Return to The Old Church

Dear George,

You asked me if I recalled our visit to the Old Church some twenty years ago and to find time to let you know how it looks today. Well, as you can imagine, a building – and especially a country church – which is still in regular use after eight hundred years or so, is unlikely to have changed very much. The steep lane down to the church still gives the impression that it might at any minute slide down gently into the wood on the right. Just past the lane up to Jackstone’s farm the trees still close in overhead and heavy shadows replace the sunshine, the most marked effect being in the summer time. You will remember how unexpectedly, to the stranger, the church suddenly comes into view. In the foreground the grass bank still carries the stone mounting block – and if you think no rider ever uses it today, you’d be quite wrong. The old sweet chestnut tree is still just about alive and the lychgate with its stone stile alongside masks the avenue of young limes leading down to the church porch. The lychgate has been “listed” Grade II by CADW but unfortunately this did not prevent the use of a grey-white mortar horribly at odds with the stonework. (The church itself is listed Grade I). The lime trees are sufficiently grown to allow the patient process of pleaching to begin to form a green welcome to a churchyard which still produces a succession of spring flowers – snowdrops, aconites, daffodils, white narcissi, blue-bells and the “black geranium.”

On the right, beside the remains of the 15th century preaching cross, is the garden of rest to receive the ashes of the departed – who otherwise might be buried on the north side of the church, known to some in the past as the Devil’s side, where most traditional burials now perforce take place. All the north side of the churchyard has now been cleared right up to the stone stile leading to the Well Field just outside the churchyard wall. The hollow yew tree to the east of the chancel is still standing, as it has done since before the first builders in stone began work, probably in the late13th century judging by the massive north wall and chancel arch which survive.

You will remember agreeing that parish officials meeting in the porch, for whom it is said stone seats were provided by the builder, must have suffered from the cold and cut their meetings short – unless they passed the great oak door into the church, blessing themselves as they went with holy water from the stoup in the corner. The first thing that caught my eye when I opened that heavy door was the modern organ against the north wall opposite. To make room for the new organ, the font has been moved to its ecclesiologically correct place just inside the church door. (The open door permits the first step into God’s house: the font sees the first step in the Christian pilgrimage.) The clean lines of the 15th century pillars between the nave and the south aisle support barrel roofs – over nave, chancel and aisle. The chancel is noticeably uncluttered now. All but one of the pews have been removed and the sanctuary contains only the wooden altar bearing a small wooden cross. I remembered an Elizabethan bishop’s chair, no longer there. I learned later that it had been stolen, as had the great eagle lectern and the Georgian candlestick which stood beside the statue of Mother and Child in the chancel arch. When the replacement bishop’s chair designed and made by Martin Walker was also stolen, it was decided that virtually everything moveable should be taken away after services – because it is parish policy never to lock the church door. We have a long way to go before we see again the respect due to both our religion and our cultural heritage. It is perhaps not so strange that the very simplicity found now in the Old

Church, especially when the visitor is alone in the building, makes it easier be aware of the holiness (or wholeness) of all the prayer and praise it has held in its walls through the centuries.

What we see now in the Old Church is very different from its appearance before the renovations in the 1880’s. Monmouth museum has a picture of the interior painted a little earlier. The west wall carries a copy of a photograph of the nave in the time of the Rev. J. Le G. du Heaume, Vicar from 1913 to 1945. It shows not only the stove and its long chimney pipe but the Arms of Queen Anne over the chancel arch. The Arms dated 1709 were removed to a less conspicuous position on the west wall during the 1960’s renovations. (I could not discover why this huge painting was in the church at all – the best guess locally is that it was a gift that could not be refused on the occasion of the visit of a Queen to Troy House only a couple of miles away down the steep hill towards Monmouth town – remembering that the Crown held the avowdson of Penallt at that time.

I was interested to see on the wall between the aisle and the chancel a large tapestry tracing the pilgrimage route to Compostela. A new guide for visitors links the physical features of the church with the journey through the Christian life. Both are imaginative and valuable additions to the church’s armoury. There is no doubt that the Old Church is a very special place – as you know – whether it is celebrating a spoken Eucharist service with only handful of the faithful or pulling out all the stops on Easter Sunday with high colour, solemn ritual, great music and spring flowers marking the renewal of life in all its manifestations.

Come again and see for yourself!

Yours ever

[from: Penallt Revisited]