The size and beauty of St Saeran’s is a reflection of the importance of Llanynys in the history of North East Wales. A village the size of Llanynys has no real business owning so imposing a church. But Llanynys was important. The village is 6th century, certainly, home to a clas, a religious community, essentially a monastery. It was the mother church over a wide area of southern Dyffryn Clwyd, and its influence can be felt. Llanynys translates as, ‘Island Church (or religious site), due to the fact that the area would often be surrounded by flood waters, cutting it off from the outside, not unlike the more famous Glastonbury in Somerset. It suggests an isolation and serenity that would have been important, if not essential to a monastery. It also suggests why the church was, and is surrounded by few buildings.
St Saeran is somewhat obscure, and little known now though there are traces of him in the landscape. The well at Derwen, Ffynnon Sara is dedicated to him, and gives an idea of the far reaching influence of Llanynys. There is a reference to him in the ‘Bonedd y Saint’ from 1455, and his name translates as something close to, ‘wright (or possibly carpenter) the younger’. There is a suggestion that the church was originally dedicated to St Mor, but was later dedicated to St Saeran, possibly after he was buried in Llanynys.
In the Welsh war of 1282, St Sarean’s was badly damaged by English soldiers, and received considerable compensation as a result. Little is known as to why it was damaged, but it does suggest that its importance and influence made it a target.
St Christopher & the Christ Child. Note the still vibrant green of the foliage on Christopher's staff
On entering the church, the magnificent 15th century wall painting is immediately obvious. Its size alone commands attention. The painting was discovered under plaster in 1967, and is considered by many to be the finest piece of medieval wall painting in North Wales. The painting depicts St Christopher carrying the infant Jesus across the river, shoals of intricately detailed fish about his feet. It is a work of real power and beauty. Other than the Virgin Mary, St Christopher was the most popular subject of medieval wall painting. He became the patron saint of travellers, and was thought to protect his followers from sudden death, fainting and falling. Wall paintings of St Christopher were often placed directly before the entrances to churches, reassuring visitors with his protection. The example of St Saeran’s is undeniably powerful, reaching through the centuries since its creation, forcing its modern audience to make witness to a faith that for many has become vague at best, but for our ancestors of the 15th century was an ever present. The depiction of the Christ child has a very real power, but it is the staff of St Christopher that seemed to hold me, with its vivid foliage. The wall painting was covered in the 17th century by a painting with text in Welsh. This has been removed and preserved.
Less colourful, but certainly more hauntingly ambiguous, is the hexagonal stone set on the flagstones before the entrance. Weather worn and vague for it, the cross head seems clear, though, in depicting a mitred bishop holding a crozier. Is this St Saeran? Possibly, but a possibility is all that can be said. The reverse is of a ubiquitous crucifixion scene. Probably early 14th century, it was probably the head of a cross that stood in the churchyard, perhaps marking the spot of St Saeran’s tomb. An intriguing possibility. It seems a little redundant fixed to the floor, its power ebbed. It needs its cross shaft, to return it to something of its glory. It stands before the astonishing wall painting of the mighty St Christopher in a kind of dour surrender. It does not seem fair, since it remains a splendid example of monumental stone, evidence of faith made from certainty and sweat. Stare at it…it stares back.
The haunting cross head of Llanynys - is the mitred bishop St Saeran?
What to say of the rest of the church. Well, there is plenty to see here. Again by the wall painting, is the battered 13th century tomb effigy, probably of Bishop ap Richard of Bangor, who died at Llanynys in 1267, again suggesting that the church was of real influence and importance. Near the altar you will find some Elizabethan panels, depicting the weird, the wonderous, fantastic beasts and here you’ll find them. They were once of Bachymbyd Fawr, the home of the ubiquitous Colonel William Salesbury, defender of Denbigh Castle, builder of that thumb biting beauty, Rug Chapel. Rather wonderfully, by the entrance you will find an impressive charity board, brazen in its declaration that one should, ‘Remember the Poor’, and quite right too. There is an impressive, age darkened Royal Arms of Charles II and in a glass cabinet beside the aged Welsh Bible, a set of dog tongs, much admired by Elias Owen and used by the clerk to separate fighting dogs, brought to church by their owners.
The renovation of the church itself is a work in progress. It is a huge, doubled naved collection of original build, subsequent refurbishments, restorations, neglect and rescue. Beauty is to be winkled out from nooks and crannies; a stunning Welsh Bible here (sat forlornly on the front pews), a bit of carved woodwork there, a lank, knotted rope begging to be pulled. It’s all too much, in truth. So much. Look at the roof, and the medieval oaken hammer beam trusses – characteristic to Vale of Clwyd churches, but wonderful all the same. The chandeliers here are not from Valle Crucis or Basingwerk, but Georgian and Victorian. And through it all, the smell of mown grass, slicing through the mustiness, gusting through the cracks and time worn holes.
The rather wonderful door showing the centuries of graffiti
The churchyard is pear shaped, but was certainly curvilinear. Pre-Conquest certainly, and wonderful, with views across the plain towards the Clwydians. There are graves here from the 17th century, but St Saeran has not yet been found. The porch of 1544 is splendid, with its timbers surviving and 16th century graffiti etched into the wood of the door. It is an achingly beautiful place set in a quite incredible landscape.