The History of St Illtyd’s Church, Llanhilleth.
The coming of Christianity to Wales was a gradual affair. Sources record it had its beginnings in Britain around the Third Century CE, and that representatives of the earliest British - Celtic - churches were present at the Councils of Arles and Rimini in 314 and 359 respectively. The claiming of Wales seems to have been achieved mainly between the fifth and the eighth centuries, however, and the most significant incursions of missionaries seem to have begun from Gaul (France) where the Faith was already established as a major force. Although in its time the Celtic Church was an entity to be reckoned with, to the extent that Augustine had hard work to do when he arrived in England in 597 as a missionary of the Roman religion, we know little of its credal positions or religious practices today; although the Synod of Brefi’s apparent preoccupation with Pelagianism in the time of Dewi Sant does provide an indicator of sorts. This doctrine, that denied both original sin and the necessity of divine grace for salvation, seems to have been rather prevalent in Wales, perhaps illustrating the independence of the Welsh mind even then.
As far as Llanhilleth is concerned, the first preacher of Christianity is said to have been none other than St Paul, but, like the coming to Glastonbury by Joseph of Arimathea this story is based on apocryphal sources and must, in the absence of any credible source, be relegated to myth status. In comparison with other parts of Wales, the arrival of faith seems to have occurred rather late here, for it was not until the period 860-893 that a cell of sorts was established on or near the site of the present building. This falls behind the first mound of the Castell Taliorum Silurian hill-fort complex; and the circular churchyard indicates an earlier pagan worship centre. The only artefact that apparently survives from this earlier church is the font, and this can be seen in St Illtyd’s Church today.
The present Church dates from around the beginning of the 13th Century - the date of completion is generally given as 1213, and the parish at that time was in the care of the Cistercian Abbey at Llantarnam. The Cistercians, an order of monks that developed out of the Order of St Benedict at Citeaux, France in 1098, founded their Llantarnam house in 1179, and it was they who oversaw and perhaps even constructed the nave and chancel we now have. Dedicated to the simple life, and favouring poverty and contemplation balanced by hard manual labour, the Cistercians - known as the White Monks in keeping with the colour of their habits, were as concerned with shepherding sheep as with shepherding souls, and the network of sheep-walks over the mountains above the present valley community of Llanhilleth dates back to their time.
St Illtyd’s Church is built of local stone, and comprises a saddle-back tower, nave and chancel. The main entrance to the nave is via the tower, but in the south wall also has a small door, which seems to have been used by the officiating priest as a means of entering the chancel, onto which it opens. Such are the dimensions of this tiny church that the central aisle was narrow in the extreme, meaning that the processions from the back we are accustomed to seeing in churches today would have been unthinkable. Another feature that is absent at St Illtyd’s is a vestry, meaning that any officiating cleric would have had to don any robes he was accustomed to wearing before arriving, in the church itself, or even in the churchyard immediately prior to entering and proceeding to the altar. It is interesting here to draw a parallel between St Illtyd’s and the neighbouring church at Llanfihangel Pont-y-Moel, where thanks to a design alteration implemented by its long-serving vicar the Reverend Christopher Cook (1825-1927, rector at Llanfihangel 1851-1925), preachers wishing to use the pulpit had first to make their way back to vestry, where the pulpit steps were! Incidentally, “Parson” Cook is credited by one of his successors, John Daryll Evans, with being the second longest serving Anglican incumbent on record - he served Llanfihangel for 74 years until 1925. The record for length of service for any incumbent at St Illtyd’s seems to be held by the Reverend William Price, Rector between 1617 and 1660, the length of time being attributed to the Reverend John Williams, priest of the parish between 1560 and 1612 probably being the result of a gap in extant clergy listings.
The church as it stands today bears the name of St Illtyd, or Illtud, believed to have been associated with the court of Arthur before entering the monastery at Cassian near Marseilles in France and being ordained priest by St Germanus of Auxerre. Although the maker of an important contribution to Christian mission throughout Wales, there is no suggestion that he ever had any association with Llanhilleth as such, and indeed the first reference to Illtyd as patron of the church comes only in 1754. The earliest dedication, as implied in the ninth century Englynion y Beddau (Stanzas of the
Graves) and collected among the texts now known as the Black Book of Carmarthen, recorded by various hands between the 12th and 13th Centuries is to Helet or Heledd, sixth to seventh century princess of Powys and member of a family that included a number of other Celtic saints and the warrior hero Cynddylan, Heledd’s brother whose defeat at the hands of Saxon hordes inspired the renowned Canu Heledd (Song of Heledd) in the ninth century. The historian TD Breverton records that during the 16th and 17th Centuries the parish of Llanhilleth bore the name Llanheledd Forwyn (Church of Heledd the Virgin), and this dedication has survived today in the place name, having reached its present form via Llan Helet, Llanheledd, Llanhiledd and Llanhylithe down the years.
This seems simple enough, then, but a further level of difficulty is added when one considers that alongside Illtyd and Heledd, the name of Ithel is also given as the patron of the church, and interestingly as late as 1800, 46 years after the first mention of the dedication having passed to from Heledd to Illtyd, the church is referred to as St Ithel’s. Two saints of this name are recognised, namely Ithel the son of Ceredig and the Armorican prince Ithel Hael, but the reference is more likely to be to the ninth century Ithel ap Hywel who was King of Gwent around 843 CE and is credited with giving financial support to the Diocese of Llandaf, in the boundaries of which St Illtyd’s/Heledd’s/Ithel’s then fell. Ithel ap Hywel is not, it seems, accepted as a true Saint of the Church, and it may well be that the imposition of Illtyd served to “authenticate” the church by putting aside the canonically dubious Ithel and the somewhat legendary Heledd as patrons of the parish. It is unlikely, given its extremely late date, that the dedication to Illtyd is a reference to a disciple of the saint having founded a cell on the site, although in Cwm Tyleri, some three miles up the valley from Llanhilleth, the name Llanerch Padarn or “cell of Padarn” may well have such an implication. However, the church there, founded in 1890, is dedicated to St Paul the Apostle. Back in Llanhilleth, it is worth noting that the names Llaniddel and Llanithel were used as the name of the parish at various times, and that Brynithel (Ithel’s mountain) survives as the place name of the area in which the hill leading up to St Illtyd’s begins.
Giving a full account of the early history of St Illtyd’s is difficult, given the lack of documentary evidence upon which to base opinions, but it seems that at the Cistercians staffed the church with a chaplain, who may have been partly itinerant, given the ties of the Order to the land and to hill farming. The appointment of a Rector or Vicar came later, and it seems that part of his stipend was provided by funds from the Manor of Wentsland and Bryngwyn, in possession of Llantarnam Abbey. The following account of the Rector’s income for 1535, recorded in Bayton’s history, provides interesting insight both into clerical wages around the time of the Reformation and the financial preoccupations of the Roman Catholic Church in Britain at that point in its existence.
From Oblations £6 0s 0d.
From Tithes on Candles 4s.
From Tithes For Services and the Purification of Women 2s 2d.
Tithes from Hay 5s 7d.
Tithes from Pigs 1s 0d.
Tithes from Cheese 6s 8d.
Tithes from Sheep and Lambs £1 0s 0d.
Total £7.15s 9d.
Of the Reformation and its direct impact upon St Illtyd’s we again know little, but the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the year following these accounts saw the Abbey at Llantarnam put out of existence by the forces of Henry VIII, although its lands eventually fell into the hands of the Morgan family of Llantarnam in 1561 and the Abbey site, (now occupied by nuns of the order of the Sisters of St Joseph) remained a place of pilgrimage. With the establishment of the English Church patronage of churches by monks gave way to patronage by Crown and nobles, and from the 18th Century the Lords of Abergavenny were patrons of St Illtyd’s Church with the right to choose the rector. This tradition, which at various times enabled friends of patrons to partake of the benefits of benefices whilst undertaking very little work to justify their enjoying them, was repealed in Wales in 1920 with the creation of a disestablished, disendowed Church in Wales, when the choice of incumbents reverted to the bishops, alternating with diocesan boards of patronage. To be fair to the Established Church of England, where private patronage by nobles and notables remains, changes in the law during the latter part of the 19th Century rendered absentee rectors and vicars liable to loss of licence and dismissal.
I have said that we know little of the Reformation and St Illtyd’s, but a piece of folk-myth that the researcher into the history of the church hears several times a year may well date from this time, or at least from the era of Elizabeth I. It is said that a tunnel leads from the sanctuary of St Illtyd’s to the valley below, and that once upon a time a statue of a golden calf, highly prized and literally made of gold was kept in the church. One night, thieves entered the church and took away the statue and disappeared down the tunnel with it, secreting it somewhere on the mountain below, between the church and the modern village of Aberbeeg. Since then people have tried to pinpoint the tunnel and the statue, but without success, and this leads me to conclude that what we are dealing with a piece of Protestant catechesis that was so well taught that it has remained relatively intact for centuries. It is hard to imagine the members of a Christian church allocating value to a golden calf, but the confiscation of monastic wealth (gold) and the stripping out of the ritual and grandeur of Roman Catholic worship (gold vestments?) were undoubtedly contributory factors in what early Anglican apologists would have seen as being the emergence of a truer Church and worship. The Golden Calf (Exodus Ch.32) is in Biblical lore the idol made by Aaron for the worship of the Israelites, and in that its worship led to the loss of the Promised Land for those involved, it is seen as the worst example of idolatry in the Bible. Could it be that the “Golden Calf” was used in comparison with the images of Mary and the Saints used in Roman Catholic worship to defuse the people’s dependence on them as worship aids? Were the “thieves” in fact soldiers whose removal of the images laid them open to grumbled accusations of robbery; an accusation that needed to be defused by a cleric loyal to the Crown and Reformed Religion? Or were they meant as denizens of the depths, taking the statue to the place it belonged? We shall never know. However, in that extensive excavation of the church in the course of its renovation yielded no trace of a tunnel into or out of it, one has to wonder whether or not the idea of an “idol” disappearing through the floor does not symbolise its metaphoric “descent into hell”.
There is a certain dearth of material dealing with the history of St Illtyd’s in the 16th and 17th Centuries, although it is claimed that Charles the First paid the church a visit during his reign, seeking shelter there. Compared with many villages today the original parish of Llanhilleth was a tiny hamlet with few inhabitants, and this is reflected in the fact that in 1725 only two baptisms were conducted at the church and one marriage was solemnised, with a slight increase noticeable by 1753 when seven baptisms, two marriages and eight burials were recorded in the registers. Burials at St Illtyd’s seem to have been conducted from the outset, but the earliest gravestone to survive dates from the 18th Century, and, curiously for a time when the entire parish would have been Welsh-speaking, bears an English inscription, which reads “Here lyeth the Body of Richard, Son of Jenkin Richard of this Parish. Who Died August 19th 1739, aged 19 Years. The gravestone can be seen, intact, standing against the churchyard wall on the side of the graveyard nearest the Carpenters’ Arms public house - it is easily approached by turning right outside the tower door and walking straight on.
Not far from the grave of Richard Richard is the base of a broken preaching cross, and this is believed to be the location of a sermon by John Wesley during one of his many visits to Wales and one of two to St Illtyd’s. Some claim that the newer of the church’s two bells, dated 1767 and bearing the inscription “Come away, make no delay” was cast in honour of Wesley’s and bears the words of his text, but in recent years this has been questioned, the suggestion being ventured that the reference is simply to the function of a church bell in calling the faithful to worship. An older bell, inscribed Gloria in Excelsis Deo - “Glory to God in the Highest” and dated 1615 hangs alongside, and both bells - curiously high-pitched, but for their age remarkably clear, are still rung on special occasions, particularly for the New Year. At the risk of introducing a slightly irreverent element to this history, I would recommend that anyone invited to pull the ropes first of all steel themselves with a whisky at the Carpenters Arms, as the reverberation within the tower is considerable!
The tower containing the bells is in fact the most recent addition to the church building, but a small amount of confusion exists with regard to its dating. The Venerable William Coxe, in his 1801 Historical Tour of Monmouthshire categorically states that there was no tower at the church of “Llaniddel” at the time of his visit, and this once led the present author to conclude in a published article that the tower was a Victorian addition. However, excavations at the Church have shown the tower to be more than 200 years old, and the general consensus now is that in the hectic process of galloping from place to place, Archdeacon Coxe probably made a mistake, crediting “St Ithel’s” - as it seems still to have been called at that point - with the architectural attributes of another building entirely.
In the days before schooling was automatically provided for all by the State, the Church had an important role to play in imparting knowledge to the children of ordinary people, and it is recorded that schools were held at St Illtyd’s between 1748-1750, with 43 members in the first academic year decreasing to 28 in the second. Immediately prior to the setting up of the school in the church itself, the venue for classes was the nearby farmhouse of Ty-Lwyd, which seems at some point to have served as the Rectory for Llanhilleth, although when this was so is not clear. At various times the clergy in charge of the parish lived as far afield as Aberystruth (Blaina), Hafod-yr-Ynys and Pont-y-Pwll (Pontypool), which must have created problems in times of inclement weather. It could be that Ty-Lwyd (The Grey House) was in fact the first ever presbytery (priest’s house) for Llanhilleth, or at least on the site thereof.
The coming of industry in the early 19th Century at first took the form of a drift mine at Blaencuffin owned by Sir Robert Salisbury, signalling the start of a shift away from farming as the mainstay of the Llanhilleth economy. Bayton’s history records that by 1817 a small community had built up around the mine, with such job titles as agent, navigator, mason, founder, blacksmith, miner and collier having been listed in the “Father’s Occupation” section of baptismal registers by 1822. The sudden influx of new industry does not appear to have done great things in terms of inspiring the members of St Illtyd’s to take care of their place of worship, however, for in 1840 suggestions of neglect led to the churchwardens being summoned before the Consistory Court of the Diocese of Llandaff to discuss the state of the building. This sparked off a programme of renovations that was to continue for the remainder of the century, including the laying of a tiled floor (replacing one made of tombstones) the installation of a heating system, and most importantly, development work on the distinctive barrel roof that for many is the hallmark of St Illtyd’s. The priest responsible for the parish during the greater part of the 19th Century was the Reverend James Hughes, and his grave can be found almost opposite the main entrance of the church.
Following the death of James Hughes in 1895, aged 80, the Reverend Daniel Felix was inducted to the benefice, and it was he who recognised that whatever the historical merits of St Illtyd’s were, its remoteness effectively served to drive a wedge between the Anglican Church and the people to whom it might minister. Since the beginnings of deep mining, population increases had been concentrated in the valley below, and before too long an alternative church, dedicated to St Mark and containing both church and parish hall facilities was ready to open, being consecrated in 1899. Christ Church in Aberbeeg followed by 1911, together with a purpose-built house that remains in use as Llanhilleth’s Rectory today. For the sake of accuracy, one must record that a “mission room” preceded these buildings from the early 1890s onwards, despite the fact that at that time Anglicans in the area where it could be found came technically under the parochial jurisdiction of Penmaen.
It was during the latter part of Daniel Felix’ incumbency that the area around St Illtyd’s, the complex known as Castell Taliorum attracted the interest of a young University of Wales academic, Trevor Lewis, and, under the supervision of the distinguished historian Mortimer Wheeler he set to work excavating the site, described variously as a Norman motte and bailey castle, a Roman fortress, a beacon mound, a burial chamber and even the result of a giant (conveniently called Ithel) dropping stones with which he had planned to build himself a house! The conclusion accepted today is that the complex is Silurian in origin, but the discovery by Lewis of a circular and a cruciform building dating from medieval times suggested the site had also been colonised by the Normans. A few Roman coins and fragments of pottery were discovered on the site, but these were not enough, in the face of other evidence, to suggest any Roman encampment or village had been present here, despite attempts to take from Castell Taliorum the derivation CASTEL ITALORUM - or castle of the Italians. The more probable derivation, as recorded by the anonymous author of a Friends of St Illtyd’s website article is CASTELL TAL-Y-RHUN, or castle in front of the headland.
Trevor Lewis’ interest in Llanhilleth was primarily with Castell Taliorum, but his excavations stretched into the field next to St Illtyd’s and there is a rather desolate photograph of the church, taken of the windowless north side, in his archives preserved at Abertyleri and District Museum. Lewis also took his camera into the church itself, and his picture catches in time St Illtyd’s as it was when Daniel Felix was rector, with the pews clearly stretching all the way across the tiny nave and sunlight blazing through the east window. One sees the chancel arch, the barrel roof and one of the tie beams… and, above the arch in the right hand corner a sinister black patch indicating quite clearly the beginnings of decay.
Daniel Felix died in 1930, aged 75, and unlike his predecessor was buried in the new burial ground at Christ Church, Aberbeeg. His place was taken by the Reverend Thomas Madog Williams, former Vicar of Cwm Tyleri, a diminutive yet energetic North Walian whose great strength was to be able to communicate simply with the people of the Welsh Valleys on their own terms. Having inherited two relatively new and accessible churches in Llanhilleth and Aberbeeg, he concentrated his activities within them, and by the end of his time he earned himself a Canonry of St Woolos’ Cathedral, Newport, as well as the title of Rural Dean of Blaenau Gwent, a post also
held by his predecessor. Under Canon Madog Williams services at St Illtyd’s appear to have been less frequent, and by the time of his death at the age of 68 in October 1956 they seem to have been no more than an intermittent affair. In 1940 subsidence had necessitated the closure of the church for a time; and an account that first appeared in the Chatham, Rochester and Gillingham News for Friday July 19 of that year, paints a sad image of the building at this point.
“With its boarded-up windows and crumbling masonry, a close inspection of its exterior is as depressing as its distant view is inspiring. My friend hastily called me from my reverie to visit the living oracle of this hamlet on the hill, old Mr David Edwards, already well past his allotted three score years and ten. Entering his cottage on the summit by the church, we found the old gentleman reclining on his sofa, quite as eager to talk as I was to listen…
David Edwards has lived in this same old cottage from earliest childhood, when its roof was thatch. Now it is modernised, and an electric iron stood ready for use on the table. Even the mountain fastnesses of South Wales are thoroughly up-to-date! Himself a Welsh Nonconformist, Mr Edwards had no doubt as to the tremendous antiquity of the old church close at hand. Now known as St. Illtyd's, Daniel interpreted the Llaniddel as Llanieddew, that is, the Church of the Jew…
From David’s cottage we obtained the key to visit the interior of St. Illtyd’s. We entered with some difficulty, and a sadder sight has hardly ever fallen to my lot R. L. Stevenson's description of a room in the House of Shaws, where another David was forced to spend a night, might be applied to this House of God with equal truth , Damp, dirt. disuse, and the mice arid spiders had done their worst, or words to that effect, for I quote" Kidnapped" from memory. Its two bells, dated 1615 and 1767, respectively, have long hung silent (and precariously) in the, belfry; and its monumental tablets are almost all completely effaced.
I passed once more into the pleasant open air with a sense of profound relief…”
The “boarding up” referred to seems to have been partly to protect the building against vandalism, and of course in wartime there was also a need to guard against the possibility of a German bombing, although on the whole the Valleys remained remarkably free of that kind of problem. In 1943 the Rector became aware that something needed to be done about the fabric of the church, and in January of that year a team led by curate (later Rector) the Reverend J McLaren Price and bringing together Messrs J Exton, B Davies and deputy warden of St Mark’s Llanhilleth T Galton, worked hard to refurbish both the interior and exterior of St Illtyd’s. So successful were they that the building was ready to reopen on September 8, 1943, when Rural Dean of Pontypool Canon Joseph Morgan officiated at a rededication service.
John MacLaren Price was the last Rector of Llanhilleth to inherit St Illtyd’s as a working church, albeit a much depleted one. His arrival in 1957 coincided with the commencement of opencast coal workings near St Illtyd’s, and, having received advice on the matter, the Church in Wales opted to close the building entirely whilst these excavations lasted. A survey in 1962 showed that the building had decayed considerably, and the decision was taken to abandon any hopes of reopening, although the key remained available to anyone wishing to visit for some years after this - there even being a short leaflet available for those who wanted to know more about the history of the church. An amusing anecdote from this time tells of how the church gained another use, for on one occasion when the Reverend Mr Price paid a visit, he was aghast to discover that someone had stabled a donkey in the church! It was during this incumbency that a final set of photographs was taken - it showed the interior of the church to be much affected by damp and the exterior supported by props.
John MacLaren Price left Llanhilleth in 1968 for the parish of Mynyddislwyn, and died in harness there in 1981 aged 64. His place as nominal Rector of St Illtyd’s was taken by Lewis David Pritchard: and it was during his time, in 1970, that the east windows of St Illtyd’s (donated in memory of the Reverend James Hughes) were installed at Christ Church in Aberbeeg, where they can be seen today. Strangely, the Minutes of Llanhilleth Parochial Church Council record that the windows were removed first of all to Exeter for renovation, and the decision to place them in Christ Church (rather than reinstate them in their original place) may have been something of a makeshift decision. At the risk of proving controversial, the present author finds it worth saying that the attitude of the Church in Wales to St Illtyd’s appears to have been a rather schizophrenic one, for whilst in 1967 the Parochial Church Council noted its interest in the church’s preservation (and acknowledged donations for the purpose) the Diocese of Monmouth apparently declined offers from outside for work to be carried out.
Although by now disused, the building still retained the affection of a small group of villagers, and despite the fact that it looked set for eventual removal did not give up on it. In 1974 the church was wired for electricity for the first time, and in the same year Mr Tom Galton, whose affinity with St Illtyd’s stretched back to the restorations of 1943 and before, organised a harvest festival there. That small congregation, meeting in a concreted and boarded up shell, was the last ever to worship in the building.
A little later, in 1977, St Illtyd’s saw another use, for it was in this year award-winning American photographer Paul Conklin - best known for his Peace Corps picture of a Vietnam protester placing a daisy in the barrel of a National Guard soldier’s rifle - gave the church a cameo role in his book Michael of Wales (ISBN-13: 9780396074151, ISBN: 0396074154). The story revolves around the life of a small boy from Six Bells, and there is a shot, taken from inside the tower, of the churchyard as seen by the story’s boy hero as he shelters from the rain, having clambered up the mountain to the church. Mr Conklin died in 2003, aged 74, and his Seattle Times obituary records that he “twice won first prize at the White House annual photography exhibit… and also wrote and illustrated his own books, including Michael of Wales…” The book remains in print in the United States today, and is considered a moving example of the author’s writing about children of vanishing cultures - in this case a child of a South Welsh mining community.
That a writer of Paul Conklin’s stature should include St Illtyd’s in one of his books is noteworthy anyway, but it is also interesting because it shows that whilst St Illtyd’s was past use by then, it was frequently not locked. In 1981 the South Wales Argus carried a lengthy feature on the church, describing it as crying out for restoration work needing to be done soon. There were fears by this time that the church was in danger of being demolished, and an impassioned plea was raised to save the building on the grounds that it constituted an important aspect of the heritage of the area. Sadly, these appeals to sanity were not to be heard for some time yet.
Lewis David Pritchard was nominally St Illtyd’s rector, but it is important to realise that he was so only by virtue of the fact that the church and its burial ground fell into his jurisdiction. A similar status applied to the Reverend Albert James Way, and it was in this capacity that he paid a visit to the church shortly after his arrival as Rector of Llanhilleth in 1983. “I went inside when I came here”, he said in conversation to the present author in 1999. “It was pretty bad”. The Reverend Mr Way did not elaborate on what he had seen inside the church, but judging by the horrendous scene that greeted me on my first passing the building in the same year one does not have to use much imagination. By that time the building had sunk more than a foot into the ground, and so unstable was it that it had been cordoned off to protect passers-by from the risk of falling stone tiles from the decaying roof. The side windows had been blocked with concrete, and since the east window had been stripped of its glass thirteen or more years earlier the interior of the church had been entirely exposed to the elements.
It was during the incumbency of Albert Way that a decision was taken by the Church in Wales as to what should happen to St Illtyd’s Church. Already stripped of parish church status in 1911 following the establishment of Christ Church Aberbeeg (although Crockford’s Clerical Directory still gave the dedication of Llanhilleth as being to St Illtud until 1981), the building was deconsecrated in 1984 and offered for sale. The churchyard however remained and remains consecrated and in control of the Church, although as a closed burial ground in which no further interments are allowed to take place.
The purchaser of St Illtyd’s - apparently for the nominal price of one pound - was Mrs Gladys Hale, then owner and licensee of the Carpenters’ Arms public house next to the church, whose appreciation, enthusiasm and discernment in realising that the (Grade Two listed) building required renovation and preservation sadly did not result in her securing the funding necessary for the task. With the church in danger of collapse, urgent action was necessary, and thankfully, help was at hand.
The presence of a listed building within its boundaries places considerable responsibility on a local authority, and the then Borough Council of Blaenau Gwent (now superseded by Blaenau Gwent County Borough Council) became concerned for the future of the historic little church, using powers provided for it by law to possess it under a compulsory purchase order in 1990. Aided by the Welsh historic monuments preservation body CADW it set about a comprehensive programme of refurbishment, and specialist workers were drafted in for the job to ensure authenticity, insofar as it was possible. Traditional methods and materials were used in the process, although various invisible supports that prevent pressure from the roof from disengaging the walls and stop the church sinking are obviously of more modern technological origin.
Archaeological digs were carried out immediately prior to the renovation, and evidence was found of the heating system installed by James Hughes during the latter part of his incumbency - it was placed beneath the floor of the church to allow heat to rise into the barrel roof. The archaeologists also discovered what seems to have been the base of a rood screen, but the screen itself has long disappeared and does not exist in living memory. Portions of two inscribed gravestones were found too, and one may speculate that they originally formed part of the church floor that was removed. The excavations also gave rise to the last “service” to be taken at St Illtyd’s by a Rector of Llanhilleth, when the Reverend Albert Way officiated at the reburial of human remains disinterred during the dig - they are re-interred in the churchyard. Other graves, undisturbed during the laying of the new floor, remain beneath St Illtyd’s today.
“Today, the Old Church of St Illtyd’s is closed. It still stands (with the help of props), forlornly at the top of the mountain. It is now the home, not of Cistercian Monks, but of Welsh sheep which use the church as a harbour against the biting winds”. So ends the Bayton history, with an image of decay and desolation. Now though, one may conclude differently, and it gives the present author great delight so to do. Today, the ancient church of St Illtyd is open, thanks to the resilience of the people who believed and believe that history plays an important part in shaping us as humans, and thanks to such artisans who dedicated themselves to the task of renovation so that now the building can be appreciated once more. No longer licensed as a place of worship - a fact that saddens some - it is now used as a concert and meeting venue, but still may be visited on Sundays between May and September each year by those who wish to sit and contemplate the presence of the past.
“There is a rare peace here”. So wrote the poet and priest RS Thomas of his own area of Llyn in North Wales, as he tried to articulate its spiritual impact upon him. Had he visited it, I like to imagine he might have written something similar about the ancient former Church of St Heledd, St Ithel or St Illtyd - call it what you prefer, even just “The Old Church” will do - which retains an atmosphere that is all its own, one that transcends the boundaries of religion and may be felt, I feel, by people of all faiths and none.
Here is a list of the known Rectors of the parish, whose lives of sacrifice and service helped inspire people to make it that way through their worship and meditation.
1560 - The Reverend John Williams.
1612 - The Reverend David Pritchard.
1617 - The Reverend William Price.
1660 - The Reverend Lewis James.
c1700 - The Reverend Walter Evans.
1742 - The Reverend Richard Edwards.
1768 - The Reverend Abednego Pritchard.
1771 - The Reverend David Jones.
1818 - The Reverend Thomas Jones.
1840 - The Reverend William Evans.
1843 - The Reverend James Hughes.
1895 - The Reverend Daniel Felix.
1930 - The Reverend Canon Thomas Madog Williams - obit 1956.
1957 - The Reverend John MacLaren Price (nominal after 1962)
1968 - The Reverend Lewis David Pritchard (nominal only)
1982 - The Reverend Albert James Way (nominal only, 1982-84).