Saturday, November 12, 2011

Sepia chapel

It's impossible to travel any distance in Wales without coming across a chapel. As late as the early twentieth century up to three quarters of the population attended nonconformist congregations; they're in every town and village, encompassing denominations from Methodist to Baptist to Presbyterian.

The chapel above is at Llangloffen, very near to the nature reserve I visited recently. That same day I took a photo to show how it looks now - there's been little change, and I suspect that the farm which stands opposite and out of shot is much the same too. It has a cobbled courtyard, a rookery, a look of run down despair.

But of course, the biggest difference is the people and not just the way they dress. Had I taken my updated shot on a Sunday there might have been half a dozen cars and perhaps twice that in attendees. It's been said that most chapels are waiting for the last of their faithful to die before shutting the doors. Today there are little more than 100 nonconformist ministers in Wales.

I can't complain; I don't attend and its unrealistic to expect the organisations to keep them going. The communities that sustained these chapels, and the values that went with them, have gone or are disappearing. And it's important not to be sentimental too; sepia photographs give a sense of nostalgia but anyone reading the stories of Caradog Evans or Patrick O Brian's first novel, Testimonies, would be warped to say that the society they depict was wholesome. Chapels, like all powerful institutions throughout history, had a dark side.

There are, of course, some iconic ones that are worth preserving. The chapel at Mwnt is an historic monument and the wonderful Soar y Mynydd is the exception that proves the rule about isolation and decline - it remains an active chapel despite the flooding of its catchment to create the Llyn Brianne dam. And I hope the Brynmawr chapel at Betws y Coed manages to keep going - for it was there, twenty years ago, that I married Jane on a day when it rained enough to launch an ark.

But the chapels of Wales are not quite dead yet. Many have been converted to houses, others taken over by Friends of the Friendless Churches; some have become craft centres, art studios - that sort of thing. And some continue as active congregations. On the day I visited Llangloffan there was a funeral taking place in nearby Mathry - the cars had filled the village, the approach roads were lined with pickups, one farmer opened his field for parking.

I heard there were hundreds who couldn't get a seat. I heard too that they'd sung the hymn, Dyma Gariad Fel Y Moroedd,  Here is love, vast as the ocean.


  1. I bought a copy of Capel Scion years ago and reading it raised even my world weary eyebrows.

  2. That is a lovely line
    'Here is love, vast as the ocean'.

  3. I agree with Cait. I have not heard this hymn before.
    When I visit my friend in Clunderwen, I am reminded how many empty, unused chapels there are.

  4. An evocative post, mark. Our Mid-Wales village (pop. 850) now has only one active chapel, the other 4 having been converted into homes over the past 40 years. The other great Welsh funeral hymn is of course Calon lân and either can almost take the roof off any of the remaining chapels.

  5. Considering your blog's name, it is fitting that there is a bicycle in the foreground of the old chapel picture.

  6. Ah those old chapels. I have Welsh relatives by marriage so I know something of them. That’s a wonderful view in the sepia shot - all those people bustling about. At least it’s good that the buildings have been preserved, even if they have a different use these days.

  7. Oh, if you could see what passes as places of worship where I live you would be so thankful to still have this to see. In southern California there are old Catholic missions, but other religions rely almost entirely on modern shopping mall type architecture. I really miss the sense of place I get in an old established sanctuary.

  8. Just after I graduated my mum was run over whilst we were on holiday at my aunt's in Swansea and she had to spend some time in Singleton hospital.

    One weekend when we were there, another of the patients was visited by various members of her local chapel. Naturally they then proceeded to visit the other patients in the same ward.

    When they spoke to mum, they were surprised to have someone from Brum in the ward and asked her what had happened. We explained she'd been knocked over by a drunk driver and had a broken leg.

    Well said the chapel minister we must give thanks to God, your mother could have been killed.

  9. This chapel is a beautiful building. I'm so glad it still stands. In the US it might have been torn down by now.

    I wanted to hear the hymn you mentioned and Calon Lân. I found them both on youtube. They are beautiful. I wish I could hear them inside this chapel with a full congregation singing along.

    Here are the links for the hymns:
    Dyma Gariad Fel Y Moroedd -
    Calon Lân -

    They are beautiful hymns. I would like to visit the chapel in Llangloffen and, with a full congregation, hear these hymns.

    Thanks for sharing!

  10. Friends of the Friendless Churches...this sounds like an organization for me.

  11. Yes, I agree with Mary about California churches being so unattractive. Some downright atrocious. I enjoyed seeing the chapels of wales.
    Nancy javier

  12. The town of Yarm near my home as a chapel still in use that was built in John Wesley's time. I understand that he preached there at one time.
    Chapels have played an important role in history - not just in Wales, where my knowledge is limited to Monmouthshire, or is it Gwent these days?

  13. I so agree with what you say about the look of that chapel and how it looks different when the road outside is filled with a crowd of people. The shape of the building itself is so uncompromising : built to last, built almost to outlast the communities that gave rise to it. Thanks so much for your Sepia Saturday contributions - they are always quite fascinating.

  14. A lovely old chapel - it's the same all over with Churches closing and being sold off. I hope that most can be preserved. Jo

  15. I'm thinking there was an old I Love Lucy episode where she got involved with a group called the Friends of the Friendless. They even had a catchy song. Of course it was all played for slapstick. It's certainly interesting to know an actual group has that name.

  16. It is so sad to see the chapels of Wales falling into disrepair with declining congregations.

  17. I'm not a churchgoer either, and therefore don't have the religious feelings about old churches that many do. It is sad to see so many falling into disprepair or being demolished, but I don't really see a financially viable solution, except for a small proportion. Thanks for the "now and then photos."

  18. Thank you, Nancy, for the link to the hymns. When I was in Wales at the Hay on Wye Book Festival my favorite thing (besides the beautiful scenery) was a Welsh men's choir. I bought a C.D. Calon Lan is on it. I'm listening to it right now.
    I don't care if they reuse the chapels as long as they don't tear them down. Here in So. Calif. it's really hard to keep an old building.
    Thanks for the really interesting post.
    Barbara (Banar Designs)

  19. The old chapels of Wales are truly beautiful. My husband and I hiked the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path in the '89 from Fishguard to Cardigan. Our favorite B&B was The Old Vicarage near Moylegrove. The stone chapel and cemetery were impeccably maintained. Thanks for the memories!