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Village of Nevern: A Pilgrim's Journey to Southwest Wales

October 05, 1986|STEVE LIBBY | Libby is a Sumter, S.C., free-lance writer. and

NEVERN, Wales — In a county filled with delightful surprises, Nevern is a real find.

Some who visit the rugged headlands of Dyfed County in southwest Wales do so on religious or literary pilgrimage. Many come to Britain's smallest cathedral city, St. David's, its medieval Bishop's Palace an impressive ruin and its cathedral, mainly 12th Century. The literati seek out ancient Laugharne, where Dylan Thomas lived for 16 years.

Both are well worth a visit. So is Fishguard, a picturesque port backed by steep cliffs which, like Laugharne, may or may not be the town on which Dylan Thomas based his "Under Milk Wood." (Fishguard is where it was filmed.)

A dozen tiny villages and settlements dot the sea cliffs and sandy bays from St. Bride's Bay up to Cardigan. It is more than 30 miles, but to hurry the trip is to cheat oneself of relics from prehistory, spectacular beauty, outgoing people and hidden places of rich religious significance.

Nevern is a combination of all of these. Dyfed County is also known as Pembrokeshire.

An Obscure Saint

We heard the name St. Brynach one late afternoon. St. Brynach was an obscure saint and friend of Wales' patron saint, St. David and, like David, an Irishman who settled in the wild west of Wales more than 1,200 years ago.

Just north of Fishguard, at Dinas Head, is a place known in Welsh as Cwm yr Eglwys, just off the main A487 road. The gray darkness of the late Welsh afternoon was caused by a rain shower that lifted just long enough for us to peek through the churchyard to the ruins of the 11th-Century St. Brynach Church.

All that stands is its front wall, which faces its tiny cemetery. Behind the shadowy stone facade the open sea crashes against rugged rocks into which, during an 1859 storm, the remainder of the building was driven.

Pondering the Fate

The rains returned and we were left to ponder the fate of this remote, awesome scene. Thoughts of it recurred even over a delightful tea at Cnapan Guest House and Restaurant in mid-village Newport.

We were still thinking about the magnificence of St. Brynach's on arrival at the handsome guest house where we had reservations for the night. Thoughts of the church stayed with us through a dinner prepared by Cordon Bleu chef Susan Jones who, with her husband, retired BBC-TV producer Huw Jones, operates the small but sumptuous guest house Rhyd-Garn-Wen not far from Cardigan.

Through the night, even over breakfast the following morning, the haunting beauty of the desolate ruin remained with us. As it came time for us to leave for more sophisticated places, Sue Jones asked if we would favor her with a few minutes--she would like to show us something.

The something was Nevern and today's St. Brynach Church, so named long before the ruined church of the afternoon before.

A Memorable Visit

It was a memorable visit to a tiny village, a handful of cottages, really, in a picture-book setting straddling a small stream seven miles southeast of Cardigan and just off highway B4582.

Dominating the village is its Norman church, restored in the 19th Century and spectacularly beautiful by itself, the more so because it peeks out from behind its ancient churchyard and an avenue of centuries-old yews.

The so-called "Bleeding Yew" drips a blood-colored sap that has, through the generations, inspired many legends and controversies best described by villagers in this traditionally superstitious countryside. You'll hear more than one version if you ask more than one parishioner.

Ancient Monument

The Churchyard Cross is the most striking of many early Christian monuments in the area, dating from the late 10th or early 11th Centuries. Known to historians as a "free-standing composite pillar cross," its intricate design may be a mystery to the layman but has meaning to the student . . . a decorative treatment of the crosshead with four faces embellished with carved patterns, the inscriptions front and back remain a puzzle. To students of religious art, the skill and application in the work are just short of astounding.

Services are still held each Sunday in this beautiful old church where our host and hostess, Huw and Susan Jones, are active parishioners. We were shown a wayside cross cut into a rock face nearby, and its kneeling place, both further relics of the 6th Century when this was a pausing-place for pilgrims on their way to St. David's.

Behind the Nevern church, crossing the stream, is a Roman footbridge.

Founded in the 6th Century, the Church of St. Brynach is described in detail and with authenticity in an 18-page booklet available in the sanctuary for 30 pence. It has plans of the building, a list of vicars since 1514 and chronological and scholarly research by archeological and theological experts. The book is a must for anyone with more than a modicum of curiosity about such things.

Ancient Celtic Alphabet

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