This is the story of a building, a building the history of which has captivated me ever since I first saw a photograph of it."
St Illtyd's Church, A Fascination.
This is the story of a building, a building the history of which has captivated me ever since I first saw a photograph of it. I would have been about 11 then, and, judging by the clothing the people in it were wearing, the picture must have dated from the 1920s or 30s. It showed the Church of St Illtyd, Llanhilleth from the most revealing angle, that is to say, the photographer would have been standing slightly over the road from the main churchyard gate, and, for a boy such as myself, more interested in religion than rugby, the tiny building with its squat tower had the power to captivate. Beneath the picture, a caption recorded the date of its construction as 1213, which made it far older than our own church in the village of Cwm Tyleri - built during 1890, opened 1891 - and indeed far older than any other church in the area. True, not far from home was the historic Blaenau Gwent Baptist Church, which had its origins in an old barn at Gelli Crug, Abertyleri during the late 1600s and at that time still had standing the first chapel built in 1715, but I found it hard to enthuse about this, particularly as the building that replaced it, constructed in 1906, was so drab I could not look at it without feeling depressed. Both these churches were demolished in the late 1980s to make way for a modern equivalent, perhaps more in keeping with a vibrant and historic centre of Welsh Nonconformity. St Illtyd's, meanwhile, remains.
My first impressions of the church were perhaps rather romanticised, and yes, it did please me to think about it, ancient and rugged looking, built to weather anything as it seemed. My impressions though were shattered when on the way to an Easter Monday service at Blaenafon in 1985 I happened to be driven past the church for the first time, and what I saw in no way corresponded to the ideal my mind had created. Instead of the well-kept image projected by the photographs - I had seen several by this time - I found myself briefly confronted by a vision of desolation, an empty, tarpaulin
festooned and window-bricked shell of a place that looked, for all the scaffolding that adorned it for support, like it might fall at any moment. My jaw fell, the car sped on. The church I had become fascinated by and had expected to delight in was little more than a mouldering ruin.
Yet in spite of this, my love affair with St Illtyd's Church continued, and despite the fact that what I found when I arrived was less than pleasing, I visited it as often as I could, catching a bus from Cwm Tyleri to Brynithel, then clambering up the steep side of Pen-Rhiw Hill - past the misspelled sign St Illtydd (Old Church) to find my quarry, just past the mound of Castell Taliorum hillfort and tucked away behind a green Atcost barn. Approached from that direction, St Illtyd's reveals itself gradually, and it was always with a mixture of excitement and nervous anticipation that I saw cross, scaffolding, tied on green waterproof sheeting, blocked side door and windows appear before me. Finally I would see the tower, but rather than enter through the stiff main gate I always walked around to the gap where the lych gate had been, next to the Carpenters' Arms public house, and go into the churchyard that way, looking first of all up at the glass-less east window, then making my way over uneven grass to the windowless north side of the church. Perching on the base of the preaching cross, I would look at the forlorn building for a while, then go around to the side nearest the road where the windows were. Peering through a gap in the concrete that protected their tracery, I could just about make out the outline of a font, standing eerily askew in the damp darkness.
At that point, there had for some time been a campaign, bravely waged by an organisation called The Friends of St Illtyd's, to save the church from becoming irreparably damaged by the elements, and other people too had voiced their concerns about the building's sorry condition. During the 1970s though, those concerned with its preservation had had to contend with the voice of critics such as local councillor WF Deasy, who despite being for a number of years the Curator of Abertyleri and District Museum, still believed any renovations would be pointless because of the high risk of vandalism. For myself, I did not align myself publicly with the renovation movement, but in my then capacity as a member of the team of custodians at Abertyleri Museum and a member of the museum's committee I did what I could to remind people of the valuable artefact St Illtyd's was and is, and let nature take its course through others. I believed right would prevail, and therefore it was with especial delight and honour that I was shown around the renovations as they were being carried out in 1991. I am proud of the people of the area who campaigned in their various capacities and eventually won the day, especially the people of St Illtyd village, whose heritage the church primarily is.
The history that follows can in no sense be described as entirely original. The story of the Old Church was researched in the 1960s and there is ample information in the account that resulted. However this exists in at least two different forms, and whilst the details contained within it have been unearthed painstakingly, the facts are presented rather too haphazardly to make for a continuous narrative and the reader ends up having to make jumps in terms of trains of thought. There is difficulty too in terms of attribution, for whilst one copy of the tale is credited to one DG Bayton, another, a typescript with badly reproduced photographs does not seem to be, and when I queried this in the 1980s the then curator of Abertyleri Museum, Albert Deacon said the matter was unclear. The best copy of the account, transcribed by Gladys Andrews of Hafod-Arthen, and containing photographs of the interior and exterior of the church taken during the 1960s, is kept in the museum's archives, and it is a typescript from this I have used as a basis for this new and revised version, all the while acknowledging its author's ability as a researcher but at the same time editing as appropriate and incorporating my own material too.
I should like to thank the following people for their support, guidance and advice: Hannah Jones, whose kindness and gentle perception have given me the will to write both this and everything I have ever written in prose; Sandy Collins and David Browning, who give me open house when I need to think and talk, also Sian Jones and Mark Ackerman who do the same, allowing me computer access when I need it. On the subject of computers, I must also thank Lorna Lloyd and Joe Molloy, who gave me the machine upon which this monograph was typed, and the staff at Abertyleri Library whose help has been inestimable in getting the Internet to do what I want!
In terms of historical research, thanks must go to Donald Bearcroft, present Curator of Abertyleri and District Museum, also the late Albert Deacon and Henry Morgan who preceded him - these three men helped fire my fascination with the heritage of this area, as did the late Ralph Robinson, Chairman of the museum society until his death. My gratitude is also extended to the Reverend Albert Way, erstwhile Rector of Llanhilleth, Bill Jones, Secretary to Aberbeeg Parochial Church Council and Hywel and Hazel Clatworthy of the Friends of St Illtyd's, who have made me most welcome on my recent visits to the church. Any errors are however my own.
My greatest thanks go to my mother, Norah Meek, and to my late father, Ernest Cyril Meek, who died in May of this year, and who first showed me the way to get to the church from the main road in Brynithel. This is for them.