During our week on Anglesey we walked a couple of sections of the coastal path that each led us past an interesting and unusual church. One walk began in Aberffraw, a sizeable village on the southwest coast of the island where the Afon Ffraw debouches into an extensive area of dunes fronted by another stunning beach framed by expansive views of the Snowdon mountain range. An old hump-back bridge spans the river Ffraw here; built in 1731, it was part of the main road into Aberffraw until it was bypassed in 1932.
The 18th century bridge at Aberffraw
I must admit that I’d never heard of Aberffraw before coming here. Yet in early medieval times this place was the ‘capital’ of the kingdom of Gwynedd. For over 800 years the Gwynedd dynasty ruled great swathes of Wales from a royal palace here. The dynasty, established by a chieftain from Strathclyde who came here to expel the Irish from North Wales, resisted Saxons, Vilings, and finally the Normans. After the first Norman incursions into Wales, the royal court moved here from Conway, and Aberffraw came into a golden age which ended with the defeat of Llewellyan the Last by Edward I in 1282, a defeat which brought Welsh independence to an end. Nothing now remains of the palace, which was built of wood. In 1317, with timber in short supply as the once densely-wooded landscape was denuded of trees, the remains of the palce were demolished and its timbers used to repair Caernarfon castle.
Following the estuary out of Aberffraw
We followed the coastal path out along the estuary, absorbing the extensive views across the beach and towards the mountains of Snowdonia. As you work your way out to the next headland the perspective changes as the whole length of the Lleyn peninsula, with its mountainous spine, stretches as far as distant Bardsey Island.
Pushing our way through a profusion of wild flowers
Somewhere along this stretch we encountered one of the most beautiful stretches of coastal path I can recall; the path was deeply-worn, flanked by an earthen bank splashed with the densest profusion of wild flowers – ox-eye daisies, red campion, foxgloves, field scabious and hawkbit. Nearby was a community of Northern Marsh Orchids and clumps of Sea Campion.
Northern Marsh Orchid
A mile further on, and we spied the first of the two churches that form the main subject of this post- the tiny church of Saint Cwyfan, isolated on a small walled island in the pebble-strewn bay of Porth Cwyfan.
St Cwyfans Church comes into view
This simple medieval church dates from the 12th century and originally stood at the end of a peninsula between two bays. However, in a few decades in the 17th century the sea slowly eroded the coast, turning the peninsula into an island.
St Cwyfans Church
A causeway was built to the island to allow parishioners to get to the island (even that has now largely been washed away). The sea continued to eat away at the island until, in the late 19th century, some of the graves surrounding the church began to fall into the sea. By this time the church was abandoned and roofless, having been replaced by a new church further inland. However, in 1893 a local architect, concerned for the fate of the evocative old church, raised money to save it by constructing a seawall around the island and restoring the building.
‘And its walls shall be hard as their hearts’
The sight of the church perched above its encircling, fortress-like wall stirred a vague memory – was it of a poem by RS Thomas who wrote across the water there, on the Lleyn? It wasn’t until we were back home, and I was able to pull down off the shelf Rita’s copy of Thomas’s collected poems, that I found the answer. It’s a 1972 poem by Thomas called ‘The Island’ which made a powerful impression on me when I first read it. But it was puzzling, too. For me, as an atheist, the poem seemed to speak of the futility of belief in a god so unmindful of humanity’s suffering on earth. Yet Thomas was an Anglican priest who served as a vicar in several small rural, poverty-stricken parishes in Wales – the last, before his retirement, being at Aberdaron, on the remote tip of the Leyn. Even knowing that, ‘The Island’ remains a puzzling poem for me. I suppose it’s a vision of when a ‘rough god goes riding’, in Van Morrison’s memorable expression (there’s an extended discussion of its meaning, for anyone interested, here). However you choose to interpret the poem, St Cwyfan’s church, surrounded by its forbidding wall, seems its perfect visualisation:
And God said, I will build a church here
And cause this people to worship me,
And afflict them with poverty and sickness
In return for centuries of hard work
And its walls shall be hard as
Their hearts, and its windows let in the light
Grudgingly, as their minds do, and the priest’s words be drowned
By the wind’s caterwauling. All this I will do,
Said God, and watch the bitterness in their eyes
Grow, and their lips suppurate with
Their prayers. And their women shall bring forth
On my altar, and I will choose the best
Of them to be thrown back into the sea.
And that was only on one island.
The coastal path near Cemaes
Another day, another coastal path walk – this time on the northern coast, setting out from the little port of Cemaes. This coastline is quite different to that around Newborough and Aberffraw – more like Cornwall or Pembrokeshire with its rocky coves and steep cliffs. Unfortunately, walking in one direction at least, it’s overshadowed by the ominously looming bulk of Wylfa nuclear power station on Wylfa head.
Human waste: nuclear and otherwise
Built in 1963, Wylfa was the second nuclear power station to be built in Wales, after Trawsfynydd. Now only one of its two reactors is operational. During its operational life there has been considerable public concern about safety at Wylfa, with Greenpeace commissioning an independent appraisal of problems at the plant. Substantial works have been needed to strengthen the reactors against deteriorating welds discovered in a safety review in April 2000. Now there are plans to build a new nuclear plant alongside the old one. The plan has been the subject of local opposition, led by the group People Against Wylfa B – or PAWB (pawb being Welsh for ‘everyone’). Despite this, the coalition government has confirmed Wylfa as one of the eight sites it considers suitable for new nuclear power plants, with the plant being built by Hitachi. A spokesman for PAWB responded: ‘We don’t want a ‘Wylfashima’ on Ynys Mon’.
Wylfa nuclear power station overshadows the church at Llanbadrig
A couple of miles out of Cemaes we stumbled upon our second unusual church in a coastal setting. Perched close to the cliff edge is Llanbadrig, which translates as ‘church of Saint Patrick’. According to local legend, the church was founded in AD 440 by St Patrick who had been shipwrecked on the small island of Middle Mouse which is visible from the churchyard. The story goes that Patrick, travelling by ship after visiting St Columba on the Scottish island of Iona and bound for Ireland, was shipwrecked on the island but managed to make safe landfall at a cave in the cliffs below where the church now stands.
The church at Llanbadrig: beware of holes
We had a picnic lunch and waited for the church to be opened at two o’clock, for the real curiosity of this church lies in its interior. Meanwhile, we strolled around the gravestones, taking careful note of the warning sign: ‘Beware of holes in this part of the churchyard’. You never know where you might end up!
I wanted to look inside the church because, although it possibly dates back to AD440, it has been modified at various points in its history – most recently undergoing a major restoration in 1884, funded by Henry Stanley, 3rd Baron of Alderley. This was interesting not only because the family seat at Nether Alderley below Alderley Edge in Cheshire is just a few miles from where I was brought up, but primarily because Stanley was a convert to Islam when he funded the restoration. In 1869 Lord Stanley (whose sister Katharine was the mother of Bertrand Russell) became the first Muslim member of the House of Lords.When he died in 1908, an obituary noted:
That the late Henry Edward John Stanley, third Baron Stanley of Alderley, was a sincere and devout Muslim, was known to very few men. Readers of the Safwat-ul-Itbar (Travels of Sheikh Muhammad Bairam Fifth of Tunis), however, knew very well that Lord Stanley had long been a sincere believer in the principles of Islam. But his faith was not limited to a profession by word of mouth. The author of the Safwat-ul-Itbar relates incidents which show how deeply Islam had entered into his heart. He found him not only regular in the five daily prayers, but also constant at tahajjud (the midnight prayers); and what is still more wonderful, he found him very humble in his prayers, and far above most born Muhammadans. When he talked of the Holy Prophet, it was with profound love and deep respect that he mentioned or named him. He found him also very well versed on the principles of Muslim theology, and in his conversation with him he found that the deep conviction of his mind was the result of a comprehensive knowledge of the principles of Islam. This was about the year 1880. Who could imagine that such a sincere and devout worshipper of the true God was living in the heart of Christendom?
This explains why Stanley’s plans for the restoration of the church at Llanbadrig included Islamic-influenced designs. The stained glass windows, instead of depicting biblical scenes and characters, are simple geometric designs. Tiles on the wall behind the alter also show geometric or floral designs. There are some suggestions that he created these designs himself.
Islamic-influenced designs in the church at Llanbadrig
Stanley died and was buried during the most holy period in the Muslim calendar, 21- 25 Ramadan (11 and 15 December 1903 respectively). He was buried according to Muslim rites on the family estate, Alderley Park, at Nether Alderley in Cheshire. The chief mourner at his burial was the First Secretary to the Ottoman Embassy in London. Islamic prayers were recited over his grave by the embassy’s Imam. A service in his memory was held at the Liverpool Mosque, conducted by Abdullah Quilliam, a Liverpool solicitor and another Muslim convert. The mosque, founded by Quilliam, was in those days located in Brougham Terrace. The building later became the city Register Office, where Rita and I were married.