Newport Cathedral (St Gwynllyw/St Woolos) – a hidden gem

Clara and Steve outside Newport Cathedral

When I did my advance research on this first stop – a quick check on Google Maps – I learnt a few things.

One – it’s on a hill overlooking the city of Newport,

Two – it’s in the middle of a one way system, and

Three –  it is surrounded by trees and the chances of getting a decent shot of campervan Clara with the cathedral looked slim. 

In fact the chances of getting any sort of wide shot of the building weren’t great. But we managed it.

On arrival we did a couple of laps of the St Woolos Grand Prix to establish the lie of the land, confusing generic Welsh Dave as we kept passing by with our distinctive and freshly washed green wheels. It’s a lovely little circuit and it has everything you need of a street circuit racetrack – gradient, hairpin, pedestrian crossing, convenient parking. There’s even a marina a mile or so away giving out Monaco vibes, but without the tunnel, or Abu Dhabi without the baking heat. Screeching to a halt near Dave we hopped out and grabbed a Clara pic, before I parked up near a van advertising bouncy castle and inflatable pub hire, which ironically had a flat tyre.

The Nordic Nomad disappeared on her jaunt around a trail about the local Chartist movement (recently and retrospectively memorialised in the churchyard after many were buried in unmarked graves), while I explored the churchyard before going in. It’s a Living Churchyard – something we’ve been hearing about in North Wiltshire Deanery recently) – which means that many areas are left untended for parts of the year and managed to encourage wildlife and diversity of plant growth. It doesn’t mean ‘completely abandoned’! It takes a bit of getting used to, even for somebody who understands the purpose of the arrangement and is fully sold on it! A ceramic pair of boots near the gateway turned out to be art relating to the Chartists, and beside it was an explanatory plaque about the Living Churchyard, the only explanation I found about the scheme (besides that which is on their website)

Three whole paragraphs in and I haven’t even got inside. Let’s move past the safety fencing and through a tunnel of painted plywood. Presumably the high level stonework is trying to disassemble itself faster than the Chapter can keep up with it.

The entry is through the West Door and into the base of the tower. A table of information, prayer cards, QR links to information about prayer and Christianity, with a bank of wall mounted screens conveying everything you could wish to know about what’s going on here. I write in the visitors book, shamelessly plugging this blog, and turn towards the interior. A wood and glass screen forms what must be an effective barrier against draughts, and it contains a couple of fetching etchings in the glass, in memorial to past clergy.

Through the glass I can see all the way down to the east end, which takes my breath away. An amazing sea of light and muted colour surmounted by a circular abstract stained glass window in oranges, yellows and reds. But first I have to pass through at least two other zones. I equip myself with an information leaflet and guide book and make my way in.
The Diocese of Monmouth was created in 1921 out of Llandaff Diocese, and they needed a Cathedral. Initially designated as a ‘Pro-Cathedral whilst a permanent solution was found, one option of which was the restoration of Tintern Abbey (yes, it is!). In 1949 full Cathedral status was granted and work soon began on appropriate expansion, whilst retaining a feeling of intimacy.

This is not a cathedral in the style or scale of classic English or European cathedrals. I’m going to need to recalibrate my expectations in Wales. What we are looking at here is an upgraded parish church, which I saw several examples of on the English tour in 2020. Birmingham didn’t do anything (they didn’t need to), Blackburn did a stunning conversion, Sheffield made several radical changes, amongst many others that I saw. St Woolos for me is in the Blackburn category. It’s too early to make any decisions, but this is my favourite so far! I wasn’t expecting much to be honest, based on external appearances, but inside – WOW!

What was the original church in AD500 now simply contains an ancient font and a very small prayer chapel. It’s a passageway to the rest of the building and must work really well for baptisms in the round. The floor slopes gently towards an archway which has Roman pillars and a curved Romanesque (which actually means Norman!) arch – in a dogtooth style like Malmesbury Abbey and many others of that period.

My phone bleeps and attracts the attention of a helpful lady who comes over and chats to me. I explain what I’m doing, about Clara’s previous adventures, and what I’m interested in. She tells me about a couple of things that don’t appear in the guide book as they were installed since it was printed – a new nave altar in particular, then leaves me to my wanderings. Apart from a couple of other people who wander in I see nobody else during my visit. That’s no criticism of the staff as I don’t generally hang out in my churches dusting the hymn books on the off chance that there is a crime to be solved, just a reflection that this is not a city centre location and there isn’t that much passing trade.

Entering the current nave there is evidence that the building has been expanded in many phases down the centuries. The north and south aisles have been added and then extended upwards with rooflines higher than the original clerestory windows, which now hold no glass and offer intriguing glimpses of what lies beyond. I notice the lighting, with just gentle accent lighting in key areas today – but when everything is on it must blaze with light.

Loose wood/metal seating is set out in the nave and is stacked neatly away in the aisles which therefore provide lots of free space. I discover a portable pulpit in a corner, clearly from a former incarnation of furnishing, which has now been mounted on a wheeled trolley. I wonder if it allows for an overrunning preacher to be wheeled away! It’s a pity that the base of the trolley is in unfinished builder’s board. Small details matter to me, and I wouldn’t have dared finish a project leaving something like this undone, so let’s be generous and assume that it is a work in progress.

In other corners I notice the reality of church life – bits and pieces that don’t really have a home or proper storage left where they are needed most. In a few hours somebody will come in, pick that pile of books up and lead an act of worship. This is no sterile museum, it is a place of work, of worship, a spiritual home.

The leaflet gives me a good sequence to follow on my tour, although there are a couple of things that I don’t find – most importantly the Archbishop’s Cathedra (symbolic chair of authority). The Bishop’s Cathedra is there, but arrangements are different in Wales than England.

When the Church of Wales was disestablished in 1920 they decided that the Archbishop of Wales would not be fixed to one location (unlike Canterbury and York) but would be held simultaneously with the Diocesan role of whichever unlucky soul got elected. So the Church of England gifted the Church in Wales a substantial but portable cathedra, a replica of the stone throne of St Augustine at Canterbury, which resides in the appropriate Diocesan Cathedral.

The leaflet and guide book tell me where it should be, but it’s not there. It’s at this point that I remember my conversation earlier, and check the date of the guide book. It was printed around the time of the Queen’s Golden Jubilee in 2002. Rowan Williams was the Diocesan Bishop here, and also the Archbishop of Wales. Later that year he would go to Canterbury, and the cathedra would move somewhere else in Wales. Unless events develop quicker than I can travel, I should stumble across this chair sometime soon. So where will I find it? (Readers should note that I managed to go on holiday on 8th September last year, so while my team ran round with candles, photos and condolence books, I watched the Queen’s funeral events from afar via the BBC website. It will be just my luck for a cathedra to be currently in transit to somewhere I’ve just been).

The chancel which would house the cathedra is something rather special. A Victorian chancel dating back to 1853 was demolished and replaced by this spacious airy modern one, visited by Queen Elizabeth Ii in 1962. One small but important detail is the retention of the ‘Lepers Window’ which allowed outcasts to view activity at the high altar. Quite how this was achieved when it is 12 feet from the ground outside is a mystery. Modern oak stalls for Canons, choir, the Dean, vergers and the Bishop are finished in their natural pale colouration which adds to the feeling of light. Each set has the carpenters signature in the form of a small carved mouse. The windows here are large and mostly in plain glass, with a couple of stained inserts memorialising two former Archbishops of Wales.

The East End is – as mentioned earlier – stunning. I’ve not seen anything like it anywhere else. A purple painted curved arch shape surrounds a gold and yellow window by Patrick Reyntiens, and a marble effect painted canvas. The high altar is not restricted access and this cheeky priest can’t resist standing behind it and imagining what it is like to preside from this position!

Hanging in the arch between chancel and nave is a modern wirework sculpture of the Crucifixion by Singaporean artist Tay Swee Siong, installed in 2020. As you move around it you see different aspects, with the empty eye sockets seeming to look straight at you in one particular place. It was a deliberate choice to introduce a figure which represented what Christianity is about, whilst not dominating and detracting from the main features of the chancel. Described as the Newport Rood it achieves the same function as a medieval rood (usually statues of Mary and John at Jesus’ feet) but in a simpler fashion.

In a niche on a nave pillar is a small modern sculpture of St Gwynllyw, holding aloft a model of his church. A similar image appears in a nearby window. ‘Woolos’ is the English corruption of his name. Gwynllyw built the original church in wattle and daub on the site of the entrance chapel around AD500, replaced by a Saxon stone structure about 300 years later with the Norman archway added around 1080. The tower and side aisles are 15th century. It’s only in the last 10 years that the current form has been finalised with the pews removed in 2015, replaced by that loose seating and nave altar.

Churches are living, breathing places which need to adapt to suit the needs of the present time. This place has done that very well, with each adaptation adding to the overall character rather than detracting from it. There is plenty of evidence of life and activity and being part of the community which it serves.

As I leave I glance at the new hall on the south eastern corner. Built in the early 1990s to act as both hall and chapter house it does seem rather small! There are also parish and diocesan offices here, and as I complete one final lap on foot I spot that there is even a layer of offoces or meeting rooms underneath the chancel!

Returning to Clara it’s not long before the Nordic Nomad returns, and we head out for a lunch high on a hill overlooking Abergavenny, followed by a quick wild swim at the Punchbowl, before heading over to old friends Alun and Brenda near Llanwyrtd Wells on the far side of Brecon. This town claims to be the smallest town in Britain. With a population of 850 it’s likely smaller than my home village of Great Somerford (but with many more facilities!) and less populous than my parish of Brinkworth, England’s longest village.

Alun’s riverside field is an ideal camping spot, were it not for its extreme bogginess, which we only discover after Clara’s wheels start spinning. Alun tows us out the next morning and we head for Brecon, threatening only to return to Alun if he dries his field out. Those lovely green wheels are no longer clean…

Before I go, you are going to have to wait for photos. I’m struggling to work out how to add them to this article, and I’ve spent far too long today failing to do so. I’ll sort it out when I get home. In the meantime, go to ‘Clara and the Cathedrals’ on Facebook where I will post a few photos shortly after each visit

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