Earlier this year in July as I was recovering from my heart attack, Aunty and I undertook a walk along a stretch of the Wales Coastal path in North West Wales. This was to be walk from Llandanwg south along the beaches towards Barmouth, but it was so hot that we cut it short and finished at Llanaber. The weather was glorious, part of a summer with wall to wall sunshine, but maybe too hot for walking along the sun kissed sands that did not hold any shelter throughout the day. But it was still a fantastic days walk, made all the more special at the start when we walk past Llandanwg Church. I was born and raised only a little way south from our starting point, but had never stopped here and this was areal revaluation to me. Llandanwg Church can’t be described as spectacular, big, huge or hold any architectural splendour in any way. The current church, probably started in the early Middle Ages, is a simple building erected on a rectangular plan with dimensions of 17 to 7 meters, without an externally separate chancel. But this is it’s charm, and along with some of the other ancient church site we’ve discovered over the past few years, remains special. It is small, that is very obvious. It is also hidden within the sand dunes, and the banks of sand encroaching upon the small graveyard and the walls of the church, seem to be cocooning it from the incessant westerly winds beating in off the sea barely meters away from the back door.
Dig a little deeper, but other ideas and thoughts begin to creep into your mind as you imagine the age of the site. The walls of the present church are old, yes, but not as old as the site itself. The landscape itself is ancient, and there is evidence of long standing human habitation all around. People have been leaving their mark on the land for thousands of years. Not far from here there are Neolithic tombs, hill forts, Roman fortifications, Norman and Welsh mediaeval Castles and legends anchored in the Mabinogion. A wild landscape, shaped by the elements and human lives, loves and endeavours. The dedication to St Tanwg possibly indicates that the church was first established by him, maybe around 435 AD. The antiquity of the date makes it one of the oldest places of continuous Christian worship in the UK. I’ve not found a real hagiography about Tanwg, and he remains a mystery.
This was a time of change within Britain, the Romans were leaving the Island, and it was the start of the division of Britain into the Brythonic West, a Gaelic North and a Teutonic east as the Saxons made inroads into the country. History, well recorded history, becomes a little more vague at this time and territories changed hands manny times, but it was during this period that the Welsh Dynasties were established that were to dominate the country over the next 700 years. What is interesting is that many of these territories seemed to overlay the old pre-Roman Tribal lines of the Silures, Ordivices and others. But this was also the Age of the Saints, when Christianity so pervaded Wales that most of the parishes now bear the names of the army of Saints that roamed not only Wales, but showed remarkable mobility ion their free travel to and from Ireland, Cornwall and further away Brittany. But this is a period that is so often and area that is almost never discussed or taught in British history, which concentrate on the later English histories of the Norman Conquest and later.
The position of the church so near the beach and next to where the Afon Arthog drains into the sea is no accident. The river provided an safe anchorage to boats, and along with access to ancient trackways and roads eastward into the Dee and Severn Valleys avoiding the more difficult terrain to the north and through Snowdonia. It is possible that Llandanwg was the landing site and along the lines of travel and communication between St Patrick in Ireland the church in Briton. St Patrick was a Briton, and had already been appointed as a Bishop before he was sent to Ireland in 432 AD by the British Church. Before long St Patrick was sending missionaries back to Britain, and was actively involved in the politics and religious activities on the main land. Around 450 AD he wrote a rebuke to King Coroticus regarding his behaviour.
There are over 60 known 5th Century gravestones in Wales, and only 1 in Scotland showing that Wales was an important part of the communication line between Ireland and Briton. There is a concentration of these gravestones around Llandanwg and there is a trail of other ancient gravestones that leads eastwards inland, up towards Chester. It was near Chester that a large and important ecclesiastic centre was established at Bangor Iscoed, which survived for hundreds of years.
The first church was almost certainly smaller than the present building, and the remains of which probably under the floor of the current early Medieval church. This was extended to the east in C14 and further Restored in late C17. However, in 1839 a new parish church was built in nearby Harlech, and Llandanwg was stripped of it’s C15 font, bell and other furnishing. Ignored and plundered it fell into disuse, and by the end of the century was not much short of a ruin. After the roof fell the abandoned church was used by local fishermen to dry their nets. Ironic really, considering that Christ was labelled a fisher of men. After a campaign the church was restored by the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings in 1884 for £80. Further work was done both prior to and following World War II and in 1987 a major restoration was completed for £20,000.
The church now houses three ancient inscribed stones, but there there is some contention about where their origin is and what the stones says. The largest at almost 8 feet long is known as the Llandanwg Stone. Now lying near the alter it was brought in for protection from the graveyard. This is of a stone not found in Merioneth, and it has been suggested that it comes form the Wicklow Hills in Ireland, further suggesting close links between Llandanwg and Ireland. With an estimated weight of three quarters of a ton it took some endeavour in the 5th century to sail it across what can often be rough seas. The Llandanwg Stone is the second largest stone of this date in Britain. Written along the axis of the stone are two names. The first is “INGENUI’ referring to some named “Ingenuus”. The second is uncertain because it I was be faced at some time but is now thought to read “ENNB..”possibly “Enbarr”. Yet again I wish that time travel was possible.
At some time during one the rebuilding phases a grave stone was incorporated into the south east window sill. Inscribed into the stone “EQUETRINOMINE”, meaning “in the name of Equester”. Apparently the the form of the wording was common in 4th and 5th century Italy, but this is a 6th century stone, and the name Equester is unique to Llandanwg.
The third stone has a more uncertain date, and could have been engraved between the 7th and 9th century. Again this gravestone has been incorporated into the wall at the west gable, above and to the right of the doorway. The stone has been engraved crudely by picking out the shape of the cross. Later additions include the letters REP and 1685. It is thought these could be a masons mark when the door was put in.
Although Tanwg has been presumed to have founded the church, the presence of the Llandanwg Stone suggests that the church was founded before he arrived in the early 6th century. Tanwg originated from Amorica (Brittany) in northern France. The son of Intel the Generous, and cousin to St Cadfan, he travelled to Wales with Cadfan in the early 6th century. ALong with Cadfan he travelled with his brothers (and there’s a few of them so be ready) Baglan, Trillo, Tegan, Twrog, Tecwyn, Gredifael, Flewyn and Llechid. Some of with are still remembered today though the names of the churches they founded. One of which is perhaps my favourite – Llandecwyn. I couldn’t find out anything else about St Tanwg whose feast day is commemorated on the 10th of October.
Like many churches and chapels today, especially the smaller, more isolated ones, Llandanwg is rarely used. But that does not detract from the history and mystery of the place. Almost certainly one of the oldest sites of Christian worship in the UK it is worth a visit whatever your religious Oe spiritual views. There are not many churches surrounded by sand dunes so close to the crashing waves, it remains hidden away Frito’s the main road, but that makes it all the more special.