‘Where England ends half way across a field’ in the Vale of Ewylas, we followed a trail that led eventually to ‘the cleft Church at Cwmyoy, its displaced gravity’ (in Geoffrey Hill’s words from Comus). Unique since no part of it is square or at right angles with any other part, the church tower tilts at an alarming angle that outleans the Tower of Pisa. It’s an astonishing building that stands beneath a crag on the slope of a hillside with scarcely a house in sight.
The way to Cwmyoy lay for us through the neighbouring Grwyne Fawr valley and a circular walk through the ancient woodland of Coed y Cerrig Nature Reserve hidden away in the southern part of Black Mountains. The walk began and finished by the stream that wends through an unusual type of alder woodland. Some areas of the woodland are still coppiced to maintain this unique habitat.
Today this tranquil valley feels miles from anywhere, yet many features of the terrain reflect the influence of industry that once thrived here. The quiet road that runs through the reserve was once a railway line which was used to transport men and materials into the Black Mountains to build the Grwyne Fawr reservoir, nearly a century ago. Wood from the surrounding trees was cut to lay the sleepers for the line and the track was laid on bundled brushwood.
The woods themselves were also the site of light industry: the nearby village is named Forest Coalpit, while several charcoal hearths have been found, suggesting that the process of charcoal burning was carried out here. They once felled trees here to be transported to Yorkshire to make clogs.
Now, all of that is in the past and this is a place of peace and enchantment. Climbing out of the woodland, we emerged into a magical, hidden meadow. Known locally as The Pant or hollow, the track traversed the slope of the meadow past a pond and an old house with walled garden and orchard. Ahead lay the dark ridge of the Black Mountains.
Soon we turned onto a sunken lane, following it steeply downhill back to to the valley floor. Crossing an open field the peace of the morning was shattered by the scream of a low-flying jet fighter – so low that I ducked instinctively.
Finally we dropped back down to the marshy woodland floor, where in the spring the wet ground hosts orchids, bluebells and marsh marigolds. A boardwalk too us back to the place where we had started.
Where the Vale of Ewylas broadens to the south, beyond Llanthony, and approached along a twisting single track overarched by high hedges and trees, we find the church of St Martin at Cwmyoy. It stands back from the lane, up the hillside, surrounded by fields with the ridge that carries the Offa’s Dyke path looming above. As for the village of Cymyoy, it seems as indefinable as early morning mist, its dwellings scattered far and wide along the valley.
The church is an astonishing sight. Unbeknown to its 12th century builders (how could they have known?), it was built on ground where there had been a major landslip towards the end of the Ice Age in debris left by glaciation of the valley. Above the church is a great gash on the side of the mountain caused by the landslide and it is this feature which gives the church and village its name Cwmyoy, the valley of the yoke.
The subsidence continued and the church began to lean in every direction, even out-performing the Leaning Tower of Pisa in its waywardness. Where Pisa is 4.7 degrees out of alignment, the tower of St Martin’s leans at 5.2 degrees, a gravity-defying six feet out of true. Yet the church still stands, thanks to the skill of its architects and builders – and some strategic buttressing in the last two centuries.
Simon Jenkins, writing in the Guardian in 2006, captured the spirit of the place very well:
This place almost defies description. It was begun in the 12th century, but soon after the building of the tower some pre-jurassic echo shifted the old red sandstone over the marl and caused the mountainside to heave. The tower lurched to the north, more visibly than the tower of Pisa. The chancel lurched south. The intervening walls buckled and twisted so that a plan of the building looks as if the draftsman was drunk. The churchyard headstones rock and tilt in sympathy, as if their occupants are spinning in their graves. Mercifully there were no medieval building inspectors, and buttresses were simply slammed up against walls wherever appropriate. The church sticks to its hillside by a farmyard, utterly alone, its walls, roofs and tower tumbling down the slope as if architecture had become anthropomorphic and Cwmyoy was a crazy, gurning contortionist.
The place is as enchanting and disconcerting inside as out. It is a galleon in a storm, with half the contents about to disappear through the poop window. Most astonishing is that the original 13th-century roof stays in place, married to the tilting walls with massive tie-beams. The arch dividing nave and chancel is naked of adornment, as if awaiting the next arrival of its stonemason surgeon. The walls are of soft yellow plaster, the floor of good Welsh flagstone. Medieval windows are tentative, hardly daring to interrupt the Herculean walls as they wrestle to keep the building upright. Nowhere better testifies to gravity as God’s own civil engineer.
There are many interesting inscriptions on the graves in the churchyard and the memorials inside the church (some are shown in the gallery below). One inscription, on the grave of a mother of 34, buried with her son aged three days, reads:
The old must die, we are all agree,
Likewise the young, you plainly see.
Therefore prepare, and pray for grace,
For here is no abiding place.
Inside the church, one inscription reads, ‘Better death than a long illness’, while two memorials set into the window surrounds tell of the short lives of some of those who buried here. One is inscribed to the memory of ‘Mary, daughter of M. Williams of ye Sharpal. She died Feb 2nd, 1788, AGED 8 years’. Also of Mary, her sister, She died September 27th 1790, Aged 14 weeks.’
I was but young, and Death came soon
My sun was set before ’twas noon
My glass was run’d, god thought it best
To take me to Eternal rest.
On the opposite side of the window another memorial records the death of another of Mary Williams’ children – Joan, ‘who died on the 19th day of July, 1781. Aged 3 years.’ But then, on the wall opposite there are memorials to James Prosser who died June 17th 1814 at the goodly age of 81 years, while his wife Elizabeth lived on for another 15 years, having reached the impressive age of 95 when she died on August 23rd, 1829.
Most intriguing, though, was Tom Price’s memorial with its irregular lettering and words that might have come from a verse penned by William Blake. Dated 1682, the inscription reads:
Thomas Price he takes his nap
In our common mother lap
Waiting to heare the Bridegroom say
Awake my dear and come away.
I was confused at first by the bridegroom bit, but it seems that Christ was sometimes referred to as the heavenly bridegroom.
Gallery: the church at Cwmyoy
Why visit old churches if you’re not a believer? In the same article quoted earlier, Simon Jenkins writes:
These churches are beyond religion. We need not believe in God to enter them and sense the presence of the past. I am always overwhelmed by the thought that our ancestors saw these ancient buildings as theirs in hope and in pain, a source of consolation in ritual. Here they turned from the crises and miseries of rural life because a priest promised them comfort today and salvation hereafter, and they believed him. As a non-Christian I may have no time for the promise, but I respect the belief. These are the creeds that conditioned my civilisation and fashioned my ideas. Buried in these stones is Britain’s cultural gene.
Later, we followed a trail through the forest of Mynydd Ddu that cloaks the upper reaches of the Grwyne Fawr valley. Once clear of the forest, the trail provided an encounter with a pair of Welsh cobs and panoramic views across the Black Mountains, including the distinctive profile of the Skirrid.
Gallery: a walk on Mynydd Ddu
- St Martin’s Church, Cwmyoy: page with more information and photos