With more castles per square mile than any other country, Wales is said to be the castle capital of the world, attracting millions of tourists every year – but what about its churches?
Few people know that Wales’ churches are even older than its castles – usually the oldest building in a town or village, they have witnessed centuries of human history and can rival any castle for mystery, character and atmosphere.
Here, Caroline Welch at the National Churches Trust, a charity dedicated to supporting the UK’s places of worship, explores the fascinating churches neighboring some of Wales’ most iconic castles.
Dinefwr Castle: Llandyfeisant church, Llandeilo
Nestled in a sleepy hollow, picturesque Llandyfeisant church is an Instagrammer’s dream. Enclosed by overgrown woodland and surrounded by the bumps of ancient gravestones, it seems to belong to the elements. Known as the ‘butler’s church’, Llandyfeisant is part of the Dinefwr Park estate, centred around historic Newton House; its rolling Capability Brown landscape is now a beautiful nature reserve full of wild deer.
The castle itself, high up on the hill, offers soaring views of the bountiful Tywi valley and beyond. So, after you’ve taken in the scenery, why not cut back through the woods to the church and take a moment to savour this special sacred space?
Harlech Castle: St Tanwg’s church
In its spectacular setting on a rocky crag overlooking Cardigan bay, with the snow-caped peaks of Snowdonia behind it, it’s no surprise that Harlech Castle draws in many visitors. But there’s a tiny church nearby, founded way before Harlech was built, which is also worth visiting. Known as ‘the church in the sand’, 5th century St Tanwg’s is set in the dunes overlooking Llandanwg beach.
Inside you’ll find a church that time forgot – with aging whitewashed walls and a massive arch braced roof now five hundred years old and counting. Outside, much of the churchyard is lost to the sand dunes but there lies the grave of poet Sion Phillips, a contemporary of Shakespeare, who lived at nearby Shell Island and drowned whilst crossing from the island to Llandanwg in 1620.
Cardiff Castle: St John the Baptist church
Right in the centre of Wales’ capital, Cardiff Castle is unbeatable for its fairytale towers and over-the-top interiors – but just three minutes’ walk away is a building that’s been in the city since the 12th century, and offers a very different kind of experience. St John’s church is a haven of peace; its massive 130ft tower proclaiming its presence like a beacon. Step inside and pause for a moment – enjoy the silence – and then notice the ‘Burma Star’ window, created in 1986 in memory of all those who died in Burma in WWII. St John’s was attacked during Owain Glyndŵr’s uprising in 1404, rebuilt in the 15th Century and is still open daily.
Caernarfon Castle: Llanfaglan church
Caernarfon castle is a magnificent medieval fortress but take a road trip down the Coastal Way (otherwise known as the A478) towards Llanfaglan, and you’ll find another worthy spot. Yr Hen Eglwys Llanfaglan has stood here since the 13th century and remains preserved intact with ancient inscribed stones, box pews and pulpit. Closed for regular worship, today it is cared for by local people and the Friends of Friendless Churches. It is a place where, in the colder months, people say they can touch the ‘thin place’ – the gap between our world and another. When you visit – the wilder the weather the better – sit for a while, drink in the atmosphere, before seeking out the ‘pirates’ grave outside.
Laugharne Castle: St Martin’s church
Thousands of people flock to Laugharne each year on the trail of poet Dylan Thomas but how many of them visit the nearby St Martin’s church where Thomas himself was laid to rest?
With a huge square tower and 9th century cross surviving inside, St Martin’s is a real gem. Don’t miss the fabled ‘Bone House’ on the south side, thought to store medieval human remains. After you’ve scoured the huge, steep and rambling churchyard, with its crumbling tombs, vaults and ancient gnarled yew trees, it’s a surprise to discover Dylan’s final resting place is a simple white cross next to the grave of his wife, Caitlin. From here there’s a neat circular walk to the estuary of the Tâf down to the Boathouse Museum where he lived, on to the castle and back up to the village street.
Conwy Castle: St Mary’s church
You can spot St Mary’s from the towers of Conwy castle – but did you know it’s the older of the two buildings? Founded as ‘Aberconwy Abbey church’ in 1190 by the first Prince of Wales, it has been here ever since.
Check out the rare and intricate Tudor carved screen and choir stalls which were built to celebrate the engagement of Arthur Prince of Wales to Catherine of Aragon. Then seek out the ‘table grave’ of the Jones family, which commemorates the five babies of Richard and Martha Jones who all tragically lost their lives to illness between 1829 and 1849. Locals will tell you about poet William Wordsworth whose chance encounter with an eight-year-old girl here in 1798 inspired him to write ‘We are Seven’.
Pembroke Castle: Tabernacle URC
The birthplace of Henry Tudor, the small inner bailey at Pembroke Castle was built by the Normans in 1093, with the rest of this mighty castle following in the 12th and 13th centuries. Built over a cavern, it is a sight to behold – so, what church could possibly rival it?
Just a short walk away is the Tabernacle United Reformed Church. Erected in 1811, it is a mere youngster compared to the castle, boasting a curious stone frontage and elegant interior. However, the garden behind is the real draw.
This church has a large, unique and dramatic plot that features medieval stone walls, a cliff, a cave, a 17th century lime kiln and stunning views across to the south side of Pembroke. Tabernacle tells the story of Pembroke – the outer wall of the church garden is the medieval town wall itself. This outdoor area is currently being renovated into a serene public space which will be linked to the church by a staircase illustrating the history of Pembroke’s people.
Powis Castle: St Aelhaiarn’s church, Guilsfield
Castles and powerful landscapes go hand in hand which is probably why we love them so much – but Powis takes this to another level with its immaculate terraced gardens and mesmerising views.
Just ten minutes up the road in Guilsfield lies the picture-perfect church of St Aelhaiarn – Welsh for ‘iron eyebrows’. Founded a hundred years before the castle, this remote church, set among ancient trees is worth a trip off the beaten track.
But this wasn’t always such a secret spot – the holy well at St Aelhaiarn’s was an important stop for 14th century pilgrims on their way to Bardsey Island – a spot popular for the miraculous cures said to be bestowed by its bubbling water. Sadly, after an outbreak of diptheria in 1900, the local council closed the well and it remains locked away. While you’re there, look up and marvel at the intricately designed panelled Tudor roof. This church, like so many others across Wales, is a work of art.
Wales is home to some mesmerising churches and chapels, set against backdrops of exceptional natural beauty. To help visitors find and explore these, the National Churches Trust is developing a series of bookable Experiences – from cycle tours to dark sky stargazing in Wales’ world-class sacred spots, which it will unveil later this year.