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In the footsteps of Elias Owen

Corwen Churchyard Cross

 

The writings of Elias Owen is where it all started for me. I'd followed my soon-to-be wife to be to the north east of Wales, and was startled to find how very similar it was to the north of England - all coal and steel. It seemed to me, that really the only difference was the accent. But here's the rub. As northern as I was, and my background is as northern an Englishman can be before he becomes a Scot, the industry - the coal and the steel were of little interest to me. I spent my hours wandering woods and fields, messing about by rivers and, joy of joys, scrambling over the fallen walls of Roche Abbey - long before English Heritage (bless them) moved in and tidied the place up. Coal and steel were in my background, but not my blood, I think.



So, moving to north east Wales was a bit like coming home. And I did what I did when I ten - I went a wandering. I'm not sure when or how I first came across the writings of Elias Owen, but I'm tremendously glad I did. I felt an immediate connection - with his enthusiasm and more than anything, his heartfelt connection to the land and the people - their interests, concerns, ideas, thoughts and feelings, and how they made sense of their landscape. His work showed such love and empathy, I was quite moved. And it served to settle me here.


 

Owen's Old Stone Crosses of the Vale of Clwyd (1886) is a work of wonder. Not a page is without fascination. A joyous read. And I was determined to visit each and every one of the crosses so brilliantly spoken of and illustrated. The first visited was Corwen Churchyard Cross - and one I've been back to see on many occasions since.



Owen believed it to be Norman in date, and he is quite correct - as he often is. In fact, the cross is believed to be the earliest post-Conquest cross in north east Wales, probably early 12th century. While there is plenty remaining, much has been lost, of course. Its always something of a miracle that anything survives, other than as a basestone or sundial. The headstone is missing and lost, now, but we have a fascinating drawing of the cross from 1789, a drawing by Richard Gough in illustrating a 18th century edition of Camden's 'Britannia'. It shows a really rather striking octagonal cap. Searches of the churchyard, and within the church, even in the town about have found nothing that we can identify with the lost headstone - pieces of sepulchral slabs, certainly but nothing of the headstone.



And, a comparison of the two images above will show another distinction. Gough's drawing shows the 'rude stones' upon which the cross rests, also mentioned by Thomas Pennant, writing at the end of the 18th century. By the time of Professor Westwood's visit in 1835, the cap and 'rude stones' had gone, although he is said to have discovered what was possibly a fragment of the headstone by the font within the church - since lost.



Pennant was of the opinion that the stones were 'formed in imitation of, and in veneration of th sacred Cromlechs of very early time.' This is fascinating, since there is an ongoing debate as to the possibility that both the church and churchyard were raised on the site of a Bronze Age burial site, possibly something even older. The curious and rather fabulous Carreg y Big yn y fach Rewlyd, a prehistoric monolith once stood by the north wall and was later incorporated into the porch. And then what of Owen's belief that the basestone of the cross had within it, Neolithic cup marks?




Intrigued yet? I certainly was, and still am of course, since answers are somewhat unforthcoming. And I'll let you into a little secret - I rather like the fact that we're unlikely to ever really know the truth. There's a void there that thought can work within. A mystery that rails against the urge to explain all and everything.



Owen drew his own rendering of the cross as he saw it at the end of the 19th century. While absolutely recognisable as the Cross of Gough and Pennant, much had changed quite obviously in the hundred years between them. I adore Owen's drawings - they sing. The beautiful Latin cross on the east facing side of the Cross is stunning, and predictably attributed to that son of Corwen, Owain Glyndwr. The similarity to a dagger is obvious. There is another within what is now the lintel above the entrance of the Priests door, spied through a protective grid and said to have been caused by Glyndwr, in a rage, hurling his dagger from the lofty heights of the Berwyn's looming above the town.




Corwen was where I first felt I was following in Elias Owen's footsteps, marveling at the same wonders as he, walking where he walked. This is what I love most about history - to know that where I am, others have been, have asked the same questions, felt the same frisson of connection with others - thousands of years of questions and wonder.




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