Cherish the Chapel

by Huw Edwards, journalist and broadcaster
Published in 2012 in The National Churches Trust Annual Review

Huw Edwards

Huw Edwards

The chapels of Wales need friends.

The past half-century, a period of base neglect, has seen hundreds of cherished buildings flattened without heed.

There is a bitter twist at work here. Wales has suffered a campaign of cultural sacking approved by elected and unelected officials; but many of those responsible have had little understanding of the scale of the loss.

In Wales today, those tokens of Plantagenet savagery, the medieval castles, are cared for with a vigilance approaching the fetishistic. We willingly revere these symbols of our oppression. And it follows that our national authorities accord them maximum listed protection.

Chapel

Chapel

In this same Wales, those heroic symbols of our Nonconformist freedom, the chapels, are neglected, disdained and spurned. They lie rotting and decomposed in town centres, casually vandalised. They are invisible and irrelevant. They seldom pierce the people’s awareness, but when they do, they provoke repugnance and scorn.

The popular memory is pitifully short. Even those who vilify religion praise the chapels for enriching the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. These places of worship gave essential literacy and numeracy skills to children and adults; they provided the poor with food and clothing; and they operated an effective welfare system while state and parish dodged their duties.

In rejecting the state religion of England, the Nonconformist movement offered a new definition of Welshness. It really is no exaggeration to say that the spirit of the chapels shaped modern Wales.

But modern Wales doesn’t want to know.

These days, the fact of that transformative contribution is an irritant. The chapels are unsettling reminders of a very different past. To acknowledge the greatness of their contribution is to invite inescapable questions about their present lot. And that is acutely wearisome for a generation whose rejection of the chapel is absolute and final.

The official guardian of our built heritage of Wales is CADW. Unlike Historic Scotland, CADW does not appear to offer a website with a searchable database of listed buildings. What it does provide is an interactive map which locates countless castles, fortresses and monuments of importance.

Try locating Maesyronnen chapel, one of the earliest Nonconformist places of worship. It should be immediately visible as one of the prime religious sites of Wales. It is not. This lack of prominence is even more shocking for a building listed Grade I by CADW.

Rather more bewildering is the knowledge that of the 30,000 buildings listed by CADW following the national survey completed in 2005, very few chapels were accorded the integral protection afforded by Grade I status.

Chapel

Chapel

CADW’s own listing criteria are clear. Buildings of ‘architectural interest… which illustrate important aspects of the nation’s social, economic, cultural or military history’ are worthy of listed status. So are buildings with ‘close historical associations with people or events of importance to Wales’. The majority ‘of special interest’ are in Grade II. A much smaller number of particularly important buildings are listed Grade II*. Buildings of exceptional interest (around 2 per cent of the total) are in Grade I.

Nonconformist Wales

A visit to my home town of Llanelli, one of the strongholds of Nonconformist Wales, will reveal the folly and injustice of the listing process.

The only Grade I listed building is Llanelly House, a particularly fine Georgian town house now being restored in an impressive £6 million scheme. It certainly deserves its full-scale protection. Across the road lies St Elli’s Church, listed Grade II* thanks to its medieval west tower and fifteenth-century chancel. A short walk away we find Tabernacl Chapel, one of the most impressive chapel buildings in Wales, also ranked Grade II*. Tabernacl was designed by John Humphrey, whose much bigger Tabernacl in Morriston is listed Grade I.

So far, so good. But a longer walk around the town centre raises some unsettling questions which also apply to many other parts of Wales.

Capel Als, the oldest Nonconformist cause in Llanelli, is given the minimal protection of Grade II listing, despite an opulent interior rightly regarded as one of the finest chapel designs anywhere in the United Kingdom. It was designed by Owen Morris Roberts who also rebuilt Llanelli’s Capel Newydd. Here, too, he delivered an exquisite interior considered to be one of the best examples of Edwardian chapel design and craftsmanship.

For reasons which are difficult to fathom, both Capel Als and Capel Newydd are lumped together with the majority of chapel buildings in Llanelli in the basic Grade II band, a category which also includes some decidedly mediocre buildings and monuments. The historically significant Adulam Baptist Chapel in nearby Felin-foel, the oldest Nonconformist cause in this part of Carmarthenshire, is also considered worthy of a basic Grade II.

A real problem

This lack of consistency is a real problem. In Carmarthen, George Morgan’s Baptist Chapel in Lammas Street is Grade II*. His equally glorious Dinas Noddfa, Landore, inanely accorded Grade II status, is heading for the same fate as his Calfaria, Llanelli, a rotting mass on the steep slope of Bigyn Hill for the past decade.

This is plainly unjust. But the evident inadequacies of listed protection predate CADW, it must be said, and start with the implementation of the Town and Country Planning Act of 1947. It is clear that successive generations of officials have either failed or refused to acknowledge the architectural and cultural importance of Nonconformist chapels in Wales.

Llanelli does, however, offer some hope for the future. It once boasted 22 chapels in a compact town centre, several of which have been acceptably converted. Glenalla is one of the best examples: here we have a solid Edwardian chapel reborn in 1987 as a community centre and concert hall. A decade earlier, Siloh was the first Llanelli chapel to be refurbished, as a sports and social centre. It has proved to be a popular and valuable local asset. Zion, an elegant chapel design by Henry Rogers, is now part of a major theatre complex which involved one of the best heritage protection schemes in Wales.

It can be done.

The chapels of Wales, those distinctive emblems of Welshness, need many more friends. From the unadorned charm of Soar-y-mynydd, in the depths of Cardiganshire, to the flamboyant grandeur of Bethesda, Ton Pentre, in the heart of the industrial Rhondda. They all deserve protection and preservation. They are all part of the story of Wales.

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