Brecon Cathedral / Eglwys Gadeiriol Aberhonddu (St John the Evangelist) – Shadows of Mortality

Day 2 of the holiday and a second cathedral beckons. After Alun cooks breakfast he tows Clara backwards out of the field. He’s put some gravel down in the gateway to maximise traction, and in only a couple of minutes her tyres are back on solid tarmac and we’re off, 40 minutes back in the direction we came. Perhaps we should have stayed with them tonight rather than last night?

As we came past our destination yesterday I already know exactly where we are going, and we arrive bang on time, having arranged to meet Tash’s friend Amanda from Cambridge days. After a coffee in the cathedrals ‘Hours’ cafe we head off in different directions. Me into the cathedral, the Nordic Nomad in search of a poetry trail.

Like Newport, the cathedral sits high above the town, with the main road winding past. Unlike Newport it’s only a couple of minutes walk from the town centre, and that is reflected in a much higher footfall here. Whereas yesterday I saw only a couple of other visitors here there are at least ten in the building at any one time.

Again the cathedral is surrounded by trees and the question once more is how will I get a clear view of the building, and where will I get Clara’s shot? The answer to the first question is “you won’t” and to the second “in front of the Diocesan offices”. Wales is a wet country, but this doesn’t really explain the density of tree growth right up to these major buildings. It has the effect of making the cathedral peep out from the shrubbery as if it is a bit shy. Today’s drizzle isn’t helping first impressions!

There has been a building on this site since Saxon times, which eventually turned into an Priory in the early 12th century. 200 years later it was known as the Church of the Holy Cross, and it was this dual function as a parish church and priory that saved it from the worst of the Dissolution of the Monasteries. However, in 1698 the decay of the fabric of the building was noted, so severe that it only took another 82 years for urgent repairs to begin. This puts one of my churches into perspective – roof repairs first identified in 1989 and carried out only 28 years later! There followed the usual Victorian ‘restoration’ and then the Diocese of Swansea and Brecon was created in 1923 out of the enormous Diocese of St David’s following disestablishment. Welsh Dioceses seem large compared to what I am used to, and with comparably few major roads and the challenges of geography and texture in these parts travel times must be considerable for a diocesan event. ‘Zoom’ is probably a really good thing round here.

There isn’t much evidence of how the cathedral was chosen. Maybe it was an obvious decision, but the guide book just states that it happened! It seems that the only change at that point was to enhance the altar by building an elaborate stone reredos (carved screen) underneath the east window.

The grounds are home to a traditional churchyard with a slightly overgrown but maintained area of 18th and 19th century graves, covered by conifers and with ivy trailing everywhere. As I explore I would not be surprised to come across a bunch of Goths.

Abutting the cathedral are several former Priory buildings, reclaimed now for church, cathedral and diocesan use, along with the Dean’s residence.

Venturing inside I enter via the north door, through a porch and into the west end of the nave. The layout is very traditional cruciform and ahead of me at the intersection of the central and cross aisles is a Norman font – the oldest surviving item from earlier incarnations of the building, elaborately carved on three sides with the fourth side defaced, likely at the time of the Dissolution. Nearby is a ‘cresset stone’ – a stone hollowed out with deep circular holes to hold candles or oil and wicks. We have similar things now for tea lights, but this is much bigger! Apt that it is just here, because this end of the building is dark and brooding. It will get lighter as we move eastwards.

There are a number of chapels, two in the north aisle, and others in the transepts. A medieval one dedicated to St Keyne is dimly lit, but features a painting of Madonna and Child below a well lit crucifix. The floor is formed from ledgers (floor ‘headstones’) some of which appear to be much older than you would usually expect to find. I’m no expert, but if the carving is relatively crude, it’s ‘very old’. By which I mean probably pre 1600s.

Moving towards the crossing of nave and transepts there is evidence of the grand rood screen which once stood here, usually separating the people from the priests and/or priors. Two doors elevated from the floor show where pilgrims could ascend up to the rood screen and get close to the carved figures of Mary, Christ and John to venerate them. I haven’t ever thought of such stairways being for public access, having only really considered them as access for lighting candles and maintenance, but there seems to be a strong case here for a flow of visitors from one side to the other. Examples in my churches in Wiltshire only have one staircase.

Above this point is a hanging crucifix, a bronze cast of a driftwood carving by Helen Sinclair. Like Newport it is minimalist and non intrusive, but a clear statement of what this place is about.

The North transept contains a fine display of 18th/19th century alabaster wall monuments, the type where the deceased is portrayed as looking a little weary while their fevered brow is tended by the loving relatives who would shortly have to write a small essay on the virtues of the dearly departed which a (no doubt well paid) stonemason would have to carve. Things are simpler back home, where one of my favourites is ‘fell off a horse’. There is a striking contrast provided by some very recent memorials in the form of brass plaques which are much more economical in their phrasing.

The reality of modern church use , especially cathedrals, is that the flexibility of uses also means storage problems, and this one is not alone in screening off much of this area to hide chairs, tables and staging. There are hints of events that this is used for, including an upcoming Diocesan Centenary event featuring Guvna B and Only Men Aloud.

The Havard Chapel is now the Regimental Chapel for the South Wales Borderers. Standards for various battalions hang from the ceiling with two particularly delicate ones protected by transparent cases. Looking backwards the pew backs are lined with wooden memorial tablets to military personnel, and the floor also holds many similar tablets. A floral wreath presented by Queen Victoria after the Zulu Wars lies preserved in a glass case.

Entering the chancel it is relatively uncluttered. So it should be easy to find the Archbishop’s Cathedra shouldn’t it? Except for the fact that where the guide says it should be it very obviously is not! With the Bishop becoming Archbishop in 2017 it must be here, right? No, as he retired in 2021! The cathedra is not here. Where will I find it?

The remainder of the building , south transept and aisle doesn’t hold very much of note. Even the guide walks you past here quite quickly! Scattered around the building are various fine pieces of stained glass (in my opinion!) and more than a normal amount of oil paintings, most of which are bright enough to be appreciated. ‘The Mockery of Christ’ which hangs in the chancel was presented by a local man E. Cambridge Phillips in memory of his father Jacob Phillips who was from Chippenham. An ancestor of the Phillips family of Great Somerford perhaps?

I have managed to spend 90 minutes poking round every corner of this building. It doesn’t feel as homey and intimate as Newport, but it’s not trying to be that. It is a building on a different scale with a completely different history.

I meet up again with the Nordic Nomad and we go back into the Cathedral cafe for our lunch. The Coronation Chicken sandwich is lovely, but it fails to conjure up memories of the most recent Coronation. Returning to Clara we head north up towards a couple of days of rest, a nearly 3 hour drive that will put us within striking distance of St Asaph.

To conclude, and perhaps to give myself something to do during that trip, here’s an example of a gushing 19th century memorial stone. It is more than I am often given to work with at a funeral. Some of the language is difficult and unacceptable to modern ears, but this was in the heady days of the British Empire when the world needed to be civilised according to Western values. Thomas Coke certainly lived a full and fulfilling life, and his spiritual achievements could make me feel inadequate, even though I don’t share in the attitude towards other races.

“Sacred to the memory of the Revd Thomas Coke LLD of Jesus College Oxford who was born in this borough the 9th of September AD1747, was one of the common council and in 1770 filled the office of chief magistrate with honour to himself and equal benefit to the public. After a zealous ministry of several years in the established church in 1775 he united himself to the Revd John Wesley MA and preached the gospel with success in various parts of Great Britain and Ireland. To him were confided the foreign missions of the Methodists in support of which he expended a large portion of his fortune and with unremitted vigour encountered toils and self denial which the Christian world beheld with admiration. By the blessing of God on the missions of the negroes in the West Indies commenced by him in 1786 a foundation was laid for the civilization and salvation of that degraded class of human beings. To the negroe race upon their native continent as well as in the island of their bondage his compassions were extended and he set out the first example in modern days of efforts for the spiritual emancipation of Western Africa. After crossing the Atlantic eighteen times on his visits to the American continent and the West Indian colonies in the service of the souls of men his unwearied spirit was stirred within him to take a part in the noble enterprize of evangelizing British India. He sailed in 1813 as the leader of the first Wesleyan missionaries to Ceylon, but this burning and shining light which in the Western world had guided thousands into the paths of peace, had now fulfilled its course, and suddenly, yet rich in evening splendour sunk into the shadows of mortality. He died on the voyage the 3rd of May 1814 and his remains were committed to the great deep, until the sea shall give up its dead. His days were past, but his purposes were not broken off, for the mission which he had planned was made abundantly to prosper. The same love of Christ which made him long the advocate and the pattern of exertion in behalf of foreign lands, constrained him also to works of pious charity at home into many neglected districts of England, Wales and Ireland. The means of grace were carried by his private bounty, or through his public influence and his praise is in the gospel throughout all the churches. This monument was erected AD1829 at the expence of the ministers and missionaries with whom he was united, as a record of their respectful gratitude for the disinterested services, the faithful attachment of their now glorified friend, by their appointment, and under the direction of the Revd T Roberts MA and the Revd J Buckley.”

A modern headstone might read ‘Revd Thomas Coke, 9th Sept 1747 – 3rd May 1814, Magistrate, Priest, Missionary. Died at sea, committed to the deep’.

If I ever have a band I’m going to call it ‘Shadows of Mortality’. Our album covers will be photographed in this cathedral’s churchyard.

One Comment

  • Sophie Scruton

    Thank you so much for the interesting blog exploring Wales and her Cathedrals. Lovely to be given a personal ‘tour’ and lots of spiritual insights.

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