Signs of a nomadic people
Churches in Wales are inextricably linked with the landscape. They are a product of the rural, nomadic existence of medieval Wales; of people travelling with the changing seasons, large swathes of land shaped by isolated farms scattered over the hills and valleys, with uninhabitable mountain and moor between. Travelling through all weathers to get to church, to meet and feel part of your community, making a pilgrimage, embodied church going here, it was part of the deal.
Some churches, like 7th century St Melangell Pennant Melangell in Powys, hidden deep in the Berwyn mountains, still have two gates on either side; one for those coming over the moor, and the other for those from the valley beneath. Set in a circular churchyard, it also happens to house the earliest surviving Romanesque shrine in northern Europe and is a place of pilgrimage for wildlife lovers. St Melangell is the patron saint of hares: she saved one being hunted by the Prince of Powys and was granted the living of the valley thereafter.
Sacred places chosen by Celts
Lovers of nature and the wild are drawn to churches for many reasons, and Pennant Melangell also holds accolades for its 2,000 year old yews; Wales itself has the oldest collection of yews in the UK. Here they circle the church in a cwtch. That protective hug you get from the trees, the hedges, the wide, round churchyard, the ancient stone wall, is integral to how we feel when we visit these places, as any garden designer will tell you. Sometimes the circles loop wider, the church is encircled by hills, mountains, standing stones, on an inland island or out at sea. Or, as at Mathry, Pembrokeshire, sited spectacularly like a castle in the centre of the village, the meeting point of no less than 5 roads. These are sites chosen precisely for the beauty of their connection with the landscape, the feeling that that spot is special, beautiful, inspired. But chosen, by whom?