Os grid reference: SN0834 4002. Situated in the very pretty and largerly unspolt village of Nevern (Nanhyfer), between Cardigan and Fishquard, is the cruciform-shaped St Brynach’s Church, standing proudly in front of a large tree-covered mound where, long ago, early Welsh chieftains and, later possibly Norman barons, lived in a fortifified stronghold, or castle, from the mid 6th century to the early 12th century; and where beside the Caman brook, the Celtic monk, Brynach, came to build his monastery at the beginning of this period which, historians often call the Dark Ages. St Brynach, an Irishman, became a friend of St David. Here we see the beautifully carved Celtic churchyard cross and an inscribed memorial stone and, there are two other ancient stones, indeed inscribed stones from the the 5th or 6th century AD housed inside that are well worth a look at because of what they can tell us about this sacred and holy site, all making for a fascinating little collection of Dark Age antiquities. The churchyard has an avenue of ancient yew trees, and just short walk south from here and we can see the famous Pilgrims’ Cross and stone at the side of the river Nyfer. The A467 is 1 mile south of Nevern, while the village of Newport is 2 miles to the south-west and Fishguard is a further 5 miles in the same direction. Cardigan is 9 miles to the north-east.
There was quite probably a monastery here c 540 AD, and maybe even some sort of ecclesiastical centre, but then in the 12th century a Norman church was built on the site, today only the tower of that building remains, the rest being from the 14th and 15th centuries onwards through to 1864 when restoration took place. The nave has a stone vaulted roof. Two flat stones acting as windowsills in the south wall of the nave are quite interesting, one in particular, from the 10th century, is quite unusual. It is 62 inches long and has an intertwinning cord carved onto it (in relief) that forms a Celtic-style cross – though there is no inscription on this. The other stone has a Latin inscription in memory of Maglocunus (Clechre) who has been identified with St Clether, son of king Clydwyn of Carmarthen – who lived in the fortification behind the church in the early part of the 6th century and was a relative of St Brynach, who died in 580 AD and was also the founder of a church at Braunton, in Devon. Legend says that St Brynach used to climb to the top of Carn Ingli, an Iron Age hillfort 2 miles to the south-west, in order to converse with angels.
The Latin inscription is MAGLOCVNI FILI CLVTOR – ‘The Stone of Maglocunus son of Clutorius. Some historians think Maglocunus was the famous Maelgwyn (Maelgeoun), king of Gwynedd, though this is very uncertain. There are also Ogham notches on the front edge of this stone – giving a similar pronouncement, so no doubt there is an Irish (Goidelic) connection here; these two stones are thought to have come from the churchyard – they are now preserved from the elements of wind and rain, something quite common in this part of south-west Wales! In the Chancel there is a photo of an old stone that went missing. It was 10 feet long by 3 feet wide and had a Greek cross inscribed on it, “an early relic of British Christianity”, according to the church guidebook of 1980.
Outside the church at the east-side of the porch stands the 5 foot (1.5 metre) high Vitalianus Stone, a Romano-British gravestone from the 5th century AD that has a faint Latin inscription in memory of VITALIANI EMERETO – ‘The stone of Vitalianus discharged with honour.’ Again there are Ogham-script notches on the edge, making this a bi-lingual inscription. According to the author Chris Barber in his book ‘More Mysterious Wales’ Vitalianus is Vortimer, the son of King Vortigern and, says Barber: “and it is feasible that it is his memorial stone that can be seen here at the church of St Brynach”.
At the south-side of the church stands the famous Great Cross of St Brynach. This lovely carved cross is 13 feet tall (3.9 metres) and 2 feet (0.9 metres) wide, and is thought to date from the 10th or 11th century AD. It is from the the top of this cross that, according to ‘tradition,’ the first cuckoo of the Spring perches and sings its heart out on the saint’s feastday 7th April, and no doubt it does without failure every year! The cross is “superbly” decorated with all manner of Celtic pattern-work inside sections of various sizes; there is “a differently arranged ribbon, the endless interlacing symbol of eternity”, according to the church guide book. There is knotwork, cord-plaitwork, fretwork, ring-work and Greek swastika and diagonal key-patterning, with geometric designs on all four sides, possibly Scandinavian, rather than Celtic. Both faces E.W. have a small panel with alphabetical-type inscriptions which are recorded as: dns (dominus) and haneh (halleluiah), and also on the east face two primitive-style crosses with long, angular arms. The cross-head is a ‘seperate’ part to the rest and is a typical five-holed wheel-head, quite common in Wales. On the outside north wall of the church a fragment of stone, acting as a windowsill, has a broken Latin inscription TVMIM in memory of someone called Tumin or Tuminius? while a faint consecration cross can be seen on the east wall of the Glasdir Chapel.
An avenue of ancient yew trees forms the pathway upto the church. One of these bleeds red sap from a broken branch; this apparently signifies ‘unrequited love‘. Local legend says the red sap (resin) will continue to ooze from this tree until ‘the castle on the hill is once again occupied by a Welshman’. Another legend says that a monk from the early Celtic monastery was hanged from the yew tree, which may mean these trees were here before the present day church! About 1oo yards to the south-west of the church, along a footpath beside the river Nyfer leading off the Frongoch road, in the direction of Glandwr is the famous Pilgrims’ Cross built into a rock face and, below that a ‘very’ well-worn stone bearing a small incised cross. These mark the pilgrimage route between Holywell and St David’s – Nevern being one of the places where medieval pilgrims would stop, and kneel down to say prayers, before continuing on their long, ardous journey to where St David, patron saint of Wales, lay buried.
Barber, Chris., Mysterious Wales, Paladin (Grafton Books), London, 1987.
Gregory, Donald., Country Churchyards in Wales, Gwasg Carreg Gwalch, Capel Garmon, Llanrwst, Gwynedd, 1991.
Allen, J. Romilly., Early Christian Art In Wales, Archaeologia Cambrensis, 5th series, vol xvi, 1899.
Bryce, Derek., Symbolism Of The Celtic Cross, Llanerch Enterprises, Felinfach, Lampeter, Dyfed, Wales, 1989.
Macalister, R.A.S., Corpus Inscriptonum Insularum Celticorum, Vol 1, Dublim, Ireland, 1945.
Spencer, Ray., Historic Places in Wales – An Exploration of the Fascinating and Mysterious, (Unpublished Manuscript), Nelson, Lancashire, 1991.