In many ways, the parish church of Llangar is a time capsule. Effectively abandoned in 1865 after the building of a new church in nearby Cynwyd, Llangar church retains evidence of much of its history. In the wall paintings that cover almost every wall, its importance is clear. In the sheer number and in the subject matter they are vital to an understanding of the age in which this church served the people of the parish and indeed a wider public.
The origins of the name differ depending on who you choose to believe. From the Reverend John Wynne we have, ‘Llan-Garw-Gwyn’ the ‘Church of the White Deer’, which certainly lends itself to the story of its founding. From Samuel Lewis in 1838 we have ‘Llangaer’ the ‘Church of the Camp' a reference to the number of hilltop settlements or hillforts that are scattered about. The church itself is thought to have a late 12th or early 13th century foundation, and no evidence of an earlier structure has been found. An entry in the Taxatio Ecclesiastica of 1291 makes mention of its value, and certainly some of the wall paintings are 14th century in origin. However, it is not until 1730 that we have the first full description of the church, and certainly by this time the church had enjoyed a variety of additions, rebuilds and further wall painting.
Indeed, from the survey conducted by the Reverend John Wynne in 1730, we find much of interest, not least his description of the rector of the time, an Edward Samuel (1674-1748). A strong willed and independent man it seems, Samuel is remembered for authoring Bucheddau’r Apostolion a’r Efengylwyr (1704), but he was also outspoken. In writing to the Bishop of St Asaph three years before his death, he said, ‘I thank God I have hitherto lived without a curate, but when I want one, your lordship shall be acquainted with it.’ Perhaps this outspokenness was the reason John Wynne decried him as a man with, ‘some brains, but much more conceit’ before also claiming Samuel had a love of the alehouse as well as more learned matters. Edward Samuel’s gravestone, and that of his son can be found by the east wall.
Despite Llangar being a popular place of worship, both in the parish and beyond, by 1853 it was seen as not best serving the population. It was deemed a new church in Cynwyd would be built. By 1865 it was noted that Llangar was virtually abandoned. Crucially, however, Llangar was not demolished, and hence the survival of the astonishing wall paintings.
The Welsh Office took ownership in 1967 and restoration began in 1974, largely on the basis of the importance of the wall paintings. That restoration was complete by 1991 and had necessitated the buttressing of the north wall which had been close to collapse. This had much to do with the original construction of Llangar church into the hillside. This buttressing has added to the hundreds of years of additions that can be seen on a tour of the church. Graffiti and dated woodwork scattered about the exterior and interior of the church, the evidence of the rearrangement of the internal fittings, all show this evolution of the church.
The churchyard is fascinating. The pre-1750 burials are almost entirely on the south side of the church, while later burials seem to spread out from thereon. Most of the engravings on the stones before 1825 are in English, though after this date they are mostly in Welsh. Is this evidence of a resurgence in the popularity of Welsh in the area? Is it that Welsh become something other than a spoken language at this time, perhaps as French was considered the language of the educated in England for hundreds of years after the Norman Conquest, while English was the language of the ‘lower classes’?
On entering the church through the 17th century porch, you are immediately faced with the huge figure of death on the north wall, painted around 1748. Skeletal figures of death were not uncommon in churches, but the example at Llangar is impressive, to say the least. Carrying a winged hour glass and a spear or arrow, some evidence of an inscription is also visible, although it is difficult now to make sense of them. Given the subject matter, they are most likely to refer, as they do in Rug Chapel, to the shortness of one’s life on earth, and the importance of living a Christian life. The image is startling, and dominates your attention but there is much more to be seen.
Indeed, the figure of death is one of the most recent wall paintings. The earliest, perhaps 14th Century are on the north wall and by the entrance in the south wall. The bishop on the north wall is very early, but have been enhanced with decoration at a later date. This is evidence of how wall painting was not seen as individual works of art, but as teaching aids. In an age in which the population would have been largely illiterate, stained glass and wall painting would have been used as reminders to the congregation of biblical stories and what they meant. As such, they would have been constantly updated, repaired and replaced. It is thought that there are around eight different phases of wall painting in Llangar church.
As powerful as the figure of death is, it is the scenes from the seven deadly sins on the south wall that are most unique. Three figures remain, riding animals symbolic of the sin they represent. A boar, (gluttony), a lion (pride) and a goat (lechery) are contained in a series of very rare panels which give you the distinct impression you are looking at a very old comic. On the east wall, either side of the window, the remains of the ten commandments have been fixed. It is possible that these are the boards John Wynne describes hanging from the ceiling before the congregation.
There are four pews against the north wall, probably for the established families of the area, and indeed several of them are inscribed. A fifth, for the rector’s family is situated by the altar on the south wall. There are some benches by the pulpit for the poor, servants and visitors. A gloriously crude medieval font is built into the wall by the porch, and seems to have, along with much of the internal fittings, moved about a bit in the history of the church. An eighteenth century painted cupboard can be seen in the north wall and would have been used to make safe the church plate and registers.
There is a rather splendid gallery at the west end, and it seems this might have been largely for the choir or church band. A rare four-sided music stand is situated central to the gallery and it does not take much to imagine the choristers or musicians gathered about this simple but beautiful piece of woodwork. There might well be evidence of some wall painting based on biblical references to music close by, but it is difficult to be sure. Music, it seems, was important at Llangar.
Visiting Llangar is a delightful way to spend a couple of hours, situated as it is in a beautiful part of the Vale of Edeyrnion, close to where the River Alwyn meets the Dee. It is very peaceful, with beautiful views. It is perhaps unsurprising that a myth as to its founding has remained popular in the area.
Llangar Church is situated a mile or so along the B4401 Corwen to Cynwyd road. Park up in the sizeable layby and cross the road with care, walking down the small track, past a derelict house until you get to the gate. Walk across the field until you reach the lichgate.
Access to the Church itself is by pre-arrangement, which can be made by contacting Rug Chapel on 01490 412025
There are no amenities on site. Admission is free.