Llanwnda - A Magical Place

By Terry John Llawhadden

Just a mile or two from Fishguard, on the Pencaer peninsula, and overlooking the sea stands the little hamlet of Llanwnda. It’s one of my favourite places and I go there again and again, for the tranquillity and for the feeling of being close to the past. Just step into the tiny church, huddled low against the sea winds and there is a sense of being at one with, yet set apart from, the flow of history.

Perhaps you are thinking that I’m over-imaginative, or that I’ve got my head stuffed with romantic notions of history. Maybe…but there’s no doubting that this place has its roots far back in the past.

The church is dedicated to St Gwyndaf, a Celtic saint who left his native Brittany some time in the early 6th century and who settled for a time in Pembrokeshire. He was said to have sprung from an aristocratic background and he married Gwenonwy, herself a noblewoman and a saint. She bore Gwyndaf at least two children, a son named Hywyn, and a daughter, Meugan. Both these children also became saints. Sainthood obviously ran in the family in those days.

Church
 

We don’t have many details of Gwyndaf’s life, but it seems that he became a confessor at the great religious teaching house at Llanilltud Fawr and then a principal figure at the college founded by St Dyfrig at Caerleon. Eventually, he retired to Ynys Enlli (Bardsey Island) where he died.

One story indicates that relationships between Gwyndaf and his fellow Celtic saints were not always sweetness and light. On one occasion, Gwyndaf visited St Aidan, who lived at Llawhaden. A quarrel broke out between the two men, the cause of which is uncertain. The two holy hermits came to blows and Gwyndaf marched off back to his cell in north Pembrokeshire. Unfortunately, as he crossed the stream which marked the boundary of his settlement, a fish leaped out of the water, startling the saint, and he fell and broke his leg. In a towering rage he laid a curse upon the stream that no fish would ever swim in it. To this day no fish are ever seen in its waters, though it still flows not far from the church.

The church itself is medieval and, though the nave was restored in the 1880’s, it hasn‘t lost its simplicity of character or its historic atmosphere. As you enter the porch, look to your left, where there is a ‘squint’ a small window in the wall which gives a view into the interior of the church. By tradition, squints like these allowed people suffering from diseases such as leprosy to watch and take part in the services without endangering the health of the congregation.

Once you are inside, look up at the roof beams nearest the door; these are the original medieval beams and on one of them is carved the head of what is believed to be a tonsured monk. On the crossing of the nave, high up on the north wall, is a doorway and tucked away round the corner is another doorway at floor level. Both are kept locked now, but from the lower door a narrow staircase in the thickness of the wall leads to the upper one.

Church 

A medieval rood loft used to stretch across the nave at this point, beneath which you would have to pass beneath to reach the altar and which was accessed by the stairway. Most churches had such lofts in the past, often highly carved and decorated and bearing at least one rood, or cross, hence the name.

Most rood lofts were destroyed in the sixteenth century, when many churches were cleared of what had come to be regarded as popish distractions to worship. Others were removed in later centuries to give an uninterrupted view down the length of the church.

No-one knows when the loft at St Gwyndaf’s was destroyed. Now only the staircase remains, but that little flight of steps has a legendary part to play in one of the most dramatic events ever seen in Pembrokeshire.

On 20 February 1797, three French warships packed with troops appeared off the northern coast of Pembrokeshire. By nightfall, the soldiers were coming ashore at Carreg Wasted, less than a  mile from Llanwnda. The last invasion of Britain was under way. 

For the next few days the invaders spread across the Pencaer peninsula, breaking into farmhouses and cottages and looting the contents. Many of the locals fled to safety, but others hid where they could. According to tradition a young girl and a maid from one of the nearby farms took refuge in the church. When the Frenchmen burst into the building, the two fugitives retreated into the stairwell in the wall and crouched there in the darkness. Fortunately, the soldiers were more interested in burning the church records and stealing the communion plate, and never discovered the hiding place.

On 24 February, the French force surrendered on Goodwick Sands and were marched off the temporary imprisonment in churches and jails in Haverfordwest and Pembroke, before being removed  into England. The stolen church plate surfaced a few days later. According to legend, a French officer on parole in Carmarthen tried to sell it, explaining that the inscription on the chalice, Poculum Ecclessiae de Llanunda, meant that it came from La Vendee in France. He was not believed and the loot was returned to Llanwnda.

The real treasure of Llanwnda was not however the chalice, which is no longer in the church, but the six Celtic Christian monuments embedded in the outer walls of the building. All were discovered during restoration work in 1881 and were repositioned in their present places. They date to the sometime between the 7th and 10th centuries and may originally have been grave markers.

Five of these stones depict crosses; one is a simple Latin cross in a round headed panel, the others have double or more outlines. The most remarkable of the stones is tucked away in a corner on the south side of the church. It is just over four feet in height and comprises a set of double and quadruple lines forming an X-shape at the top of the monument. Below this are four more lines tightly framing a triangular face. These lines, perhaps representing hair or a hood, cross beneath the chin to form a triangular panel. No one knows who this face is meant to depict, but it is thought that the design may originally have been picked out with coloured pigments.

Just across from the church, on the other side of the small village green, is the holy well. It is said to be a healing well, where pilgrims  coming from the north paused to drink the water on their way to St Davids.

The well and the stones indicate that Llanwnda was a sacred site long before the present church was built. Some authorities suggest that there may have been a Celtic monastery here, though no evidence of it now remains. With all these clues to an ancient past it is perhaps not surprising that a sense of history hangs so evocatively in the air.

Categories:Pembrokeshire, History

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