Monday, April 16, 2012

Going to church in Wales

Small Welsh church in a field

The Welsh word for “church” is “Llan”. The letters ‘Ll’ are pronounced something like an L with a th in front of it. Got that?

On Easter Sunday morning I had planned to take myself into Brecon, 3 or 4 miles away, to attend the service at the 11th century Cathedral they have there. However, when I arrived at the charming Peterstone Court, a country house hotel, I espied a perfectly good church in the field right next door. So it was to the Church of St Peter and St Illtyd, Parish of Llanhamlach, that I made my way on Easter morning. We were a congregation of about 35 - rather a contrast to the 2000-odd in St Paul’s on Good Friday. Also, we didn’t have the luxury of a choir, but we did have a redoubtable matron who played the organ, read the Intercessions and assisted at the Eucharist. A multi-tasker. The church itself is a lovely little stone thing with the de rigeur square Norman bell tower (yes, bells rang) and a mouldering graveyard where daffodils are presently blooming amongst the headstones. 


Locator...Brecon: about 1.5 hours drive from Cardiff

The little church in its churchyard
The Book of Common Prayer was in Welsh and English, but thankfully we had our service in English - not that I would have minded listening to a bit of musical Welsh. We got to sing hymns - three of them - from what seems to be the standard C of E hymnal: “Hymns Old & New”. I was interested to note that amongst the old favourites it included some modern compositions and even something “from the Swahili”. The congregation on Easter Morning at Llanhamlach opened proceedings - as is only proper - with “Christ the Lord is Risen Today”, except the Hymnal had updated the words to “Jesus Christ is Risen Today”, which I regarded as a bit unnecessary. The Hymnal has a preface in which such updating is defended, relying on the example of Wesley’s “Hark The Herald Angels Sing” which was apparently originally “Hark how all the welkin rings.” I remain unconvinced.

Peterstone Court - home for four days

We also had a fine old priest named Randolph with an trained orator’s stentorian voice and plenty of presence. I was quite impressed with the sermon - he made reference to today’s vocal atheists - he struggled a bit with answering their position in three minutes - but  he was very strong on translating the Passion story into a myth-like thing (which I suppose it is), which can be “contextualised” (his word) into everyday life and its struggles. I think he’s on to something there, and Alain de Botton would be impressed. Even Nietzsche might agree with him. He was very friendly to me when I shook his hand upon exit, and in this regard if no other the service exceeded the experience at St Paul’s. Well done, Fr. Randolph.

Signs of Spring.

Brecon Cathedral: 11th Century
In case you think I abandoned the Brecon Cathedral entirely, I can report that I toured it on Easter Saturday. It is not overly large, but a venerable building. In Welsh it is called Eglwys Gadeiriol Aberhonddu. It has been the site of Christian worship for more than 1000 years, having been a Celtic church before the Normans came an built - you guessed it - a square tower. Brecon now has ring of ten bells in its tower, which those of you who have been paying attention will remember is rather rare. Interestingly, in a small museum adjacent there is preserved a couple of bells set in the circular configuration of English churches, so you can get a good look at the mechanism.

Bell example...Brecon

Lovely arches in Brecon Cathedral

In a familiar story for English churches, the Benedictine Priory which ran the place for centuries was uprooted in the dissolution of the monasteries in 1537. The church chugged along as a parish church for ages, then was given the singular honour of being named a Cathedral in 1923 - becoming the Cathedral Church of the newly founded Diocese of Swansea and Brecon. 

The Cathedral has some interesting details, and a military chapel. But the most interesting of all (IMHO) is the font - the oldest object in the church, thought to be Celtic. It is a great stone thing carved with obscure markings. How wonderful that it has been preserved. 

The Celtic font in Brecon Cathedral

Map from:


  1. It's a typical Herefordshire Romanesque font on a later base which has pointed arches and different stone. No such huge Celtic font exists in Wales.

  2. I'm deflated. I would have drawn my excited information from the Cathedral's guide pamphlet or a local guide book.