Student field trips, I have found, are not just for the students. We often get a few additional listeners – last time we went to Llandaff there were more Cathedral welcomers than students and I had to adapt what I was saying to a different audience. Our visit to Brecon turned into a rolling seminar with members of the local NADFAS group who have been surveying the Havard chapel adding their insights.
And I learn things as well. Two years ago, Gareth Kinnear and his fellow students spotted two of those enigmatic post-medieval cross slabs at Abergavenny and Partrishow. This year it was Justin Edmunds’ turn to find still more stones that I hadn’t seen before in Abergavenny (http://www.heritagetortoise.co.uk/2015/11/abergavenny-three-more-post-reformation-cross-slabs/ ). To be honest I’m not sure which of us spotted the 17th century stone with a Welsh poem at Brecon (http://www.heritagetortoise.co.uk/2015/11/brecon-cathedral-another-discovery/ ), but I wouldn’t have seen it without the students.
So it was with great hopes that I set off for Quakers Yard, just north of Pontypridd, on an exceptionally wet and windy afternoon. One of this year’s students lives there and was keen for us to see the original Quakers’ Yard, a burial ground given to local members of the Religious Society of Friends in the later seventeenth century. Friends (‘Quakers’ was originally an insulting name for them) believed that the burial practices of the established church and of many nonconformists were ‘popish’. They wanted a Biblical austerity and were prepared to suffer for it. Initially they had no memorials for their dead: but the human desire for some sort of marker led them to consider using plain stones and sometimes small semicircular stones with just the name or even the initials of the dead person. According to the documents the Friends had not one but two burial grounds in this corner of the upper Taff valley. My colleague Richard Allen is working on a study of Friends’ burial practices in Wales which he hopes to publish next year.
We started in the graveyard above the roundabout on the A470. Plenty of ‘Quaker’ style memorials – these are some of Nathan’s photos –
But the problem is that, as we subsequently found, this graveyard was in the nineteenth century the churchyard of an Anglican church. Here it is on the Old Merthyr Tydfil web site (http://www.alangeorge.co.uk/old_merthyr.htm ) – http://www.alangeorge.co.uk/Images_D-H/FiddlersElbow_StCynonsChurch-and-School.jpg . So this has raised more questions than it answers. Were these monuments Friends buried in the Anglican churchyard … or Anglicans borrowing Quaker simplicity for their monuments …
We went on to the better-documented Friends burial ground just over the road from the Quakers’ Yard Inn – here’s an aerial photo http://www.alangeorge.co.uk/e-comon/Images_Q-T/QuakersYard_Bridge_andBurialGround_JudithJones.jpg . Recently restored, but then vandalised, it has lost all its minimalist Quaker memorials and just has one very conventional ledgerstone set in the grass.
Then a discussion in the pub suggested that there might be Quaker burials in the old chapel graveyard behind the Quakers’ Yard Inn. We couldn’t get in there but we are making more enquiries.
Finally, a modern take on commemoration. Near the little Quaker burial ground is a telegraph pole called the Death Post. Whenever someone local dies, their funeral times and locations are posted on there for everyone to see. One local says he “walks the dog past there every day, just to make sure he’s not dead”.
Our final field trip was planned for Tuesday 24 November and we were going to Partrishow, Llanthony and Cwm-iou. The first and third churches have a splendid selection of wall monuments and ledger stones carved by the famous local famly of stonemasons, the Brutes. The wall monuments are particularly endearing, with chubby-cheeked cherubs in blue nighties, blowing trumpets and surrounded by swags of fruit and flowers. Death has seldom seemed so cheerful. I’m trying to plan a visit to Brecon and these border churches with the Church Monuments Society and the Ledgerstones Survey group, so I was particularly keen to look at the floor slabs, which I felt I hadn’t spent enough time on in previous visits.
Unfortunately, fate took a hand. We are aware that things are being run gradually down on our campus, as we will be closed at the end of the academic year. The minibus clearly hadn’t had any care and attention for some time. It failed to make the last hill up to Partrishow, and when we tried to get the students out to walk the last bit the door fell off. We did manage to get up the hill, and the church was as lovely as ever. As well as the monuments it has its late medieval rood screen and two original side altars, lots of post-medieval wall paintings including a towering Death figure and a text warning you that the powers that be are ordained of God. As well as the main church there is a ‘cell-y-bedd’, an annexe traditionally said to be over the grave of the founder saint. As a reminder that this is a remote location and seldom had a full-time priest, there is a little stone shed in the churchyard where a visiting clergyman could stable his horse and keep dry clothes. And down the road is St Issui’s well, still a site of considerable devotion. As well as the usual ribbons and decorations, we found a pair of spectacles and a miniature flip-flop sandal. Money is hammered into the trees overhanging the well.
But the minibus could not be healed – two students with motor mechanic experience got the door back on but it wasn’t safe to drive. Reluctantly we made our way back to campus.
I wrote a poem.
The minibus struggled up the hill,
Its wheels were all a quiver,
It gave a cough –
the door fell off –
and the students started to shiver.
De minibus non curat Lex, as they don’t quite say.