Friday, June 21, 2024

Churches with hidden paintings, holy wells and a 20th-century love story saved

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll, visited St Lawrence’s, Gumfreston, in April 1863, when he jotted in his diary: “Visited Gumphaston [sic] and shown the old church there by the eccentric incumbent, Mr Smith.” The author probably saw the Pembrokeshire church’s three holy wells, although the “treacle well” immortalised in his Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) is said to have been inspired by St Margaret’s Well at Binsey, near Oxford.

Gumfreston’s ancient springs, tapering church tower and picturesque surroundings all greatly impressed Victorian aesthetes. St Lawrence’s also boasts rare, recently discovered wall paintings, glimpses of more paintings still hidden, and a history involving pirates. However, that wasn’t enough to save it from the effects of dwindling congregations and coffers. It was “at risk” and on the brink of dereliction before a recent award of almost £770,000 from the National Heritage Memorial Fund.

The grant will allow Friends of Friendless Churches to save St Lawrence’s and another church intimately connected to the heritage conservation charity’s own founder. Together, the churches, which have remote early Christian and pre-Christian origins, provide a window onto Welsh history and the work of the heritage conservators seeking to protect all Welsh and English churches of historical and architectural importance from destruction.

St Lawrence’s, Gumfreston, Pembrokeshire

The medieval church at Gumfreston is covered in ivy, causing serious damage to the fabric. Photo: Friends of Friendless Churches

St Lawrence’s stands in a wooded valley overlooking the River Ritec, near Tenby. The picturesque setting has scarcely changed since Dodgson’s day. In 1854, the naturalist Philip Henry Gosse described “the grey old Church in the dell, with its lofty square Flemish tower shooting upward from the dark-green embowering trees”. He also saw the site’s holy wells and observed that one carried pure spring water and the others water of chalybeate type — impregnated with salts of iron.

Much of the church dates from the 12th-14th centuries, with the tower added in the 15th. However, it is likely that the west porch was an early Christian chapel dating from the seventh or eighth centuries. Some sources place the birth of the sixth-century Welsh Saint Teilo at Gumfreston. And according to CADW, the Welsh government’s historic environment service, the religious site’s location next to the holy wells suggests that it was chosen “to absorb an earlier pagan well-cult”.

The three springs in the grounds of the church were probably part of a pre-Christian holy site. Photo: © Jo and Steve Turner, licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Geography also explains Gumfreston’s pirate link. Now a trickle, the Ritec, or Rhydeg, was tidal until the early 19th century. Close to Gumfreston church are the ruins of storehouses thought to have belonged to medieval merchants of Tenby who traded extensively with continental Europe. At the time, the Bristol Channel was infested by pirates and Tenby was vulnerable to raids. It made sense to transport valuable goods to and from the rural hinterland by river for safekeeping.

According to Friends of Friendless Churches, this was likely the reason that such an elaborate church was built at a location that has no village and never had one. Rich Tenby merchants may have built or greatly enlarged the church of St Lawrence to serve families of employees running the storehouses. This part of Pembrokeshire was settled with Flemings by Henry I and the builders of the church may have been among them.

The interior of the church shows water damage to the walls, threatening concealed medieval wall paintings. Photo: © Andy Marshall

The church was declared redundant in 2021 and “at risk” the following year. It has become covered in ivy and the roof, walls and floors have been damaged by the ingress of water that threatens wall paintings that are one of its most interesting medieval features.

In the 1980s, a rare 15th-century wall painting was discovered in the nave. It probably depicts either Saint Lawrence of Rome, with the gridiron on which he was martyred, or Christ of the Trades — Christ injured by the tools of workers who break the sabbath. Rachel Morley, director of Friends of Friendless Churches, said: “Nobody really knows. So part of our work will be trying to figure that out, and that’s one reason why we really wanted to save this building — because we know so little about it. If we didn’t take it on, the Church were saying they would just leave it to fall into ruin. And when there’s so much you don’t know, that’s not the right option for that building.”

A fragment of exposed wall painting at Gumfreston, where conservators expect to find more medieval artwork. Photo: © Andy Marshall

The charity suspects that significant wall paintings are concealed under whitewash. Morley said: “We have an expert wall-painting conservator and she has opened up some other areas and found really good little windows of other 15th-century wall paintings. So as part of this work we’ll be looking for more of those. And we do need to uncover them because ivy has penetrated the building so much that it will destroy them if we don’t.”

She added: “Our conservator is superb and in 2016-17 she found probably the greatest scheme of medieval wall paintings to be uncovered in Wales for decades if not centuries — in St Cadoc’s, Llancarfan. She feels confident there is quite a substantial scheme at Gumfreston.”

Among other features, the church has a bell cast about 1350 that is possibly the oldest church bell in the county. Below the ringing chamber, the tower walls have openings for doves.

To save the church, the charity needs to re-roof the whole building, undertake masonry repairs throughout and do much else besides. The effort should be rewarded by increased visitor numbers. Morley said: “Gumfreston is on the tourist trail from Tenby, so will get more visitors than a lot of our churches, which are really quite remote.”

St James’, Llangua, Monmouthshire

The church at Llangua was previously restored by Ivor Bulmer-Thomas using salvaged materials. Photo: Friends of Friendless Churches

The original dedication of St James’, Llangua, to Saint Ciwa — a Welsh saint said to have been suckled by wolves — implies pre-Norman origins. However, the earliest fabric of the current church building is 12th century, and includes a tub font and evidence of a Norman two-light window high in the gable of the west end. Most of the structure dates from the 14th-15th centuries, including wagon, or barrel, roofs over the chancel and nave.

Llangua, in Monmouthshire, is only a few miles from Kentchurch Court, Herefordshire, where a daughter of the medieval Welsh leader Owain Glyndwr lived after her marriage. Some traditions hold that Glyndwr was in hiding in the vicinity after his defeat by the English. It is, however, St James’ more recent history that carries special resonance for Morley and her colleagues. The little church has played a pivotal role in heritage and church conservation. 

The memorial tablet to Dilys Thomas with a Latin inscription by her husband Ivor Bulmer-Thomas. Photo: Friends of Friendless Churches

In 1954-5, the Welsh journalist and politician Ivor Bulmer-Thomas restored St James’ in memory of his first wife, Dilys, who had died in 1938, aged 28. It was the first church he restored, and, less than three years later, he created the charity Friends of Friendless Churches in collaboration with public figures including the poet TS Eliot; poet, writer and broadcaster John Betjeman; and architectural historian John Summerson.

Morley said: “Dilys took her own life a few months after giving birth, and all the pain of that spurred Ivor on to set up the Friends. So I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that church kick-started the conservation movement of the 20th century.”

The interior at Llangua, showing the church’s distinctive late medieval wagon roofs. Photo: Friends of Friendless Churches

Visitors to Llangua can see Bulmer-Thomas’ memorial plaque to Dilys, with its Latin inscription lamenting how she was “snatched by sudden death”. Other points of interest include a medieval painted screen depicting figures including the Virgin and Child. “We think it’s from a chapel in Devon,” said Morley. “That was absolutely Ivor’s sort of thing — to find things and bring them in.”

She added: “There’s a bellcote at the church’s west end that has little carved balusters. This is an Ivor classic. Because he was doing all of this on a shoestring, he would just get whatever materials he could to hand, with no regard for planning or planning law. So Ivor must have recycled those from a staircase somewhere. They’re lovely, and they’re part of the church’s identity now, but it’s probable that Ivor found them in a skip.”

The conservators at Llangua will be following in the footsteps of Ivor Bulmer-Thomas’ 1950s team. Photo: Friends of Friendless Churches

In his lifetime, Bulmer-Thomas saved and helped hundreds of church buildings at risk of demolition, neglect or ruin due to closures. Today, the Friends are owners and guardians of 61 churches of architectural and historical importance. Some are preserved as monuments and others double as community centres. When a church closes for regular worship, the charity carries out an assessment of its significance and condition to decide whether it can step in.

Thanks to local volunteers, all the churches the Friends saves are publicly accessible after restoration. “We keep all of our churches open all the time,” Morley said. “And they remain consecrated for worship. Under the terms of the closure, you can have up to six services a year. If you get a special license, they can also be used for weddings, baptisms and funerals. So even if they’re not used regularly, they still have an important role in community cohesion. The building is still there for those life markers, the ‘hatch, match and dispatch’.”

In spite of Bulmer-Thomas’ restoration, St James’s closed in 2020, and is in a “dire” condition, with its roofs in danger of collapse. Working with an architect, engineer, ecologist and the local authority, the Friends are devising a rescue strategy that will involve repairs of the existing timbers and the localised introduction of steelwork to support the stone roofs.

Morley said: “Llangua is like the cornerstone of our charity. It feels like its natural home is with us now.”

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