Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Cwrtnewydd Scribblers Presents ...

Cwrtnewydd village lies between Lampeter and Newcastle Emlyn, huddled about a small Welsh river in the Cledlyn Valley. It is essentially a farming hamlet and, although there is no longer any shop, the pub has closed and only the school remains (for now) the inhabitants manage to maintain a sense of community. The village has its historical roots in farming and the woollen industry but, more recently, the village has welcomed incomers from the world over. Living in a remote area has its benefits peaceful vistas, solitude and tranquillity, but there are also drawbacks. We are all vulnerable to accidents and every villager, directly or indirectly, has benefited from the service supplied by the Air Ambulance.

I have lived here for sixteen years. You can see from the picture that it can be an isolated lifestyle. Luckily, I love the peace; it enables me to write undisturbed and the ever-shifting moods of the countryside inspires and colours my work. Writing is a solitary, often lonely occupation and for many years I thought I was the only writer living in Cwrtnewydd. You can imagine my delight to discover that, not only were there other writers but they also held a flourishing writer’s group every Monday.

Two years ago I plucked up all my courage and asked to join them. There were five members at that time and they welcomed me with open arms and I have since found excellent friendship, support and encouragement. I had never before joined a group, unless you include creative writing classes with Dic Edwards at Lampeter University and, without hesitation, I would recommend that all writers join or form a group. It will help your focus, objectivity and provide a critique service for your embryonic manuscript.

We call ourselves the Cwrtnewydd Scribblers and in 2010, after receiving a most welcome grant from the The Co-Op Community Fund, which paid for the ISBN numbers, we put our heads together to come up with a collection of work.
Although it is the first I have been involved in, Of Cake and Words is Cwrtnewydd Scribblers’ second collection, comprised of poetry, short stories and anecdote. The group is responsible for every aspect of the publication from the cover design to the forming of the publishing company, Cledlyn Publications. The book is a non-profit based venture with fifty pence of the cover price going to Air Ambulance, Wales by way of acknowledgement of the invaluable service they provide to rural communities. The Cwrtnewydd Scribblers will be attending the Lampeter Winter Fair on November 27th where copies of the book and other works by our members will be available.

If you are unable to attend, copies are obtainable from any member of the group contactable via our webpage: Priced £3.50

Cwrtnewydd Scribblers, Of Cake and Words, (Lampeter: University of Wales Press: Cledlyn Publications, 2010)

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

The Saxon Church at Escomb

A few weeks ago we visited my sister in Northumberland. Our visits there are more of a pilgrimmage than anything else for, although neither of us are overly religious, we share a love of ancient churches and on every opportunity can be found rummaging in the undergrowth of old burial grounds.

Our photograph albums are full of soaring cathedrals and humble Saxon foundations. I especially love the ones that date back to the beginnings of Christianity and beyond. You can imagine my delight to discover that Escomb church was only an hours drive away from her home in Birtley near Hexham.

We drove through dazzling sunshine, the drab tarmac cutting a path through stunning countryside, and crossed the border into County Durham. We eventually discovered Escomb some mile and a half outside Bishop’s Auckland. I have never been so surprised at the location of an ancient monument in my life.

Rather like Neath Abbey the modern world has crowded in upon Escomb and where I had expected to find a secluded place for quiet contemplation, what I found instead was that Escomb church, complete with its oval pre- christian enclosure, stands in the middle of a 1960’s housing estate.
A notice on the gate informed us that the keys were to found hanging on a hook outside number 26 Saxon Green. The clean lines of the modern buildings, the parked cars and satelite dishes constrasted sharply with the rustic peace still discernible within the precinct walls.

The church has stood for some 1300 years, making it one of only three surviving Saxon churches in England. The world has evolved, the church has witnessed Viking occupation, Norman invasion, reformation, pestilence, industrial revolution and yet the village has still managed to thrive and grow from a few humble monastic cells into a modern day community.
During the 1960’s existing dwellings were modernised and forty new houses and bungalows were built. The pub, The Saxon Inn, that stands opposite the church provided us with a very tasty lunch.
The improvements that dragged the village from squalor into comfort, mercifully left the church and the churchyard intact and, today, the church stands as a monument to the continuity of religious belief from pagan times, through religious and social change.
The date of the church’s foundation is uncertain but experts estimate the latter part of the seventh century. The first mention of Edicum village in the historical record comes at the end of the tenth century when it was mortgaged to Viking earls by the Bishop of Durham but, from the style and size of the building it is agreed that the church was built considerably earlier than this. To put its age into context, when the mighty Cathedral at Durham was built, Escomb had already been standing for 500 years.

Today, apart from the hideous modern furniture inside, a visit to the church is like stepping into another world, and not just a Saxon world. The chisel marks belong to builders and masons from Roman Britain for much of the building stone was taken from the fort at Binchester some two hundreds years after the Romans withdrew.

The rough and squarely hewn stone still bear the criss crossed marks of Roman broaching and painted decoration is still visible on the underside of the chancel arch. The long and short style of the stonework is distinctive and the arch is believed to have been reassembled from a Roman one, the stones matched so finely that no mortar was necessary. The painted plaster on the underside of the arch, with its traces of abstract scroll-work is judged to be twelfth or thirteenth century, but the similarites of colour and texture with some similar plasterwork excavated at Jarrow suggests a much earlier date.
The stark whitewashed interior we see today is a comparably modern innovation and high up on the north wall are the remains of a fresco, believed to have represented four saints, possibly the apostles. These frescos would have covered the whole wall and filled the interior with vivid colour the like of which, in the naturally hued, image free Saxon world, the congregation would never have experienced outside of church.
There are many exquisite features of the celtic religion at Escomb and my personal favourite lies high up on the exterior south wall. The sundial records, not the usual hours of the day but the daylight hours of prayer, Terce, Sext and None that divided the monastic day; a poignant reminder of Celtic devotion in the days before the establishment of the Roman Church.

There are the five small windows dating to the Saxon period. The two on the south wall of the nave and one high up on the west wall have rounded lintels but those on the north wall are straight. All are fashioned to let in the maximum amount of light but also keep out as much wind and rain as possible. They are all of the same basic construction and the lintels are made from single stones. The two lancet windows in the sanctuary and the piscina, a stone bowl for cleaning communion vessals are thought to date from the thirteenth century and in the 17th and 18th Centuries the three largest windows were added; one on the south side, and one on the east and west end.

Most intriguingly one of the small Saxon windows on the north wall bears a Roman inscription which reads ‘Bono rei pulicae nato’ or ‘to the man born for the good of the state’. It is believed that this stone originally formed the base for a roman statue or possibly is the remains of an ornate milepost erected in honour of the Emperor. To the Saxon builders the stone was simply a conveniently pre dressed piece of building material, they set it high up and upside down and, as a result, this stone with its inscription remained unnoticed until spotted by an eagle eyed school boy in the 1960’s.

The style of the north door is of celtic origin and, due to the way the stone has been dressed it has been suggests that it may have come complete from the Roman fort at Binchester.

The alterations and maintenance made over the years have not detracted from the integrity of the church’s origins. The exterior north wall remains more as less as the Saxons built it, solid, square and untouched by thirteen centuries of change. The height of the walls and the reason why the stones in the upper courses are smaller than those lower down remain a conundrum. The height and the ground plan point to possible Irish Celtic influences and a connection with ancient Gallic chapels has been suggested.
Another connection with Irish-Celtic church building is the incised consecration cross. It is now set behind the altar but may once have formed part of a standing cross or possibly a 9th century grave cover. Some have suggested that it is, in fact, part of a much earlier ‘preaching cross’ that predates the church and has its origins in the very first days of Christianity in Britain.
Escomb is a little gem from our shared heritage where echoes of our celtic past can be heard quite distinctly above the hubbub of the modern world. Although it is small and will take no more than an afternoon to fully explore I would urge anyone to place Escomb Church very high on their ‘places to visit’ list.