Llanfair Dyffryn Clwyd is dominated by the rather wonderful Church of St Mary and St Cynfarch. Despite the dedication, at least in part to the 5th century British saint, there is little evidence to suggest an early medieval foundation. The churchyard is beautifully manicured, but rectilinear in shape.
Llanfair is not an unusual name in North Wales, and to differentiate it from similarly named settlements, it finally gave itself the addendum, ‘Dyffryn Clwyd’ in the early part of the 19th century. As the improving roads and the emergence of the steam railway brought communities closer together, there was probably a need to do so. The name translates as, ‘The Church (site) of St Mary in the Vale of Clwyd’. The church and its history is discussed elsewhere in these pages.
Two stone axes of the Neolithic era were found in the 1830s at, it is thought, nearby Coed Cochion (136544). The Bronze Age burial mounds of Cefn Coch and Llysfasi have been ploughed flat, though an axe of the same age was found on land owned by the Llwyn-ynn estate. Roman remains in North East Wales are curiously rare, but a cropmark south of Plas-newydd farm suggests a possible Roman temple, which would be a find of some importance.
William Rees (1887-1978), the well-known geographical historian believed that the village was a ‘maerdref’, a settlement of bondsmen to a llys, the court of a lord in the commote of Llanerch. However, how he came to this understanding is not clear. Edward Lluyd describes a group of six houses about the church at the end of the 17th century, the centre of a twist of lanes. Split in half by the turnpike road, now the A525, it is not known whether the road follows an existing roadway, or was purpose built in the 18th century. Despite there being no listed buildings in the village itself, many of the farmhouses surrounding the settlement are very old indeed, possibly medieval in origin.
However, of especial interest is the prevalence of recorded customs and traditions of the parish, recorded by Elias Owen in his, ‘Old Stones Crosses of the Vale of Clwyd’ (1886). Many of these are discussed below.
Owen records that one of the customs of the village was the ringing of a hand-bell by the parish clerk before a funeral procession. It is thought that this was to warn traffic on the narrow lanes of the procession, though certain legends suggest that the ringing of a hand-bell was undertaken to save the soul of the departed from the clutches of Satan. The Llanfair bell was also used to announce the selling of tithes.
Owen was grateful to a farmer of Plas Einion (132542), old John Roberts, who told him of several interesting traditions. Apparently, certain offences upon conviction entailed a penance of standing in the church in a white sheet. Though Roberts admitted he had not seen this practice, he knew of individuals, including the late parish clerk who had. The farmer also told Owen of the custom of instructing those guilty of petty offences to distribute white bread (interesting that it should be white bread) to the poor after morning prayers on a Sunday. Owen found other witnesses to this tradition, including a John Lewis of Graigfechan (147544), who claimed he had received such a loaf. According to Roberts, some funeral processions of a distance required the use of a, ‘Elor feirch’, essentially an elaborate bier carried by specially trained horses, since it was uncomfortable for the beasts. He remembered two funerals that needed the elor feirch, the last in 1808 when a Robert Llwyd of Cerygoerion was laid to rest. Roberts also claims that his father used to celebrate Christmas on 14th December with readings to the servants, after the change to the Gregorian calendar in 1752 effectively dismissed 11 days. While celebrations were also held within the community on the 25th, Roberts’ father until his dying day maintained the old calendar. Roberts also told Owen of the tradition of spreading consecrated soil on the ground of a cock pit, in order to dispel any possible bewitchment. It is a difficult truth that cock-fighting was often undertaken in churchyards, indeed many competitive sports were, and Owen asks whether this was due to the consecrated nature of the ground, effectively ensuring fairness, and avoidance of curses. Roberts last tale was possibly the most interesting. Again on the theme of the power of spells and curses, the old farmer informed Owen of the practice of evicted tenants cursing unscrupulous farmers by placing the 109th Psalm, a particularly strong Psalm, written down on paper, into a crevice in a wall and covering it up so as not to be found. It was believed that as long as the Psalm was unfound, ruin would follow the farmer.
St John’s Festival, or Gwyl Ifan was celebrated within the parish, when tithes were auctioned off, largely to the farmers of the parish, though sometimes, too much ill feeling, to outsiders. Owen tells of a tithe beer, Gwrw Degwm being sold, which being a strong and very drinkable ale, caused many a hasty bid which was, as he says, later, ‘repented of at leaisure’.
In Owen’s day, it was still the custom for men and women to be separate during services at Jesus Chapel in Llanfair. He claims the practice was being revived in many churches. Another custom, also common elsewhere in North East Wales, was the tradition of the clergyman leaving the church first, in order that the congregation could, ‘exchange courtesies with the parson’. This custom continued, he tells us, until 1848 with the death of the Rev James Jones. His successor remained in the pulpit until the congregation had left, and while this may seem a little distant, it is possible that this was to do away with the practice of leaving the church in rank preference. This apparently caused many quarrels, with peoples of perceived importance clashing with others of similar ‘importance’.