The treasures of Llancarfan include the stunning wall paintings in St Cadoc’s Church, which give a glimpse into the medieval imagination.
This walk is one of 13 separate circular routes which together make up the St Thomas Way.
Place and History
A rural village in the Vale of Glamorgan, Llancarfan is known for its medieval St Cadoc’s Church, and the historic treasures it holds.
St Cadoc’s Church dates from the thirteenth century, though it is located on the site of the earlier clas (monastery church) of the sixth-century saint, Cadoc, an early Christian missionary credited with establishing churches in Cornwall, Britanny and Scotland, as well as here in Wales. Known as Cattwg Ddoeth, or ‘Cadoc the Wise’, the saint is remembered in sources including the Vita Cadoci, written around 1086 by Lifris of Llancarfan. The Vita includes a story about Cadoc’s encounter with King Arthur.
Medieval features in the church include thirteenth-century arcading in the nave, with carved heads and grapes decorating the corbel capitals, as well as the canopy work of the (now much damaged) reredos, and the screen enclosing the Raglan Chapel (east bays of the south aisle).
However, the greatest medieval treasures here were only re-discovered in 2008: spectacular fifteenth-century wall paintings hidden behind limewash on the walls.
These paintings include a spectacular depiction of St George slaying the dragon, while a damsel looks on and others (her parents?) watch from inside their castle. Finding this ‘English’ saint in a Welsh church may come as a surprise, but of course St George was widely venerated in the Middle Ages, and this scene is a powerful symbol of good triumphing over evil. Another wall painting shows a ‘Death and the Gallant’ – a fashionable young man holding hands with a skeleton, still wrapped in his grave shroud. This stark image, with links to medieval ‘Dance of Death’ traditions, is a chilling reminder of human mortality, and a reminder to viewers to disregard transient pleasures and set their sights on eternity.
Finally, the wall paintings depicting the Seven Deadly Sins and the Seven Works of Mercy provide another window into medieval beliefs and popular piety. Lust is shown by an embracing man and woman, with devils tormenting them; Sloth is shown twice as a man in bed and a man, in the jaws of a devil, pierced by a sword; Anger is a ferocious demon holding two men amidst flames; Avarice is a man counting his money while devils assist him; Gluttony is a man being fed by a devil; and Pride is a man seated on a humble wooden stool, but dressed in finery and being crowned by demons. It is likely that each of these terrible visions was depicted as emerging from the body of a sleeping figure (now lost) below. Opposite the Vices are the Seven Works of Mercy: surviving images include Burying the Dead, Visiting the Sick, and Clothing the Naked.
Conservation work on these paintings is ongoing: more detail is being discovered all the time. (Please note that there may be periods when the church is closed to visitors during these works.)
The Hanged Man’s Journey
Visions of vice and virtue dominate Llancarfan’s Church of St Cadoc.
Visions are also an important part of the story of William Cragh, the hanged man of medieval Swansea who was, apparently, restored to life by a miracle of St Thomas of Hereford.
Years after his hanging, when interviewed by papal investigators, Cragh claimed to have had a vision, the night before his execution, in the dungeons of Swansea Castle. Cragh says that he saw a vision of the Virgin Mary, covered in precious stones and wearing a white head dress, but ‘not carrying her son as material images concerning her represent’. Cragh’s description of Mary suggests the influence of visual depictions of Mary in Welsh churches at this time. In the vision, Mary then let down a ladder, and all but one of the thirteen prisoners climbed up it. The only man who didn’t was Trahaearn ap Hywel, who was indeed hanged and killed the next day. Cragh tells that Mary said ‘Abandon him’.
Cragh doesn’t tell the investigators about any further visions. But Lady Mary de Briouze, wife of the Marcher lord who had ordered Cragh’s hanging, says that she had heard reports of another vision. According to Mary, while Cragh hung from the gallows, he saw the figure of a bishop, clothed in white, who supported his feet to help him.
Of course, it’s possible that these visions were invented later by the witnesses, to add weight to their claims that a miracle had occurred. But, steeped in the powerful imagery of medieval churches and religious stories, it’s equally very plausible that these medieval people did indeed experience powerful dream-like experiences, animated by their strong beliefs and a culture which placed great faith in the truth and value of visions.
St Thomas and Medieval Belief
Many of the recipients of miracles of St Thomas report seeing a vision of the saint.
In the first recorded miracle of St Thomas, a woman called Edith, afflicted with some kind of mental illness, was healed through a vision of the saint near his bones in Hereford Cathedral. On Good Friday 1287, a girl called Juliana, who was unable to walk, was carried in a wicker basket to Thomas’s tomb: there Thomas appeared to her in a vision and commanded her to walk, which she did.
From around 1290 onwards, miracles of St Thomas increasingly occurred at places further away from his tomb, suggesting a growing faith in his power and a sense that his sanctity was strong enough to reach beyond the immediate proximity of his bones. Often these miracles were also attended by a vision, confirming the role of St Thomas.
These visions of St Thomas are part of a wider medieval culture which valued visions – and the visual – as a central part of religious belief and spiritual experience.
As the wall paintings at Llancarfan show, this could be expressed in the material fabric of churches. But there are also numerous medieval accounts of visions experienced by saints and ordinary men and women. Visions of heaven and hell, in particular, were common, and often included imagery similar to the pictures of tormenting devils in the wall paintings at St Cadoc’s.
A place of peace and depth
A hidden village in a valley, with a church at its heart. The twin sundials on the porch remind us of the relentless passage of time, but here time has been turned back as medieval paintings on the church walls have been uncovered and ancient woodwork has been restored. The past has come to life again in this little community.
St Cadoc was abbot here at the turn of the sixth century, and it was a place of great learning, so there’s something even deeper in the past than the present church with its wall paintings and woodwork. Perhaps, flowing through it still, we can feel the stillness and the peace that first made it such a place of prayer and learning, and the home of saints.
Help me, Lord, to sense that all time is held together here: past, present and future. Each day help me to see that in my life and work, my laughing and my crying, my hoping and my fearing, I am a child of eternity, one with those who went before me, and one with those who will come after.
The medieval monastery
Today, it can be a challenge to picture the quiet village of Llancarfan as a thriving seat of monastic learning. In the sixth century, the Welsh Saint Cadoc (Welsh: Cattwg) founded Llancarfan monastery (roughly translated as ‘Church of the Stags’), which became a renowned seminary of religious and holy men. The site Cadoc selected for his monastic college was marshy and inaccessible, although it was probably chosen because of its proximity to a large number of wells and springs considered to have had medicinal properties and religious significance.
Holy wells and springs
The association between Llancarfan and Holy wells dates back to Cadoc’s own birth, which was announced by an angel and followed by the miraculous appearance of a holy well used for his baptism. It seems fitting that the saint chose Llancarfan as the site of his monastery. Just outside the village, now on the grounds of an Elizabethan house at Garnllwyd, is the Chalybeate Well (rich in mineral iron), which was believed to have health-giving properties. Just outside of Broomwell, along the castle ditches of an Iron Age hill fort, is the Ffynnon y Clwyf, or ‘Wound Well’, and in Cwm-y-Breach (Breach Wood) is the Fflynnon y Fflamwyddam, or ‘Inflammation Well’, known locally as the ‘Rag Well’. These wells were considered to have healing properties and Cadoc may have considered them a draw for potential pilgrims when he founded his monastery.erature as a symbol of the devil.
The damp woodlands around Llancarfan provide the perfect conditions for ramsons, also known as wild garlic (Old English: hramsa). Wild garlic would have been collected along with other herbs for medicinal and culinary purposes and grows in abundance from April-June in the Llancarfan area.
Specially-chosen music for this location from Hereford Cathedral, and a medieval ecclesiastical soundscape.
Distance: Approx. 3.5 miles
Time: Approx. 2.5 hours
Access: Moderate difficulty; a few steep inclines, footpaths and stiles; not suitable for wheelchairs and buggies; sturdy footwear recommended.
- Start your walk at St Cadoc’s Church. This church dedicated to St Cadoc (Welsh: St Cattwg) dates back to the thirteenth century. Inside, visitors will find a fantastic set of recently rediscovered medieval wall paintings. When you leave the church turn right onto the main road, walking past the Fox and Hounds Inn. Continue until you pass the ford over the river and turn right to take the footbridge.
- Continue up this road, following the signs towards Walterston/Trewalter. When you reach the triangle at the junction, keep right. A short distance to your left is the Old Mill. If you wish to extend your walk slightly and see the old mill race, take the footpath to the right of the Old Mill (dotted line on the map). At the junction on the main road, turn right.
- Along this road you will pass the cottage Ty Uchaf on your left and to the right the site of an ancient well once used by the villagers for drinking water.After a short distance you will pass Llancarfan Primary School on your right, at which point take the track to the left leading you uphill towards Broomwell.
- Take the footpath to your right over a stile and keep right. To your left you will see the remains of an Iron Age hill fort. Ahead you will see a fence with a stile, climb over and keep to the right of the field. With the farm house on the left and a barn to the right, climb over a stile onto the road, where you will see a bridge over the stream. Turn right onto the road and when you reach a junction turn left downhill, away from Llancarfan.
- Head towards Pen Onn. As the road bends sharply to the left, continue forward along a footpath past Pen Onn Farm and head through Ross Kear passing through the gate. You will see a pylon and follow the fence/hedge round the field to the left downhill. BE AWARE, CATTLE GRAZE IN THIS FIELD!Walk towards the gate in the fence opposite, crossing over a small bridge.
- Take the path as it bends to the left uphill, through the trees into an open field. A church tower will appear up ahead. Walk towards the church and the village, following the waymark post by the cream house. Climb over the stile into the village of Penmark. A short detour up the road to the left is the Church of St Mary’s, which has a chancel arch carved with figures dating back to c.1200, and the remains of Penmark castle.After climbing over the stile, turn right and follow the road.
- At the junction, turn right towards Llancarfan, taking the footpath on the right immediately after the stone bridge. Follow the stone track and take the gate into the field. Turn into the field to the right, keeping below the ridge to the left.
- Climb over another stile and turn left up towards the ridge and then climb over another stile onto the road. Turn right onto the road and follow it downhill back towards Llancarfan.