Two medieval churches in Wales, which date back over 900 years, will be saved from the brink of dereliction by the Friends of Friendless Churches, who have received a grant of nearly £770k as part of the National Heritage Memorial Fund Covid-19 Response Fund.
The churches, St Lawrence’s, Gumfreston, Pembrokeshire and St James’s, Llangua, Monmouthshire, both became redundant in the past few years. These medieval buildings, which had served their communities for centuries, are rich in architectural, historical and cultural heritage but are in dire condition; without this lifeline, they faced falling into ruin.
“I am thrilled that the National Heritage Memorial Fund are able to support the Friends of Friendless Churches with this vital grant to safeguard the future of these two wonderful churches, particularly after the challenges that the global pandemic has thrown at the structures and the people who devote such care to them,” says Dr Simon Thurley, Chair of the National Heritage Memorial Fund. “We’re tremendously proud to have provided a lifeline for some of Wales’s incredible heritage sites and assets through the Covid-19 Response Fund – from castles and churches to libraries – helping them to mitigate the impacts of the pandemic.”
St Lawrence’s, Gumfreston, Pembrokeshire
Gumfreston church was declared redundant in 2021 and designated ‘at-risk’ in 2022. It has become engulfed in ivy and has suffered from substantial long-term water ingress, which has seriously damaged the roof, walls and floors, and threatens the vulnerable medieval wall paintings. To save this church, we need to re-roof the entire building, lay new drainage and rainwater goods, stabilise the fragile wall-paintings, undertake masonry repairs throughout, and much more besides.
St Lawrence’s was built on an ancient, perhaps pre-Christian site next to three holy wells that were revered for their healing properties. It is set above the River Ritec, navigable until c.1820, and may have been built to serve the wealthy Flemish mercantile community that was settled in the region by Henry I in 1107.
Some of the key medieval features of this building include a large tapering 15th-century tower containing columbaria (housing for doves) and a rare 15th-century wall painting in the nave, with hints that more medieval paintings are yet to be revealed beneath the ivy and peeling emulsion paint.
St James’s, Llangua, Monmouthshire
Llangua church has an important and poignant connection with Friends of Friendless Churches: Their founder, Ivor Bulmer-Thomas, restored the church in 1954-5 in memory of this young wife, Dilys, who died after childbirth. Less than three years later, Ivor created the Friends of Friendless Churches. He went on to manage the rebuilding of St Andrew’s by the Wardrobe, London – which had been destroyed in the Blitz. In Ivor’s lifetime, he saved and helped hundreds of churches. This incredible legacy of church conservation began at Llangua.
St James’s closed in 2020, and its charming 15th-century timber ‘wagon’ roofs are in danger of collapse. Working with an architect, engineer, ecologist and the local authority, the Friends of Friendless Churches are devising a repair strategy which will involve carpentry repairs of the existing timbers and the localised introduction of steelwork to support the stone roofs.
Llangua means ‘the settlement of the church of St Ciwa’; St Ciwa was a legendary 6th-century female saint said to have been raised by wolves. This dedication suggests there was an earlier pre-Conquest foundation.
The earliest parts of this charismatic little church date from the 12th century; surviving features from that period include the tub font and traces of a two-light Norman window. The church retains two wonderful medieval wagon roofs above the nave and chancel, which have been stylistically dated to the late 15th century. A characterful 16th-century statue of St James stands in the south wall of the nave.
Rachel Morley, director of the Friends of Friendless Churches, explains that “These two beautiful churches at Gumfreston and Llangua are the artistic and spiritual legacies of countless generations. Llangua church also had a profound personal connection to our founder, Ivor Bulmer-Thomas, and has played a pivotal role in Britain’s modern heritage conservation movement. We are thrilled that through this support from the NHMF we can now rescue these two churches and protect them for generations to come.”