If the stones of Snowdonia’s churches could speak, they’d have plenty of fascinating tales to tell. Here are ten you won’t want to miss.
Many of Snowdonia‘s churches, though of medieval or later construction, were founded in the ‘age of saints‘ – roughly, the 5th and 6th centuries. They’ve survived attacks from Viking invaders and English kings, neglect, and the passage of time – yet still live to tell their tales which, if stones could speak, would be numerous and fascinating.
Incidentally, a word about the etymology of the word ‘llan’, which you’ll see in many place names in Wales: in ancient times, a ‘llan’ was an enclosure around a piece of land, but the word has evolved to mean the parish surrounding a church – so wherever you see a place name beginning with Llan-, the likelihood is there’s an old church nearby.
With a region as large as Snowdonia, of course it would be impossible to talk here about every old church in the area – so let’s look at ten of our favourites for starters.
1. St Hywyn’s, Aberdaron
St Hywyn’s in Aberdaron is really old, with parts of the building dating back to the 11th century. One of the 20th century’s most celebrated poets, RS Thomas, was vicar of St Hywyn’s from 1967 to 1978, and there’s an exhibition about him in the church. There are also tombstones that date to the late fifth or early sixth century.
2. St Tanwg’s, Llandanwg
St Tanwg’s at Llandanwg, near Harlech, peeks out from the sand dunes as if it’s playing hide and seek with visitors. It’s a sweet, ancient little church, which for centuries was neglected and even used by fishermen as a place to dry nets. The church has been restored and is a beautiful, peaceful place to visit – well worth the trip.
3. St Beuno’s, Clynnog Fawr
St Beuno’s in Clynnog Fawr was an important stopping point along the pilgrim route to Bardsey; the generosity of pilgrims paid for the grand architecture, and the special chest – said to be carved from a single piece of ash – that tributes were collected in during medieval times is still in the church today. Look out for the 10th century sundial in the churchyard, and the pre-WWII graffiti inside the lychgate roof.
4. St Brothen’s, Llanfrothen
The age of St Brothen’s at Llanfrothen is testament to the strength of the local community – the church structure is mostly 13th century with 15th-19th century additions, but the site dates back to at least the 6th century. The church is redundant now, but being in the care of Friends of Friendless Churches, you’ll still be able to visit and explore, even if you won’t catch a service.
5. St Mary’s, Beddgelert
St Mary’s in Beddgelert is one of Wales’ oldest religious foundations, and was even written about by Giraldus Cambrensis, the medieval chronicler. St Mary’s was burned down by Edward I’s troops during the English assaults on Wales during the 13th century, so Edward had the church rebuilt. A few parts of his structure remain, but most of the building now is Victorian.
6. Bangor Cathedral
Bangor Cathedral has had quite an eventful history, since the foundation of St Deiniol’s monastic cell in around 525AD. The site’s earliest buildings were destroyed by the Vikings, and the Norman church that replaced them was burned down by King John in 1210. After being rebuilt in the 13th and 14th centuries, Bangor Cathedral also underwent restoration in the 19th century – but there are still many original medieval features to see, so it’s well worth a visit.
7. St Mark’s, Brithdir
St Mark’s at Brithdir, near Dolgellau, has been described as “one of the most remarkable Arts and Crafts churches in Britain” (Simon Jenkins in “Wales: Churches, Houses, Castles” – Allen Lane/Penguin, 2008). “Where we might expect a modest rural chapel is a looming structure of Transylvanian gloom”, Jenkins says. It’s inside that the church really excels. The style is Italian Romanesque, with rounded arches and niches, a beaten copper font embellished with roses and angels, and choir stalls festooned with rabbits, squirrels, mice and an owl.
8. St Baglan’s, Llanfaglan
The church of St Baglan, at Llanfaglan near Caernarfon, enjoys a wild and peaceful setting close to Foryd Bay. This is another of those wonderful Snowdonia churches that is medieval in build, but on a much older site; a stone over the door is dated to the 6th century. A whitewashed interior is topped with a roof of apparently original beams, and in the field nearby is an ancient holy well which has been filled in but still retains its stone seat.
9. St Gwynhoedl’s, Llangwnadl
Near Morfa Nefyn on the Llyn Peninsula lies Llangwnadl, with its little pilgrimage church dedicated to St Gwynhoedl. What’s interesting about Gwynhoedl is that he was the son of a chieftain called Seithenyn, who was blamed for the drowning of Cantre’r Gwaelod, the lost land that according to legend was situated in Cardigan Bay. Inscriptions record the saint’s burial and of the construction of the arcade in 1520. The king’s head on the font is rumoured to be in the likeness of Henry VIII.
10. St Twrog’s, Maentwrog
One of the most fascinating things about St Twrog’s church in Maentwrog, near Blaenau Ffestiniog, is the legend of the stone. “Maen” is a word for ‘stone’ in Welsh, so the village name of Maentwrog means ‘Twrog’s stone’. What’s the legend? A giant, Twrog, threw a boulder in order to destroy a pagan altar. He succeeded, and today the stone remains, with Twrog’s handprints purportedly still visible on it. The yews in the churchyard are said to be 1300 years old.