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|1605: St Mary's
Priory, Cas Gwent (Chepstow), Wales
Photo: Roy Parkhouse
St Mary's Priory, Cas Gwent (Chepstow), Wales.
Church in Wales.
The ancient priory church of St Mary is sited in the back streets
of a Welsh border town. The church is an odd looking building,
as it is a Norman fragment of a far larger priory. A tower was
added in the early 18th century, and a north transept in the
1830s. The magnificent Victorian chancel is by the Welsh Gothic
revivalists John Pollard Seddon and his partner John Coates
Carter. The nave is very dark and is sited between the arcades
of the old Norman abbey. A warden suggested I have a look around
before the service. I did so, and noticed a monument to a lady
named Margaret Clayton that depicts her two husbands kneeling
and their children all around. A huge skeleton is painted onto
the wall next to the monument.
The church itself is typically no frills Catholic in a Church
of Wales kind of way. Sadly the congregation are mostly elderly
and the church faces an uncertain future. I couldn't help wondering
if I came back in 20 years whether the building would be redundant
and a museum or not. Unlike the Welsh language churches Annybynywr
and Presbyteriadd, St Mary's makes no reference to Welsh culture
at all. No Pantycelyn hymns here! It appears to reflect an English
rite and heritage albeit very effectively.
St Mary's is the main church of this small town which is sited
on the sleepy River Wye and near the River Severn. It is a hillside
parish with a large castle. Nearby is the massive linear earthwork
attributed to Offa, king of Mercia from 757 to 796, called Offa's
Dyke. There are almshouses and a town gate, and there is a distinct
Welsh feel to the place. In fact, one of the pubs had bilingual
signs outside. A few miles away is Ysgol Ffyn (Welsh Language
School) in an area where Welsh hasn't been spoken for a very
The service was taken by a retired priest, the Revd David Richards,
as the vicar was away at the other church in the parish.
The date & time:
Sea Sunday, 13 July 2008, 10.00am. Sea Sunday is a day set aside
annually for the remembrance of mariners, fishermen and port
workers, together with their families and dependents.
What was the name of the
How full was the building?
There were about 45 elderly people spread across the church.
I was the youngest at 37 by a long shot. A worrying state of
affairs for a reasonable sized town – it seems unthinkable
that a town church could be running on such low numbers. However,
it seems typical of many Welsh town churches that tend to give
the impression they are surviving but are actually finding it
hard to keep their heads above water. Presbyteriadd Cymru and
Annybynwyr (Independent) still seem to keep their numbers in
the towns although there are none in Chepstow.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes. I was very pleasantly welcomed by a lady at the church
door. She seemed sympathetic to the fact that I had only been
awake for 45 minutes and had just travelled across the bridge
in time for the service. Several people nodded but made no conversation
as such – as is the Anglican tradition!
Was your pew comfortable?
A small wooden chair – not easy to sprawl out!
How would you describe the pre-service
It was very quiet. Some people lit candles near the front. There
was no organ music until a few minutes before the service, at
which time the bell also tolled. It felt like being a bit of
a ghost in time haunting the church.
What were the exact opening words of the
"Good morning and welcome to St Mary's church. Let's begin
with the introit hymn." Then the choir and clergy processed
to the front of the church.
What books did the congregation use during the
Hymns Old and New and a printed order of service. There
was also a newsletter in which the hymn numbers were given.
What musical instruments were played?
The organ for most of the service. The organist played well
and chose registrations that were just right. She played some
pieces by the 18th century English composer and organist John
Stanley, which added to the timeless atmosphere of the place
and the illusion of being a ghost of time haunting the church.
Did anything distract
It was very dark in the nave – the history of the place was
very tangible. As I said earlier, I felt like a ghost of modern
times haunting a church of antiquity. The church was such a
mish-mash of architecture – the simplicity of the Norman nave
contrasted with the high Victorian chancel, but the two made
for dreadful acoustics!
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip,
happy clappy, or what?
The style of the service was that timeless, almost Victorian,
style so characteristic of the Church in Wales: no frills middle-of-the-road.
But very nice for that and in keeping with the atmosphere of
the church. Whether it's a style the church can afford to maintain
is open to question.
Exactly how long was the
On a scale of 1-10, how
good was the preacher?
5 It was a lecture type sermon. The visiting priest sounded
learned from what I could hear, but the acoustics muffled most
of what he said. I began to grow restless after awhile.
In a nutshell, what was
the sermon about?
He spoke on the parable of the sower of good seed and mentioned
the British Coal Board, but that's really all I could make out.
I was reminded for some reason of land near where I once lived.
Surely a case for a nave pulpit.
Which part of the service was like being in
The music so well suited this ancient edifice. Particularly
the singing of a responsive psalm with a haunting tune. The
responses were sung by one lone tenor from the far off choir
stalls. And then the Stanley organ pieces.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The first thing that annoyed me was the problem with the acoustics.
There was a big distance between the action and the people.
They could benefit from moving the altar and pulpit forward.
The choir would do better to move to the crossing too. Then
the second thing that slightly annoyed me was the unspoken reaction
of people when, as I was introduced around after the service,
they realised I was a member of the United Reformed Church,
not Church of Wales. Some of them seemed to wince at the mention
of the term. This, even though the oldest Congregational church
in Wales is less than five miles away and the fact that Annybynwyr,
along with Presbyteriadd Cymru, are really the heart and soul
of Welsh religion. And they forget that those great Welsh hymns
by Pantycelyn originated from the chapel, not the church. Finally,
I know Chepstow is not Welsh speaking, but it would have been
nice to have a nod to the language with a dismissal or prayer
in Welsh. With a new Welsh school at Sudbrook, shouldn't Chepstow
be doing its bit for the language?!
What happened when you
hung around after the service looking lost?
I was greeted by a very kindly lady who introduced me to the
organist and several other people. After everyone else had left,
I lingered a bit to sit down at the organ and play some pieces
by Bach and the contemporary Welsh composer William Mathias,
and a couple of Welsh hymns. As I was leaving, a man came up
and asked if I enjoyed playing the organ. I said I did. "Not
sure what our recital people would think of it," he replied.
Not sure of what he meant by that – was he frightened because
I played with a bit of life?
How would you describe
the after-service coffee?
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 I would like this style of service with the traditional
hymns and rite to remain. However, I think when I come back
in 20 years there will either be a different churchmanship or
a closed door. It would be nice to think that I'd find a little
bit of Welsh spoken and that something of the Welsh culture
had survived. However, the Church in Wales reflects an English
heritage and rite that makes little reference to the culture
around it. Had St Mary's been in England it would have been
Did the service make you feel glad to be a
Yes, but one cut off from Welsh culture.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The wonderfully sung psalm!
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