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The Old Churchyard

‘In Inglecroft and Brynford and Halkyn there is land for 1 plough. There is (1 plough) in demense, with a church and a priest and 3 bordars. There is a mill rendering 5s (and) woodland half a league long and 40 perches wide. It is worth 10s.’

Domesday Book, A Complete Translation, ed. Penguin (2002)

 

There is nothing now to be seen now of the old church of St Mary’s in the graveyard, mentioned in the 11th century Domesday Book, along the road a ways from the stunning Victorian rebuild of 1877-78. A ghostly shadow only of the platform upon which the church once stood remains amongst the mouldering headstones of the long gone.

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The old church was closed and torn down in the mid 19th century to make way for a better quality of view from Halkyn Castle, built earlier in the century. It might be supposed by some that a view which included the ancient church would be rather idyllic, quaint, pretty even.  But it’s hard to say in truth. It is often forgotten that before the great paroxysm of Victorian church rebuilding, much of it rather questionable in quality and taste, many churches were in a state of considerable decrepitude - fit to fall. Having said that, the old church of St Mary’s had been rebuilt in the later 18th century, so was probably in a better state than many.

 

Just about the only description we have of the old church is that given in the History of Diocese of St Asaph of (1874), written not long before the new church was built.

 

‘It consists of a nave with a small apse, and has a belfry-tower at the west end, a south entrance and north vestry. A painting of the Last Supper is placed at the east end, and the west is occupied by a gallery. It is pewed to seat three hundred and forty. The principal monuments are those of Mrs. Ann Williams of Halkin Castle, 1703; the Prices and Humphreys of Penypylle ; Edward Roberts, M.A., rector, 1839; and Petrus Roberts, A.M., rector, ob. 1819, who is described as "in legibus, moribus, institutis, annalibus, poesi, musica, gentis Cambro-Britannica instructissimus."'

 

Not much to render a picture, then, little to fashion a mind's eye of an image.

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There was once a churchyard cross, of course, though there is no trace of it now within the churchyard. A considerable portion of the headstone, however, has been incorporated into a southern buttress of the new church. It seems that even before the demolition of the old church, the cross had suffered the indignity of ruin and neglect, since Elias Owen tells us that the eventually recovered headstone was being used as a footrest by the bell ringer of the old church.

 

A story then, you may be thinking, of what has been lost. But, one moment, fair reader, one moment. You see, the old churchyard remains, and what remains is quite astonishing. To describe it as atmospheric would do it little justice, would not tell the very half of a story. I freely admit to owning a rather febrile imagination, for which I make no apologies, and entering the graveyard for the first time made merry play with my propensity for waking dream, like breaking through a fine veil - it was a tangible, very real realisation that this was a place different to my own.

 

It is said to be haunted, of course, as you would expect, and it’s an easy leap to give credence to such thoughts as you wander amongst the lichen heavy stones, the moss covered graves, age worn tombs and root ripped crypts. I can quite imagine that to spend any time here at night, in the dark would be enough to give anyone the most profound of heebie-jeebies - but then, to do so would be to want to be terrored, and the churchyard is so much more than some would-be theme park of desired hauntings.

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And there is a holy well here, though little mention of it is ever made. Edward Lluyd writes of it in 1699 as, ‘Ffynnon Fair yn y Vynwent’ - St Mary’s Well in the cemetery. It was given short shrift by the Royal Commission in 1910, described as, ‘covered with cemented flags, and its water supplies the neighbouring houses.’ It rests in the southern part of the graveyard, on Halkyn Castle land. Nothing more of it is known. It does, however, fit in entirely with the general atmosphere of the churchyard - overgrown and mouldering away beneath a canopy of overhanging trees and scrub. The cemented flags are a bit of a mystery, described elsewhere as possible gravestones, and there is evidence of this, but most seem to be an ornamentation, leading down to the well itself, a dark wetness in the earth.

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An entirely moving experience, and well worth an hour of your time. A wander about Old Halkyn Churchyard is to feel what was, and what was is often an entirely more refreshing experience to what is.