Pen And Ink Sketches – No. VI. 08/05/1869
Whilst the sun is brightly shining on the country, and the feathered songsters are gaily chanting their carols to the whispered accompaniment of moving leaves and budding branches, stirred by the wandering wind, the Rambler will take his Sketch Book and walk to Vaynor Church. Prettily situated in a neighbourhood renowned for its picturesque features, it is within easy distance of the town, and its sylvan quiet is an agreeable change from the noise and turmoil, dust and smoke that are so disagreeably prominent in Merthyr. From Glamorganshire into the county of Brecon is but a step, and how great the change how delightful the variety with many peaceful associations does the old churchyard and its time-worn memorials of the departed enwrap the spirit. Soothing and suggestive are the reflections that its ancient stones and quaint inscriptions awaken. Few poetic pieces possess more beauty than Gray’s “Elegy,” and yet how many emotions arise within the bosom of a visitant to a country churchyard that Gray has not written how many feelings rush into the mind that are not to be expressed, and can only be experienced, unutterable because too deep for utterance. A serene calmness, suggestive of eternal contentment, pervades these abiding places of the dead. Naught of strife seems to invade the precincts of God’s acre, and the harassed body rest here and the perturbed brain find repose, while all nature hums a soft lullaby that speaks of joy and happiness. Do unseen spirits watch o’er the resting places of their earthly clay, and drive thence all unseemly din?
May not the breezes which cool the cheek and fan the brow, buoy up the wings of ethereal forms, hovering around the intruder among those drooping stones and oblong hillocks that mark the graves of by-gone generations? It may be so; and who knows how many invisible eyes watch the curious Rambler who walks over the turf, beneath which so many sleepers wait the dread summons which shall call them to life again:
“When, shrivelling like a parched scroll,
The flaming heavens together roll;
When louder yet and yet more dread,
Swells the high trump that wakes the dead”
Prettily, I said, is this churchyard situated; but still more pretty was the spot before the railway invaded the valley, and cleared the wooded slopes, and laid bare the rocks, which look like yellow scars upon the face of still more upon the romantic wildness of the scenery for staring masonry and romance do not well agree, Everywhere, however, is the same process going on. The utilitarian destroys the ornamental and invading commerce drives away secluded beauty. Yet Vaynor Church, for all this, is not without distinctive charms. At the foot of the hill on which its stands, the Taf-Fechan flows over a limestone bed, which it has cut into strange fantastic shapes, lazily in summer, when the thirsting soil greedily absorbs the waters of its tributary brooklets, and the river bubbles through meeting rocks, glides round projecting corners, lingers in favourite nooks overgrown with flowing grass and bending bushes , whirls in sequestered hollows, and seems placidly to rest in some deep pool, while all the time its low music sounds sweeter than the finest orchestra of man’s finest instruments. But after heavy rains have fallen is the time to see and hear the Taff. Then the river, swollen by the mountain brooks, rises suddenly to a great height, and, with a loud roar, like that of a horde of angry lions aroused from their lair, it rushes impetuously and madly along. Grand is its music then, as it dashes over the rocks, and beats against the banks in vain efforts to widen its narrow passage, and deep diapason of its notes, its hoarse and rugged chanting, are worth a walk to Vaynor to listen to.
Close to the Church, in fact in the meadow adjoining is a mound of earth, grass-covered and of considerable size. This is spoken of in folk-lore as the burial place of a number of warriors in ancient days, and its peculiar shape and position, with its proximity to Morlais Castle, may give some colouring of truth to the statement.
Not far away is the ruined Castle itself, standing on the summit of the opposite mountain, and below is Pontsarn, of which some other time I may write at fuller length. All around are places of interest, and the whole neighbourhood is invested with attractive powers that no lover of Nature can withstand.
For upwards of twelve centuries has a church existed at Vaynor, though in the early ages I am inclined to fancy the building stood higher up than the present spot. The researches of antiquarians have established the fact that, between 542 and 566 a church or Capel was founded at Y Faenor, by Gwynno, or Gwynnog, or Gwynfrwi ap Gildas, a member of the Society of Cattwg, and the patron of churches in other places. The date alone gives an air of antiquity to the spot, which should recommend it to students, but how long the original building existed I have no means of knowing. The present church of more recent erection, evidently is a very old edifice, and is falling into ruins, perhaps as much from neglect as from natural decay. The graveyard is in a very dilapidated state, and sadly needs to be put in order. Tombstones lay broken in one corner, and upon pieces are seen disconnected letters partly effaced, showing conclusively that at one time they marked the resting place of some person who knows who? What those letters might have signified, and where the grave is over which they stood, is perhaps equally unknown, a striking instance of the forgetfulness by the living of the dead. The head stones which are still existing stand in all shapes, and are pointing in every direction, just as though some violent convulsion of the earth had shaken them into confusion. Whether the care of these memorials of the departed devolve upon the relatives of the deceased or the sexton of the church, it is lamentable that things should be allowed to fall into the state they are in at present.
But I came not here to find fault, or I shall disturb the quiet thoughts with which I approached the church. Tis a pleasant yet mournful task to examine those old tombstones and peruse their inscriptions. Some of them, as I have said, are quaint, all are suggestive, and many are well worth copying. Here is one that covers a tablet on the outside wall of the church, which cannot fail to strike the eye:
Is the remains of Rees Howell, of this
Who died August 22nd, 1817, aged 73.
Though born in early life, without Education, this man acquired extensive knowledge in Astronomy, Poetry, Mathematics, and Natural Philosophy. Unassuming in manners, inactive in disposition, his talents were known only to a few admirers of native genius, who have placed this tribute to his memory.
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.
‘Nol ing a gwewyr angau
Ddryllio fg mhriddellau
Rhwng Awyr, Daear, Dwr, a Than,
Mi ymrynna. ‘n fan ronynau.-R. H.
Then follows the record of the death of the wife of the deceased. The lines in Welsh are by Rees Howell himself, as the initials imply, and they propound the doctrine that after death the body will be disincorporated into minute particles, which shall float unseen between air, earth, water and fire. Who can say such a record does not bear its suggestions? Besides the lesson it sets that humble circumstances do not debar a man from gaining much knowledge, it makes one ask, had this man not been “inactive in disposition,” what might he not have done, with his native genius and acquired talent -to what position might he not have attained? Further on we find another:
Lies the body of David Morgan, of Rhymney,
Who died May, 1746, aged 35,
Catharine, his wife, who was interred 23rd February, 1794, aged 106.
She was born in the 3rd year of the reign of King James II,
and lived under 7 reigns.
A history this old lady could have unfolded that would have revealed much of stirring interest and great importance. Born in 1688, she was a twelvemonth old when William and Mary of Orange drove the last of the tyrannous Stuart’s from the English crown. She saw Queen Anne assume the sceptre, and no doubt, even in her remote abode, heard of the convulsions that rent political society of Bolingbroke, Swift and Sacheverel, of Marlborough and his clever Duchess, and of the various other intriguer: who agitated the country by struggling for place. She was a young woman when the last of the House of Brunswick ascended the throne; when the attempts of the Pretender to promote insurrection were defeated, and when the South Sea scheme impoverished thousands and enriched a few. As she grew in years she saw George II succeed his father, and the Peninsular War commence after a lapse of 33 years, during which the war with the American colonies broke out, George III. was crowned King of England, and she must have heard of the American declaration of independence in her ripe old age, ant have died just as the great French revolution had commenced to astonish the world with the sudden up-growth of Republican principles. An eventful life, surely, am one that is not often spent. This mute reminder of historical facts deserves a place in my Sketch book.
Lying upon the ground at the east end of the church is a stone, which is worn to a level with the ground, and on which the letters are nearly obliterated; it bear; evidences of very primitive workmanship, and for this reason and its age, I will try and give a fac simile of it:
“Under this stone was interred ye remains of THOMAS HOWELL, of Forest Taf, in Llanwonno Parish, Glamorganshire, December 24, aged 52, 1766.”
HERE also was interred ye remains of MARGARET, his wife, Dec. the 24th, aged 51, 1768.
HERE also was interred ye remains of their children, viz., Two MARY and JENKIN. MARY and JENKIN.”
Another old stone bears very few words, the few simply couched. Without statement of occupation or residence, the grave is merely recorded as follows:
“Herelieth the body of JOHN THOMAS, who departed this life February ye 19th, 1742, aged 65.”
The longevity of the people who died a century ago is remarkable. All those old tombstones record ages that appear then to have been the rule, but which now are the exception. A man who lives to the allotted age of “three score years and ten,” now-a-days, when everything tends to shorten life, is really a very old man; but then the patriarch of 100 looked upon his fellow at 60 as a boy, and at 80 would only admit he was a young man. We get dates of 1783, when a person died at 96, 1759, aged 90, 1751, aged 79, 1761, aged 70, 1725, aged 88. Many others I might copy, but the fact will be still better proved by saying that after careful search t failed to find more than one or two stones marking the graves of young men Is it because men work harder, or lead a fast life, or are hurried to an early grave by harassing care, and heavy responsibilities. I cannot say but it is proved to my mind that the general duration of life in the present is much shorter than it was in the past. The earliest gravestone I could find was one at the northern end of the church which was dated 1677. Another which I found among the broken s ones looked like 1620, and I fancied I could decipher upon another time-worn piece of stone, the figures of the fifteenth century. After 1700 burials became more frequent, and there are a great many graves dated 100 years ago. The curious inscriptions which are so common in English churchyards are here rare, in fact there are very few English inscriptions at all. Several queerly worded tributes to the memory of the departed caught my attention in Welsh, and the singular conceits, and eccentricities of versification were synonymous with those to be found above old graves in England. I would repeat them but translation would rob them of their beauty. Here is one in English that may be given for its consoling nature.
Farewell, my wife and children dear;
Weep not for me that sleepeth here.
Beneath this stone my rest I take
Till Christ will call us to awake.
The following, the only one I found besides the above, shows a thorough recognition of the mortality of the body.
How loved, how valued once, avails thee not;
To whom related, or by whom begot.
A heap of dust alone remains of thee,
Tis all thou art, and all the Proud shall be.
One singular feature in the more modern headstones, which ill consorted with the appearance of their surroundings, was the attempt that had been made to give them an ornamental appearance by gaudy decoration. At the top of a slab, distinct in its freshness of new paint, is a book with yellow edges and variegated back, standing upright or inclining sideways upon a green ground. Sometimes the book is open, and a text or passage of Scripture is written across its pages, and from this alone would it be imagined that the volume with its blue, green, yellow, and red ornamentation was intended to represent the Bible. A very favourite text, or one that was very common, was the words: Coffadwriaeth y cyfiawn sydd fendigedig.” This book, which is not always of the same colour, is seen in different modifications in various parts of the modern burying ground; and its glaring (I had almost said flaring) hues harmonise very badly with the greyish, weather-stained b mementoes that are near.
The church, as I mentioned, is in a terrible state of dilapidation, and its roof is open in several places to the wind and rain, its porch is very ancient, and has seats on each side, which are worn into hollows by the weather and use. Against the oaken door, studded with iron nails, is fastened a proclamation “for the encouragement of piety and virtue, and for preventing and punishing vice and immorality,” which exists now a tattered relic of the early years of our present Queen’s reign. I wonder how much “encouragement” virtue has received, and what amount of vice has been “prevented” by this well-meant but ineffective paper. Perhaps a perusal of the police reports in one of the local papers will answer the question.
A new church is being built at Vaynor, and bids fair in a short time to be completed. It is a handsome structure, and I hope is ordained to last as long as the building which it is to supersede. A RAMBLER.