Brecon study weekend (2)

Inspired by Gwen Awbery’s lecture on the Saturday, we spotted some more Welsh poems on tombstones. This one was at Llanhamlach.

Eich cryfder ir, a’ch glendid hardd,
Fel llysiau gwiw a blodau gardd
Ar fyr a dorir oll i lawr
Gan gystudd hir neu glefyd mawr

Your fresh strength and your lovely beauty
Are like plants and garden flowers
And will soon be cut down
With long tribulation or great sickness.

Believe it or not, this is a verse from a collection of children’s hymns, Casglidu o Hymnau Dewisiol, sef, Gwobr i Blant Da. The hymn begins ‘Ystyriwch ie’ngctyd gwych eich gwedd, Yr ewch chi bawb i rych y bedd’, ‘Remember well, young ones, you are all going to the grave’. You can read the whole thing at .

The tombstone didn’t commemorate a child, though, but a man who died in the prime of life, Watkin Davies of Llechfaen, who died in 1841 aged 38.

This clearly put us in the mood to try out some re-enactment. The parish church at Llanthony seems to have been built out of part of the monastic buildings, probably the infirmary. It has a good collection of 18th and 19th century wall monuments, though oddly none by the Brutes. There is only one tomb slab in the priory ruins, this rather idiosyncratic design

with saltire cross, stylised flowers and fleurs-de-lys pointing inwards from the border.

It didn’t look big enough for a coffin lid. I tried it out. It is big enough.

(Photos are Chris Jones-Jenkin’s.)



Cogan: stone, plaster and hope for the future

The little parish church at Cogan is one of Glamorgan’s oldest churches. Probably a chapel dependent on the minster church of Llandough, it was by the 12th century the church of a manor belonging to the de Cogan family, though the church itself belonged to Tewkesbury Abbey. There is a lot of herringbone masonry in the walls:

in England this would suggest an Anglo-Saxon date but in Wales this style of walling still seems to be found in the twelfth century.

The church sits at the end of a muddy lane in what is now the outskirts of Penarth. Its village was in decline by the sixteenth century; by 1841 there were only three houses there, and the church was derelict. It was rescued by the 3rd Marquess of Bute: though a Catholic, he restored or rebuilt a number of Anglican churches. We would now regard Cogan as one of the lucky ones. Instead of a complete rebuild or a Victorian make-over, he settled for making the building weatherproof and usable. It still has traces of medieval plaster, though the original stone benches around the nave have been boxed in with Victorian wainscot. The painting over the chancel arch must have been a Last Judgement but hardly any of it is decipherable and the cost of conserving what remains is probably disproportionate.

Now the church needs more repair. Earth has piled up against the walls, creating damp problems, and the old drains are broken and clogged. There is only a small congregation but an enthusiastic band of Friends is raising money. After the necessary repairs, they have great plans. There is a lot of tumbled stone in the graveyard, possibly from older buildings. The Friends want to construct a new building in the graveyard to house a catering facility (you can’t call it a kitchen if you want the HLF on board) and toilets, and possibly a meeting room. This would mean the church could be used for concerts and other events.

First step has been to dig out and replace the old drains and lift the rotting suspended wooden floor. At this point John Davies of the Welsh Stone Forum happened by, got very excited about the stone floor this revealed, and arranged a study visit. Meanwhile, the chancel floor had been lifted, revealing these seventeenth-century ledger stones commemorating members of the Herbert family of Cogan Pill.

No cross slabs, alas, but some finely-carved heraldry and well lettered inscriptions: this is the work of one of the better local firms of stonemasons. The floor is that shelly lias that we saw at Merthyr Dyfan and Cadoxton, lumpy and laid in random slabs like crazy paving, strange material for a floor. It seems unlikely that it was hauled all the way from the coast, so there must be a local outcrop somewhere.

On the wall outside is an impressive monument under a cornice, commemorating John Davies and his wife Mary, who died in 1800. According to local tradition this was carved by none other than Edward Williams, Iolo Morgannwg, forger, polymath and radical, but we could see no evidence for this. It could be him, though.

Here is Jana surveying the  other memorials underneath it – but they are piled up against the wall and adding to the damp. Where can they go?


The Monmouthshire Antiquarians and the Gwent County History Association spent Saturday in Llangwm at the invitation of the local history society. Llangwm is not so much a village as a scatter of houses, but with a much-used village hall, two churches and a chapel. It was the heartland of early Puritanism in Wales, and the great Walter Cradock was minister there under the Commonwealth.

We started the day in the village hall with a talk from the Gwent archivist, Tony Hopkins, on the commonplace book kept by a seventeenth-century landowner of the parish, John Gwyn. He was Cradock’s brother-in-law, an enthusiast for new methods of farming and fruit growing and an inveterate collector of medical recipes and snippets of local and family knowledge.

We then wandered down to the furthest of the churches, Llangwm Uchaf, now in the care of the Friends of Friendless Churches. Its great glory is its rood screen –

and detail of the carving –

some of this is medieval, some dates to John Seddon’s restoration of the church in c.1870.

And in the churchyard is this delightfully crude eighteenth-century carving of Adam and Eve on the grave of a local farming couple.

The tree is beautifully detailed and the serpent is curved around it but the two figures are hardly differentiated at all and are both wearing little loincloths of leaves.

The inscription reads

In Memory
of Anne the wife of James Thomas
of this Parish who Died Decr the 23rd
1796 Aged 50 years

To Faith and Charity her heart inclind
Gentle prudent and of an easy mind.
Ready to forgive fearfull to offend
Faithfull to her husband, true to her friend.
Her course she finished & resigned her breath
In pursuit of Heaven through ye val of Death.

Also in Memory of James Thomas
Who died Decr ye 13th 1808 Aged 83 Years.


The church is now in the care of the Friends of Friendless Churches ( Digging around the outside of the building to deal with drainage problems, they found another tombstone commemorating some of John Gwyn’s family and recording a gruesome local murder.

What they could decipher of it read

Here lyeth the body of Joan Gwyn
The wife of John Gwyn of the parish
[this is Joan sister of Walter Cradock and wife of the John Gwyn who kept the commonplace book]
Who departed this life in the year 1690
Here lyeth the body of Craddock
Gwyn of this parish who departed this
life … 1725
[this is John and Joan’s son, named after his uncle]
Here lyeth the body of Elizabeth
Gwyn, the wife of Craddock Gwyn of this
Parish, who was murdered in her own home …
of … 1743
Aged 31 years
… body that
Bloody villain
Who coveted both gold and hand  … only be.

This event took place at the Gwyn family home, Pwll Farm, and according to local folklore you can still see the bloodstains at the bottom of the stairs. There are more Gwyn family tombs in the churchyard.

Bull Cliff Marble

This is a preliminary posting while it’s fresh in my mind – more to come when Mike Statham and Tim Palmer do a proper write-up of the lithology. Iolo Morgannwg, stonemason, antiquarian, imaginative inventor of Welsh history and general polymath, identified something he called ‘Bull Clifft marble’ in the cliffs between Barry and Porthkerry, at the mouth of the Nant Cidi.


He was keen to promote the use of local decorative stones as an alternative to marble (Italian marble being difficult to get hold of during the Napoleonic wars) and identified a number of earlier memorials made in what he described as Bull Cliff marble in local churches. At St Andrews Major he reported:

In the East part of the North Aisle of St. Andrew’s Church on a black marble ledger (Bull clifft), well polished, is the following remarkable inscription, the ledger is also of the following form, and is the oldest that I ever saw in Glamorgan without a cross on it.

He then drew the stone with an inscription commemorating

John Gibbon James buried the 14 of August 1601 and Margaret Mathew his wife buried the 8 of January An Do 1631. He aged 99 she aged 124.

(Iolo was particularly interested in tombstones recording people who died at an advanced age.)

Iolo’s ‘Bull Clifft marble’ seems to be dark grey or even black, but there are monuments in other local churches described in guides as ‘Bull Cliff stone’ but made of a much paler blue-grey stone.

So we assembled a group from the Welsh Stone Forum and went off to have a look. Here we are heading towards the actual Bull Cliff


and looking at what seems to be the stone Iolo was describing.


It’s a liassic limestone with very characteristic small flat oyster shells (Liostrea hisingeri) which would clearly polish up very nicely.



We had with us Mike Statham’s brother Ian who is a retired geological engineer and was pretty confident that we were looking at evidence of quarrying. What we had assumed was erosion by the sea, he suggested was deliberate removal of mudstone and shaly overburden to get at good building stone and the shelly ‘marble’. Once that had been taken away we were left with a flat pavement, with too many fissures to make it useful.


Well, once he said it, we could see it quite clearly!

So on we went to Cadoxton church. Mike and I had been there already looking for this (now on the south wall but from the wording clearly a ledgerstone)


which Geoff Orrin in his Medieval Churches of the Vale of Glamorgan describes as being Bull Cliff marble. It looks quite different from the stone on the beach but Tim Palmer said it was the same stone on the basis of the small oyster shells (difficult to see because of weathering of the stone but he had his magnifying glass and could identify them quite clearly). There is another ledgerstone in the same stone mounted on the south wall


and this one at the back of the church


which looks similar but doesn’t seem to have the same fossils.

Apparently there were ledgerstones under the carpet. We didn’t have time to move the carpet as we had to get on to St Andrews, but Mike and I went back a few days later and found these in the chancel





and these just west of the nave steps.



Most but clearly not all are Bull Cliff stone. Lovely little cherubs (the one on the Rosser ledgerstone looks as though it’s wearing glasses)


and copybook commemorative poems.



There’s a lot of local gossip about the families in the wonderful diary of William Thomas (published by the South Wales Record Society, For example: he records George Rosser’s death on 28th May, 1764

of about 70 yrs. of age from a very sudden death. He rose the 27th in the morning and Eated his Breakfast and went about the fields, and soon after his return some reaches took him tht in a few hours he Expired. Some sort of a Merry man, had his Life inthat House and land in Eley after his mother which was daughter of late Thomas Howel of Eley decease, which his mother and he had run in debt, to the Lord of the mannor, and the Land rented out to Tho. Collins senr. Deceased to pay it, he went to the great house in Swanbridge to keep an alehouse and a Shop where about this 20 yrs. past he broke, and had £15 of the poor’s money of St. Andrews on use, the Lease of the parishioners, and went to Pencotre where he kept an alehouse, till this 10 or 11 yrs. past that the land in Eley came free and he went there and paid the money to St. Andrews parish, and came well up, but these few years past he rented Barry Island of Sir Edm Tho (which he had given up to Biss of the Holms last Candlemas) and made not much gains of that – the house and Land in Eley after his life went from the family, he Left behind him two sons and two daughters.

There’s also a lot of roughly finished Bull Cliff stone in the actual fabric of the church – sanctuary steps, tower steps – and a wedge-shaped stone in the north side of the chancel which could be a medieval coffin lid. Also mooching around the churchyard I spotted this,


the design a copy of a medieval four-circle or bracelet cross. I’ve not seen anything like this on a modern gravestone but then I probably wasn’t looking.

On to St Andrews – where Iolo’s stone is nowhere to be seen inside the church. There is however a stone against the outside north wall which could be it – very much weathered and doesn’t look like Bull Cliff at all but Tim says the change in colour is lichen. The inscription is totally illegible by daylight so we plan to go back one evening and see what we can do with a raking light.

More on that again.



Llanfrynach: multum in parvo

Llanfrynach is a little church in the fields just west of Cowbridge. Access is down a narrow, rutted lane; there is no parking space, no electricity, no loos. It was clearly the centre of a dispersed settlement but by the seventeenth century most people were living to the north in Penllyn. The journey they had to make across the fields for funerals is marked by a line of coffin stiles, double stiles with a central support to rest the coffin while the bearers clambered over. A church was built in Penllyn in the nineteenth century and Llanfrynach is little used now, but it is still clearly much loved.  There are recent burials and flowers in the graveyard. While we were measuring up the medieval carvings, two lots of visitors arrived, both with families from the area.

Llanfrynach is one of those churches you keep coming back to. I went there first in the mid 1990s when I was working on churches in the landscape. There was a suggestion of a Roman site just to the north of the church, so this could have been an example of an early church deriving from a late Roman house or estate church. There were Welsh poems on some of the gravestones in the churchyard so Gwen Awbrey came there with me. Our daughters were in the Welsh primary school together, so while Gwen deciphered the poems and I looked at the surrounding fields the girls made rubbings of tomb carvings. Apparently they were designing tombstones for their friends in school the next week. Gwen and I waited in some trepidation for a call from the headmaster, and planned to blame each other.

The church itself is a fascinating building. Much of the original 12th century building survives. There is a narrow chancel arch and a stone bench all round the nave. There are faint traces of medieval wall paintings to the south of the altar – a crown of thorns or a vine trail, with bunches of grapes. But it was not until my third visit, with a young French student who was working on Welsh wall paintings, that I realised that the east end of the church is virtually paved with medieval tombstones.


Even the doorstep is a late 13th century cross slab.


There are also some of those enigmatic post-Reformation cross slabs so typical of south-east Wales and so rare elsewhere. To complicate the picture still further, some of the medieval stones have lettering suggesting they were reused in the seventeenth century, and others are so battered it’s difficult to put a date to them.

Planning out and analysing this jumble of medieval and post-medieval slabs was clearly going to take some doing. My French cousin Amy is here for Christmas and happy to spend a day on her knees with tape measure and note pad. The church key lives in the Cross Inn, just up the road. Yes, they could do lunch for a vegan. We were in business.

The cross slabs date from the thirteenth to the seventeenth centuries. Probably the oldest is this one


If you saw it in Yorkshire you would probably say 12th century but in north Wales it could be as late as 1300. The lettering MT 1670 is a later addition.

Then there are a number of floriated crosses in circles and quatrefoils. As well as the doorstep, there is one built into the roof of the rood loft stairs


a tiny cross head, 30 x 26 cm, which may have covered a heart burial


and this splendid one,


137 x 70 cm, with an elaborate head


and lovely detailed oak leaves springing from the shaft.


There are traces of writing incised round the border but all we could identify was a capital G. It looked Lombardic in style, so it may have been contemporary with the cross.

This very plain cross set in the chancel floor


is probably late medieval, and this stumpy base


could also be early 16th century. We thought long and hard about the two very plain crosses in the sanctuary floor. Both are in the very simple four-line style of the post-medieval crosses in Llantwit Major and elsewhere in the Vale of Glamorgan. We thought this one


might be pre-Reformation. The wedge shape would mean an even earlier date in England but you still find this coffin-lid shape in Wales in the seventeenth century. But the absence of any inscription seems to suggest earlier rather than later. This one on the other hand


is so very crudely carved, with space for a lengthy inscription below the cross, that we eventually decided it was post-medieval. It could even be as late as the date carved on it, the letter M and a date beginning 16… .

Then there are the clearly dated post-medieval stones. A little cross slab which has clearly been repositioned (it now forms part of the southern sanctuary step)




(Orrin has transcribed this as commemorating William and Elinor but the reading above is quite clear.)

Against the south wall of the sanctuary, and possibly in its original position, is a sizeable slab


with a cross whose design I have not seen elsewhere. Orrin describes it as ‘a cross moliné with fishtail base’ but the base seems feathered like wings.


What the symbolism could be, either the fish or the wings, we can only guess.


The cross commemorates two more members of the Turberville clan:




The Turbervilles held the Penllyn estate in the seventeenth century and were connected to the Turbervilles of Sker. Both families were at one time defiantly Catholic: the Jesuit priest St Philip Evans was arrested at Sker in 1678 and it was at the Turberville house in Penllyn that St John Lloyd was arrested in the same year. Both men suffered the horrific death of hanging, drawing and quartering the following year. In this case, then, the crosses and the Latin on the second slab could reflect the family’s religious standpoint. On the other hand, the older Christopher (husband of Elinor and father of William) was High Sheriff of Glamorgan in 1616, and there are plenty of examples of post-Reformation cross slabs from impeccably orthodox families.

Oh, and the coffin stile in the churchyard.


Could the coping stone on the western pillar


be part of a medieval coped  grave cover?