Llangollen is one of the very few definitively pre-Conquest religious settlements in North East Wales. The church here was founded sometime in the 6th century upon the arrival of St Collen in the area. It is said that much of the work was undertaken by himself and a few of his followers. His original church was sited beside the current 13th century building and was demolished in the 18th century after it was reported that the building was in a poor state. This original building was believed to have held the remains of St Collen and was known as the, ‘capel-y-bedd’, or chapel of the grave. The wooden tower was replaced at that time with the stone tower you can see today. A curious beauty the tower, with its round headed openings and urns as pinnacles. It was probably not as ambitious as originally intended, but is still an impressive affair. It is believed that the tower recycled much of the original 6th or early 7th century stone, so despite the destruction of St Collen’s simple building, the legacy of the original church lives on.
St Collen’s was originally double-naved, but in the remodelling work of 1864-67, a new south aisle, chancel and chancel aisles were added, and north west vestry came in 1876. The impressive organ was supplied by Jones & Willis of Liverpool in 1879, and remains an excellent example of their work. In 1887 on the occasion of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, eight bells were installed in the belfry. Princess Victoria (the future Queen) had been a guest at the Royal Hotel (named after her visit) in 1832.
Undoubtedly, the outstanding feature of the Church is the hugely impressive medieval, carved oak ceiling, elaborately moulded with masks, beasts and all manner of figures, of both secular and non-secular design, with tremendous hammerbeam trusses that fairly take the breath away. Tradition states that the ceiling was originally sited at Valle Crucis Abbey, which rather seems to have been the original home of pretty much all elaborately styled ornamentation and dressed stone throughout the vales of Clwyd and Llangollen. It is more than likely, however, that the ceiling was designed for the church itself sometime in the 1450’s, with the involvement of Valle Crucis being the supervision of the Abbot. It is worth taking a pew and having a good stare to fully appreciate the beauty and craftsmanship.
The font is hard to miss. ‘Gigantic and exuberant’, is how Hubbard describes it in, ‘Buildings of Wales Clwyd’, and there is little point in arguing, since it is in fact, both gigantic and exuberant. It is carved of Caen stone, raised on pillars of famous Carrera (‘where even the stones are anarchists’) marble though it stands on a plinth of stone quarried from nearby Cefn Mawr. The cap is of an ornate and rather beautiful hardwood. The door behind the font is dated 12th century, so of course is believed to have been brought from Valle Crucis Abbey.
The reredos behind the altar is an astonishing piece of stone masonry. Carved by Master Earp of Lambeth, it was a gift to St Collen’s from R.B. Hesketh of the even more astonishing Gwrych Castle near Abergele. There is also a fine monument to the Ladies of Llangollen, paid for by Mary Gordon, who wrote a book about them in 1936, ‘Chase of the Wild Goose’ inspired by her apparent witnessing of their ghosts in the late 19th century.
The churchyard is a curious affair, hemmed in by the town, with the Church seemingly forming part of the boundary, although this is rather evidence that the churchyard itself has been encroached upon. It is notable for some very impressive graves and tombs, none more impressive than the triangular tombstone of the Ladies of Llangollen, Lady Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, and their housekeeper, Mrs Mary Carryl.
The tower is a 18th century build but incorporates stone from St Collen's Capel-y-Bedd
The Church is quite hidden from Castle Street, but fear not. Approaching from the Hand Hotel affords an excellent view, more so than the rather more obvious approach from the A5. No visit to Llangollen is complete without an hour spent viewing its wonders. It is likely as not quite dark on entering. Feel free to turn on the lights on the left before the vestry, but don’t forget to turn them off as you leave.