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Country diary: a simple but fascinating church

It’s quiet country between Dyffryn Tanat and the Berwyn. I often gravitate here. In the valley beneath Gyrn Moelfre lies St Cadwaladr’s, the little church of Llangadwaladr, equidistant between two bronze-age tumuli, the circular churchyard indicative of its origin as a Celtic Christian clas (an early religious community in which men and women lived and worshipped as equals).

I first walked over here from Llangollen 20 years ago, picnicked in the porch, watched shadow deepening round the Gyrn’s summit, then turned for home. A farmer puttered along the lane on his quad bike. We talked. He told me his father had come here in the hungry 1930s after eviction from a tied cottage on the Nannau estate near Dolgellau for taking a pheasant. “He’s buried there,” he said, pointing to a grave, “I’ll be next to him in my time.”

A gate with red soul symbol

A gate with red soul symbol. Photograph: Jim Perrin

Last week I came back. This simple church, plainly restored in Victorian times, fascinates me. There’s a north-south-orientated avenue of ancient yews, and a curious wrought-iron gate – the latter not, I think, very old, and perhaps made in Brymbo. It incorporates surprising motifs: a Celtic sun-disc; the stylised birds, painted here in Wynnstay red, that you’ll find categorised as soul symbols in Anne Ross’s seminal 1967 study Pagan Celtic Britain.

Plygain – the Christmas cock’s-crow service still current in parts of rural Powys – used to be held here. I sat in a pew remembering how well attended it, and the earlier Harvest Home, had been from my time living in nearby Llanrhaeadr. The heavy door creaked open. In walked my farmer friend from 20 years ago. He’s churchwarden now. I offered him tea from my flask. He talked of recent academic interest in the churchyard’s rare avenue of yews; how it had brought increased benefice from St Asaph diocese. “The researchers say it represents a portal between realms of the living and the dead,” he explained.

Repairs are needed to St Cadwaladr’s roof. Plygain, he continued, is now celebrated in Llansilin, not here. Yet it’s here that brings to mind Hindu tirthas, “thin places”, or holy junctions that offer spiritual transition between worlds. Llangadwaladr feels thus to me.

Llangadwaladr yews

Llangadwaladr yews. Photograph: Jim Perrin

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