonstrated his usefulness to the establishment, he then went on a similar journey around Wales in 1188 at the behest of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the aim being to recruit for the Third Crusade and it was during these travels that he visited Llanafan Fawr. The two books that resulted from those journeyings – Itinerarium Cambriae (1191) and Descriptio Cambriae (1194) – remain as his seminal works and valuable historical documents which shed much light on the very dark and murky ways, culture, events and chronology of Wales during that period, particularly throwing light on how Welsh and Norman culture co-existed and interacted.

After a most satisfying meal in the pub, (and overhearing conversations amongst the locals in which immigrants and blacks were discussed in a manner unthinkable in more cosmopolitan and urbane parts of the country), we left the hostelry and crossed the road to have a look at the Church of St. Afan where Gerald once stopped to pay homage. St. Afan of Builth is yet another of those Welsh saints of whom we know little. He is listed as being an early 6th century bishop and martyr whose feast day is November 17th. His diocese is unknown although he is said to have founded the church at Llanafan Fawr (literally, ‘Great Church of St. Afan’), and also Llanfechan, (a corruption of Llanafan Fechan, literally ‘Lesser Church of St.Afan’), both in Northern Powys, although the current church across from the Red Lion is a much later rebuild. There is a stone in the churchyard which declares ‘Hic Iacet Sanctus Avanus Episcopus’ (“Here lies St. Avan, Bishop”) although the stone is no later than the 13th century so, sadly, it is not even the one that Gerald prayed at.

[1] England by contrast, has 59.4% identifying as Christians as well as a far more significant minority of people following other faiths.

[2] The name Tewdwr is the original Welsh spelling of Tudor and Rhys and Nest were both ancestors of Henry who later became King of England.

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