Sunday, 20 December 2009

St John the Baptist, Llanblethian

Tucked away to the south of Cowbridge, the prosperous village of Llanblethian feels more like a suburb of the larger market town, but Cowbridge was in fact founded (in the 13th century) within the older parish of Llanblethian. It is fitting, then, that Llanblethian has a very fine, well-preserved mediaeval church, located in an enviable position at the top of a overlooking the River Thaw and its newer neighbour.


The earliest documentary evidence for the church is a charter from the mid 12th Century, when it was a possession of Tewkesbury abbey. The current fabric dates from between the 12th and 15th centuries, the most notable additions being the tower (said to have been the gift of Anne Neville, wife of Richard III, in 1477) and a substantial late-Gothic porch with pinnacles. The inevitable Victorian restoration stripped the interior of its plaster, but it is still atmospheric and beautifully maintained. The church was originally dedicated to St Bleddian, the Welsh form of St Lupus, the 5th-century Bishop of Troyes who (according to tradition) accompanied Germanus on his visit to Britain in 429AD.

The church

From the outside, the church presents a simple plan of west tower, nave and chancel, with a substantial south transept and adjoining south porch. The 15th century tower is reminiscent of those of Somerset, with stepped diagonal buttressing, pretty traceried bell openings, battlements and corner pinnacles. On entering, the interior is dominated by those stripped walls, but is softened by a beautiful roof, with sturdy arched bracing, and a generous collection of wall memorials dating from the 17th century onwards. Indeed, more ancient memorials cover the floor throughout, as well as the walls of the porch.

The chancel arch in the Early English style is clearly modern, but the tower arch is original, with two wonderful corbels of rather stout men in late 15th Century costume. The tower space contains a number of ancient tomb slabs with crosses, presumably from the tombs of earlier priests. The south wall of the transept incorporates a large Gothic niche containing a mediaeval effigy of a priest; investigations in the crypt uncovered a skeleton of a man - presumably a priest - holding a pewter chalice to his chest. The chalice is now in the church’s possession. Other fittings of note include an ancient wooden door in the north wall, a handsome modern wooden reredos, and some attractive Victorian stained glass.

The church will amply repay a visit; note that the roads in the village are both steep and subject to width restrictions.

St John the Baptist, Church Road, Llanblethian, CF71 7JF

Saturday, 19 December 2009

Holy Cross Church, Cowbridge

Cowbridge is a small, prosperous market town, roughly half way between Cardiff and Bridgend. Although there is some evidence of Roman occupation, a mediaeval walled town was founded by charter in 1254 within the older parish of Llanblethian. The centre of the town still retains its mediaeval street plan, including the South Gate.

Church history

The parish church was originally built as a Chapel of Ease of the parish church in Llanblethian, and was probably founded along with the town. Until the 20th century it was dedicated to St Mary. Although the church contains elements from the 13th century, the most remarkable feature is its semi-fortified tower, built around 1300.

The church was extended in the 14th and 15th centuries, and restored by John Pritchard between 1848 and 1853, and by George Pace in the 20th century. A recent grant from Cadw, the Welsh Historic Monuments agency, has restored the tower to its mediaeval appearance, complete with external rendering. The building is listed at Grade 1.

The building

The church is tucked away off the High Street, a short walk from the old Grammar School and the remaining mediaeval south gate. Looking from Church Street, the building is dominated by its massive, squat, tower: hugely buttressed and with a projecting staircase, it is surmounted by an octagonal battlement. Other notable external features are the substantial south aisle, almost as large as the nave, and a large north chancel chapel, now used as a vestry.

Inside, the combination of the nave and south aisle make for a spacious interior, with an arcade of elegant clustered piers separating the two. There is no crossing as such, the space under the tower leading to the heavily-Victorianised chancel.

The most notable fittings are two memorials. The first is a very fine Jacobean memorial to William Carne, of Nash Manor, and his wide Elizabeth, located in the South Aisle. They are depicted facing each other, with their three sons and daughters below as mourners. The women are dressed identically in black, the men in armour, all with fine ruffs. The other is an elegant 18th century memorial to the extensive family of David Jenkins (d. 1664) in the nave.

Both nave and aisle are filled with low (and apparently very uncomfortable) mid-Victorian box pews, although some of these have been removed in the nave and there are plans to remove even more. While this creates a large flexible space, I am less sure about the choice of bright red for both seats and carpet, which for me rather jars with the mediaeval and Victorian fabric. On a jollier note, the church was filled with Christmas trees on my visit, each donated by a different group or institution, as part of a Christmas festival.

The church is the centre of a very busy parish life, which encompasses a total of eleven churches.

Holy Cross, Church St, Cowbridge CF71 7BB