Our 50th Church: Castlemartin, Pembrokeshire

We’ve hit the big

And we’re celebrating in limestone-rubble style with the Grade I church at Castlemartin, Pembrokeshire coming into our care.

St Michael and all Angels, Castlemartin is our 50th vesting – and what a special church to mark that milestone.  The present building can be traced to the late 12th - early 13th century, and its curious setting reflects its ancient origins.  Despite the availability of level sites nearby, the church is cut in to a steep sandstone bank.  But its place in the landscape is key to understanding its significance; a stream runs close to the west end and two holy wells are nearby, the site is encircled by earth-banked encampments and an ancient burial mound, while several early pilgrim paths lead to and from the church.

'Castlemartin' refers to the dedication to St Martin, Bishop of Tours (4th century), evangeliser of rural Gaul and father of French monasticism, and is consistent with a Norman foundation.  However, the possibility of an earlier foundation can’t be discounted: St Martin enjoyed widespread popularity, and one of the earliest churches in England, St Martin’s, Canterbury is dedicated to him. [1]

Inside, the scalloped font and north aisle arcade are the oldest visible remains of the early church. The small carved heads which decorate the arcade are described in the listing as having “a death-like appearance, with closed eyes and shrunken noses and lips." These curious masks face north – traditionally the dark or ‘devil’s side’ of the church - and could therefore be figures of protection.

The 15th and 16th centuries brought much change to the church: the chapels and north transept were removed, the tower was heightened, and it would appear that a large and elaborate Jacobean porch was added to the west end.  And in the late 1850’s the church was ‘restored’ – this time by John Campbell, 2nd Earl of Cawdor, who commissioned re-roofing, re-flooring and re-fenestration.  As a legacy, the Cawdor arms decorate the tiled chancel floor.

The church also has some exquisite Victorian stained-glass. The east window is by Heaton, Butler and Bayne and depicts the Ascension, while St Michael, the church’s patron saint, is represented in the slype.  The south transept contains a window by Hardman to a design now known to have been by Pugin depicting the Crucifixion. It has been described as the best example of a Pugin window in any Welsh church and is now the sole survivor of the five that Hardman made for the church in the early 1850s.

More recently, the church has become a home for bats. Indeed, it is home to at least seven different species of bat and for several years, has been used for training ecological consultants.

We are delighted to help give this special building a future and have just completed the first round of repairs. We are indebted to the local community, in particular the Aldermans, who have a long connection to Castlemartin, and who open this church daily for visitors.  And we’re thrilled that we’ve managed to save 50 churches by taking them into our care - with the help of local friends, volunteers, and of course our members – who enable us to continue doing what we do.

[1]  Morgan-Guy, J. (2014) Unpublished report on St Michael and All Angels, Castlemartin