Forty-two years ago, believe it or not, on the Glorious Twelfth of August 1971, I was married. This was before Women’s Lib had reached Wales, and I distinctly remember promising to obey the rather bewildered young man by my side. We are still married but we soon reached an agreement on the whole obedience business, whereby I accepted I had promised to obey as long as he never actually told me to do anything. It seems to have worked.
So how did we celebrate the anniversary – well, we went to church, but mainly to look at some medieval tombstones. How romantic, our daughter said. Merthyr Mawr in the Vale of Glamorgan is most famous for its early medieval carved stones, but it also has a good collection of the later medieval (13th and 14th century, mainly) cross slabs and two very battered effigies. We photographed and measured them and were pleased that two of them came to 42 cm – and by a very strange coincidence we managed to take 42 photos.
Jigsaw puzzle time.
These three don’t exactly fit together but they must be part of the same stone. It’s quite an unusual design, with the cross in high relief instead of being incised, and you tend to assume it must have commemorated someone of considerable local importance.
The stones used to be kept in a sort of bike shed behind the church, the main security precaution being that no-one knew they were there. A few years ago, the shed was rebuilt, the stones were reset and an interpretation board was put up –and then the problems started. The stones are now much more visible and one has been stolen. Worse, attempts have been made to prise off the metal supports from some of the stones, and they have been damaged in the process. The new arrangement has also caused problems. Some of the larger stones are set into the concrete floor of the shelter. There is a membrane between the stone and the concrete but this still isn’t ideal. The shed is open on one side and some of the stones are badly affected by damp and lichen.
Then there are the effigies. Most churches are more aware of the importance of effigy tombs and neglect their cross slabs. Possibly because they are already aware of the importance of the earlier inscribed stones, the community at Merthyr Mawr has made an effort to look after the later cross slabs, but the two effigies are out in the churchyard, overgrown and clearly vulnerable to weather and grass strimming.
But what to do, in these straitened times? Can funding be raised to re-set the stones, move the effigies and rebuild the shelter so that it has a toughened glass wall, allowing visitors to see but not to touch the stones? The church is now on the Wales Coastal Path and should be a local attraction, but at the moment it’s difficult to see how to invite visitors to the stones without making them more vulnerable.
There is also a proposal for a Merthyr Mawr and Laleston Stones trail which would take visitors inland along a medieval pilgrimage route on the way to the shrine of the Holy Rood at Llangynwyd. There are medieval tombstones in Laleston church, and the bases of wayside crosses along the road to Llangynwyd. Laleston had two early medieval carved crosses but these are now in the National Museum. One local group wanted to commission replicas of these to install in their original location, but it might be better to provide digital impressions of how they would have looked as part of an interpretation package.
And it would be good to be able to link this with a trail looking at the early carved stones at Llandaff, Llandough, Llancarfan and Llantwit Major … and to go on to Margam … back to the Cistercian Way?