With an early start we left Llanddarog for Abergavenny, stopping on our way for refreshments and retail therapy for some in Crickhowell. I was very pleased to see that Jean had purchased a Lady’s Spade in the workshop which renovates such items, many of which are sent to third world countries, but others are sold in the workshop. It’s at the back of the shops right by the car park. Jean and Huw have always very kindly opened their home and garden to so many of us for Clwb Iau Sports and Mothers’ Union Barbecue, but it looks as though Jean is all set to ready the garden for an Open Garden in a year or two! Watch this space!
We were in Abergavenny in plenty of time to visit St Mary’s Priory Church and the Tithe Barn, which houses a very good café and the Abergavenny Tapestry, before lunch. I was very taken with the way the Church was both ancient and modern. Originally founded as a priory by Hamelin de Ballon in 1087, with the advent of the Act of Dissolution of Monasteries in 1536 (by which time there were just four monks and a prior compared with the 12 originally there) Henry VIII was persuaded to let the townsfolk continue to use the Priory as their parish church and to use some of the revenues of the suppressed prior to establish King Henry VIII Grammar School in their old parish church of St John. (I’m sure naming the school after him helped persuade King Henry!)
Outside the church, the Tithe Barn and small sections of the monastic buildings survive and inside the nave was almost completely rebuilt in 1882 and 1896, although 14th century work can still be seen in the chapels and the choir. The font, with a pre-Norman bowl on a more modern base was discovered buried in the churchyard during the 1882 restoration. On the rim of the font is evidence of the padlocks which once secured a lid to prevent the blessed water being stolen for superstitious purposes. And in the north aisle is a bell dated 1308 inscribed “May the bell of John last many years”, perhaps one of a peal of bells donated by Sir John de Hasting. The tower contains a ring of 10 bells, recast in 1948 in thanksgiving for the end of the Second World War.
The unique 15th century representation of King David’s father Jesse is carved from one solid piece of oak, this is the base of a magnificent reredos which depicted all Jesse’s descendants on various branches of a tree, culminating with statues of the Virgin and Child and Christ in Glory at the top. Probably between 20 and 30 feet tall, it was originally highly coloured. Today when viewing it from the front it is difficult to tell whether this was another of the many statues, and it’s not until you walk to the back of it that you can see it is of wood – an amazing piece of sculpture undertaken with great skill.
A modern element has been added in the form of a Crucifix in steel designed by Frank Roper. In the Herbert Chapel, alongside the Herbert family tombs dating from 1348 to 1631, is a fine Portland stone altar and furnishings designed by Keith Jameson with the inscription “THY GOD, THY LIFE, THY CURE” (taken from Henry Vaughan’s poem “Peace”).
As someone who enjoys sewing I was also particularly taken with the two exquisite wall hangings which grace the Baptistry of St Mary’s Priory Church, designed and made by Elizabeth Brown, a regular member of the congregation. The 20 feet long by 40 inches wide hangings are entirely handmade and took Elizabeth just 10 months to complete, working four to six hours a day – although not every day – starting on August 28, 2006, and finishing on June 28, 2007. They were unfurled and blessed during the Parish Eucharist on Sunday, September 9, 2007. The fabrics, some of which date back to the 1920s, include raw silks, silks, satins, cloth of gold, brocade, crash, linen, cotton and wool and the designs depict Christian symbols of light and life. The discipline is stained-glass patchwork.
Then on we went to the Tithe Barn – housing the awe-inspiring Abergavenny Tapestry created by a group of over 60 local volunteers, as a way of celebrating the new millennium in 2000. From conception to completion the project lasted some six years, and the stitching alone took three years and ten months to complete – not surprising when you learn that the tapestry is 24 feet (8 metres) wide!
Some of the features of the tapestry, which was designed to celebrate 1,000 years of Abergavenny’s history, include:
• St Benedict, founder of the Benedictine Order of monks. St Mary’s Priory, founded in 1087, as a Benedictine priory.
• One of the world’s finest pieces of medieval sculpture, the Jesse Tree is a 15th century carving of Jesse, the biblical father of King David and ancestor of Christ.
• Owain Glyndwr, the leader of the Welsh rebellion against the English in the 15th century, who sacked Abergavenny in 1404.
• Sir Harry Llewellyn, the famous showjumper and his horse Foxhunter, who won Olympic gold in 1952.
• The effigy of Margaret, betrothed to John de Hastings at the age of 12. Her pet squirrel is said to have caused her death in a fall from the castle ramparts when she was 13. Her tomb lies in St Mary’s Priory Church.
Photographs of many of these elements of our pilgrimage (thanks to Meurig Rees) can be seen on the display boards in Church.