The Old Church

THE OLD CHURCH, standing 600 feet up below the northern lip of the escarpment, and commanding superb views of the Wye Valley, is a focal point of great interest, though no longer central to modem Penallt which lies between the Bush Inn (now the Inn at Penallt) and Moorcroft House in the area called Pentwyn (the end of the top of the hill). It is approached through an attractive lych gate and along a path bordered by lime trees. The porch contains a stoup, broken, probably deliberately, at some time during or after the Reformation, and one enters the church by a door with the carved date 1539. The nave, slightly offset from the chancel, is separated from the south aisle by handsome fluted pillars and arches dating from the 15th century, and a diagonal passage gives worshippers in the south aisle a view of the high altar; this was carved in 1916 by the chief wood-carver of Malines Cathedral, at the time a refugee living in Wyesham, on the model of a stone altar at Ravenna.

The oldest parts of the church are the tower, dating from the late 13th century, and the chancel arch and parts of the north wall, probably from about the same date. The tower roof was raised in the 17th century, probably to accommodate the bells, of which there are four; the first was presented in 1662, possibly as a thanksgiving for the restoration of Charles II; the second is dated 1700, and the other two 1751. The ceilings are barrel-shaped, with fine old carved bosses in the chancel, and modem painted bosses in the nave, where the original design was restored after a fall of plaster in 1951. The west window, picturing St James, and the Pilgrimage Tapestry in the chancel are reminders that the church overlooks a pilgrim route down the Wye to Bristol and on to Santiago de Compostella. The arms of Queen Anne, after the union of England and Scotland (1707), on the west wall of the nave originally hung above the chancel arch facing the congregation.

The whole interior of the church suffered a ‘restoration’ in 1887, and a great deal of historical interest was probably destroyed. The galleries along the north wall of the nave and at the west end — which must have made the church very dark — were removed, as were the old oaken box pews, which gave place to low backed pitch-pine seats. At this time, too, the floor of the nave was sloped down to the chancel to eliminate the step which previously existed. But much of great interest remains. The lower range of steps, leading to an old rood loft can still be seen at the north-west of the chancel, though the mediaeval rood-screen no longer exists. The present pulpit is the top section of a Jacobean ‘three decker’; the oak altar rail dates from 1753. And the most ancient piece of church furniture is a massive dug-out muniment chest, carved from one solid oak trunk, dating probably from the 12th century. The stone slab altar in the south aisle, probably the original pre-Reformation altar of the church, was retrieved from the ground outside the porch in 1965, The stone font was carved from an ancient design, by Mrs Probert, who also carved from a holly bole, the figure of the Virgin which stands above the north-east corner of the nave, and which was painted in mediaeval colours by her husband, Major Y R H Probert. He and other parishioners also painted the bosses in the nave. There are modern commemorative roof bosses in the south aisle.

In the churchyard there stands all that remains – the base and part of the shaft – of what must have been a magnificent cross, perhaps of the 15th century, destroyed, reputedly, by 17th century puritans. Some fifty yards outside the lych gate is a very ancient chestnut tree near which, in former times, stood the village stocks and a whipping post and, still existing, the stone mounting-block erected for the convenience of worshippers who arrived on horseback.

The YouTube video below shows Sarah Haeffner bellringing at the church on May 25th 2008. “The 24 Elders – Round the Throne” is a pattern of chiming used at Penallt. Bell fittings are derelict (e.g. no clappers, no wheels, no ropes). Ellacombe chimes are regularly used.