Visit to Llangystennin Church

On July 20th 2023 about 30 members of the History of Deganwy Group gathered in the graveyard of St Cystennin’s Church. Our guide to the church and the graveyard – resplendent with evening primrose, linaria and geraniums amongst the tombstones – was Roy Mills. Roy is a local historian who has lived in the area for 50 years, and also a parishioner whose daughters were both baptised in the church, giving him a special affinity with this ancient site.

According to legend, there has been a place of worship here as early as the 4th century, when the Romans were still in North Wales, and the church’s name links it to the Emperor Constantine (Cystennin in Welsh) who converted to Christianity and ruled until 337. It is known that Romans were still in the area at that time as a hoard of Roman coins bearing Constantine’s name was found near Penrhyn Bay in the 1870s.

There has definitely been a church on the site since about 1180-1190 as it was around then that the fish weir at Rhos on Sea was built by Cistercian monks from the abbey in Conwy. They would probably have travelled to the weir from Conwy via Sarn y Mynach and the Afon Ganol. The earliest documented mentions of St Cystennin’s Church are in the mid 13th century, when King Henry III was commanded by Pope Innocent IV to do penance there, and in the late 13th century, when it is listed in the Taxatio Nicholai – the ecclesiastical taxation list produced in 1291 – as the prebendal chapel of Abergele. It also appears on John Speed’s map of Wales, produced c.1610, and the church and its contents – including the fine medieval stained glass, which we were able to see later – are described by many antiquarian writers over the centuries.

Following the demise of the Lloyd family from nearby Llangystennin Hall – minor gentry compared to their neighbours the Mostyns – the building fell into disrepair. It was eventually rebuilt in an enlarged form on the same site, and this is essentially the church we see today, although there have been some additions in the last decade or so including the provision of toilets and disabled access. Conservation work is ongoing: in 2020 the roof timbers were replaced, and damp patches (due to cement rather than lime mortar being used for repointing in the 1930s) still require attention.

Roy explained that the current parish covers Llangystennin, Glanwydden, Pydew and Mochdre; Mochdre’s parishioners petitioned the bishop in the late 1930s to allow them to transfer from the parish of Llandrillo-yn-Rhos, as Llangystennin was easier to reach. Until about 1840, the vicar would normally look after St Hilary’s in Eglwysrhos whilst his curate served Llangystennin. The peaceful graveyard, surrounded by yew trees, is now ‘closed’ – i.e. there are no more burials within it – but there is a newer one beside it which is in use.

After this introduction, Roy led us around the churchyard, to look at some graves which reflect the social history of the area. The first of these was the memorial to Susannah Evans and 3 of her children, who tragically died as a result of the Dolgarrog Dam Disaster on 2nd November 1925. Reports in the North Wales Weekly News reveal that the bodies of 2 of the children, having been washed down the river Conwy, were found and buried – and that it was not until 19th November that their mother Susannah and their baby sister were found, near Caerhun. A funeral cortege brought them from their grandmother’s house in Glanwydden, and they were buried in the same grave 2 weeks later. The family was related to Arthur Hughes, a newspaper reporter who provided many of the photographs in Bezant-Lowe’s Heart of Northern Wales.

Equally tragic stories unfolded around the 3 Commonwealth War Graves nearby. The first was of J. Griffiths, born in St Asaph the youngest child of a shoemaker. He worked as a warehouseman in Llandudno and enlisted in the army in Conwy in 1915, giving his address as 4 Glanrafon, Tywyn, Deganwy. He then worked as a cleaner for the LNW Railway, and was called up 2 years later. He was taken ill whilst still in the UK, and died of bronchial pneumonia in November 1918 – a victim of the Spanish flu epidemic. The second war grave was that of James Hennessey Jones of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, whose parents moved from Penmaenmawr to Llandudno Junction. He committed suicide in 1916 aged 32, leaving a note for his mother saying that his nerves were shattered. 25 year old W. J. Buckley is buried in the third grave, and his mother and 2 infant siblings are buried elsewhere in the same graveyard. Originally from Birkenhead, his father was a fireman on the LMS route in Llandudno Junction. Wilfred was one of 8 children, 3 of whom died in infancy; the family lived in Marl Crescent, first at no. 75, then no.13. He joined the Royal Army Service Corps, and died in 1944 from meningitis.

Roy then took us to the grave of Thomas Barlow, who died in 1911. He was born in Abergele in 1826, and about 20 years later moved to Mochdre, where he was a signalman for many years. He had 8 children and lost part of a leg in a railway accident, so it is perhaps not surprising that he needed to supplement his income. He did this by making woodcarvings of local scenes from bog oak taken from the graveyard, which he sold to tourists – several are known to survive including one in the church itself, and there is another in the church in Llandrillo.

Inside the church, Roy told us the story of Catherine Lloyd, whose memorial (rescued from the former building) first sparked his interest. She died unmarried in 1799, and is classed as the last of the Lloyd family, who had been in the area since the 15th century. She was the mistress of Llangystennin Hall and of Hendre Gwaelod in Glan Conwy. In her will, these were left to a relative in Caernarfon from the Williams family, and were then sold piecemeal in the late 19th century. Several lots were bought by John Jones of Dinarth Hall, who owned a butcher’s shop in Mostyn Street.

Alongside Catherine Lloyd’s memorial, there are some fine early 20th century stained glass windows, but the real wonders are the late medieval stained glass panels, dating to about 1490. The remaining fragments, which portray St Peter, St Nicholas, St George, St Catherine and Christ at the Resurrection, were restored thanks to a HLF grant in 2017 and are on display in a cabinet. Many thanks to Roy for showing us these, and for detailing the many other interesting aspects of this historic place.

Lucinda Smith

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