Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Spring Sunshine and links with the Normans - part I, the church of St Michael

Today, map and Sian Rees' "Dyfed" in hand, my husband and I had a morning out to discover the ancient church of St Michael near Llansteffan. We had gone in search of it before, but forgotten our map, and been unable to find it. As it was, there are two ruined churches close to one another and I had been convinced it was the other we were looking for!

It was just above the marshes where the Afon Cwywn flows into the Taf and as magical a place as you could wish to be on a sunny spring morning. We followed the directions and parked outside the farmhouse of Trefenty - and WHAT a farmhouse, a double pile, enormous and towering over the excellent farm buildings, and with a beautiful garden and vast newly-dug pond. The ruins of what may have been an earlier farmhouse in a state of great distress, mouldered next door.

We followed directions and our map and made our way through the farmyard, our arrival broadcast by two collies and a one-eyed Jack Russell who escorted us across the fields to the ruined Norman church. The view across the sunlit marshes and sparkling river was superb. The ruined church - one wall entirely fallen down - sat amongst snowdrops, celendines and several yew trees. A long-abandoned horse-drawn hay tedder rusted away by the wall.

The church was originally probably founded by the Norman lords of the nearby 12th C motte and bailey castle, nearer the house. There are 6 burials dating from this period and probably associated with the original Norman Lords f the Manor, but legend has it that these were "pilgrim's graves" and the church a "pilgrim church" although Major Francis Jones stated that there were no such references prior to 1860. The church has been long abandoned and a new one built in a spot more convenient for parishoners. Francis Jones noted that:

"During the later period few worshippers came to the church of Llanfihangel, mainly because of remoteness, particularly during wintry weather. On one occasion, the congregation consisting of only the vicar, and pious old Mr. Evans of Llandeilo (his own church being then in disrepair), who always attended accompanied by a faithful sheep-dog to whom he was devoted, the vicar is said to have introduced into the prayers this extempore distich-

O Dduw, maddeu i ni ein tri
Ifans Llandeilo a finne a'r ci,

which I have ventured to translate as

O Lord, may forgiveness for us three be found
Evans Llandeilo, myself, and the hound."

There is also a wonderful prophecy that should the graveyard ever be neglected, then the parish would be visited by a plague of snakes! This, however, seems not to have ever been fulfilled. . .

There is a nearby abandoned church (that of Llandeilo, which is the one I nearly took us to by mistake, as that is also ruinous) which is also on the edge of the marshes, and abandoned for the same reasons as St Michael's, because it was at the very southern tip of its parish.

Of the pilgrim graves, I will write more tomorrow. However, the occupants of the farm had a curious custom:

In the Antiquities of Laugharne (1880) Mary Curtis has this to say about "the farmhouse called Treventy which occupies the site of a monastery. I visited this house which is large and substantially built, the walls enormously thick, bearing marks of great age ... I have been told that the dairy only is part of it [monastry]; that the kitchen before it was altered was a curious place. It is divided into two, and appears more ancient than the rest of the house. There was a while ago in front of the house, a passage with a roof to it, along which funerals had a right to pass to the church; out of it they have formed two rooms. At the back of the house I observed some walls looking very old. About ten minutes' walk from this farm, on the St. Clears side of it, is a small cottage very ancient, the walls exceedingly thick; it is called 'Treventy Gate'." She adds this about Trefenty mansion — "Opposite the front of the house, the river way, are earth works; here tradition says a battle was fought" — this is the castell of which I have spoken earlier.

Reference to the funeral practice is contained also in D. E. Jenkins's Life of the Rev. Thomas Charles, B.A., of Bala, published in 1908. He wrote, "Another custom of the parish is the old passage in the farmhouse of Treventy . . . . Funerals weddings, and the ordinary congregation had to pass through on their way to Church, and each individual had to present his (or her) name to the tenant of Treventy on passing through. There was no public way passing the Church, and the owner of the Manor of Oysterlowe Grange had no desire to forfeit his right and allow the public to claim a right of way; and this, probably was an ingenious contrivance whereby each person might be kept conscious of the private ownership of the path down to the Church. Even the horses and their litter had to pass with the body through the limits fixed by the old thick walls and the white-wash". In 1841 the path to the church is shown well eastwards of the house and outbuildings, and in all likelihood the custom had been discontinued before that time.

* * *

Perhaps most beguiling of all, is the local memory concerning an unconventional circumstance attending cheese-making at Trefenty. About the years 1860-64, Mr. Plowden permitted a shepherd to keep two cows on the demesne. Their milk enabled him to make cheese which he sold to augment his scanty wages. As he could not afford to buy a cheese-press (peis) the enterprising fellow went to the deserted churchyard and took a few of the fallen headstones, and with deftness and ingenuity fashioned the necessary article, which despite its homely construction proved thoroughly efficient. Farmhouse cheeses in those days were large and circular, often well over a foot, even two feet, in diameter, as delicious to the taste as nutritious for the system. Now, one of the stones used by the adroit shepherd bore the inscription "In memory of David Thomas", and those words came out clearly etched on the cheeses. He carried them to St. Clears and was not long before he attracted customers, one of whom having read the inscription on his purchase, observed "You have resurrected this cheese from Llanfihangel churchyard!" This caused much mirth, and thereafter the succulent produce of Trefenty became known throughout the district as "the Resurrection Cheese" — caws yr Atgyfodiad.

Many thanks to the Carmarthenshire Historian website,


where the article by Major Francis Jones was shown.

This tiny stone was between two others, so is presumed to be that of a child.

One of the female gravestones.

If you look carefully, you should see two animals on either side of her arms (for it is a female burial). I think they could be beloved dogs.

A fuller view of the same stone, showing the lattice pattern on the bottom of the stone.

This huge sword denotes the masculine grave and is similar to hogsback graves often found further north.

This is rather broken now, which is a shame.

The other hogsback, again decorated with a massive sword.


Rowan said...

A really interesting post, the gravestones are wonderful, I've never seen any like that before, the child's one is so sad. It sounds a fascinating and atmospheric place. True or not I like the vicar's extempore:)

Vanessa said...

How incredible it must be to live where there is so much history! I just found your blog a couple of weeks ago and am really enjoying your walks.

Arlene Grimm said...

Those grave stones are so interesting. Thanks for sharing Jennie.

Kate said...

Very interesting excursion - the gravestones were impressive. The whole history of the Normans in your part of the world is a fascinating one - the 11th and 12th century were my specialty at university - more concerning what is now France than elsewhere. Thank you for the post!

Morning's Minion said...

Wondering if those gravestones are particular to a very small area or were in wider use in Britain? I'm trying to imagine a tradition of skilled crafters who created these monuments.

Bovey Belle said...

I first heard about these graves on one of Trevor Fishlock's progs. on Welsh tv. He was walking the area and obviously included them in his walk and prog.

Sharon - we have hogsback graves in other parts of Britain and if I were to check, I dare say there are similar graves to these, but they are rareish, especially in this style.

I've been doing some research and will post again tomorrow with what I've found . . . imagine bloodhound with nose to scent!

Kate - I'm not very "up" on the Normans (the Picts - or rather, their art and ECM's were my starter for 10 at Uni). But life is there to cram more learning into, so . . .

Arlene - glad you like them.

Vanessa - hi. Glad you enjoy my walks and the stuff I witter on about . . .

Rowan - the vicar reminded me of a poem I read in my childhood, about nobody coming to the service when someone or other rang the bell? Just checked - it's Kipling:

"The Saxons were keeping Christmas
And the night was strmy as well
And no one came to the service
When Eddi rang the bell."

(Only a bullock and a donkey went to church!)