We decided to leave the main road and take the back roads, just for a last look at the hills. Add that to the possibility of avoiding a long traffic jam just ahead and the fact that there was a historic church just off the slip road and getting sidetracked was irresistible. Not that I could remember anything about the church… I just recognised the name of the town as being of some importance and the sign supplied a possible reason why. It wouldn’t have mattered if it hadn’t been there… there was bound to be somewhere we could grab some lunch.
Five minutes later, we had parked the car right outside a sandwich bar at the top of St Asaph’s High Street and found ourselves a cathedral. The trouble was, the cathedral was shut, so we wandered off down the High Street in search of a little church we had seen on the way in.
St Asaph is a small town named after its second bishop. It is, in fact, a city. Once upon a time, all it took was a cathedral… a church that held a cathedra… a bishop’s throne, symbolic of his teaching authority within the church. Towards the end of the twentieth century, the ruling changed and St Asaph lost its city status, but regained it in 2012.
It has a long and important history, older than the mind can reasonably grasp. Homo sapiens, our own branch of the hominid tree, only arrived in these isles around twenty nine thousand years ago. Just outside the city, at Pontnewydd, archaeological excavations at the site in 1978 unearthed the tooth of an eleven year old boy… from two hundred and thirty thousand years ago. A Neanderthal child. We cannot even call his people our ancestors… or can we? Recent research seems to suggest that our two species could have interbred… which could make the descendants of this child’s family one of our very earliest ancestors, their evolution running side by side with ours.
That seems fitting in a place where the churches, too, are pretty much side by side. Not only are the cathedral and the Parish church close together, but the latter itself is two in one. There has been a place of worship on the site of the church of St Kentigern and St Asaph for around fourteen hundred years. The current church building dates back only to the thirteenth century and it is a curious affair.
While many churches are dedicated to more than one saint, most of them are a single church. This one, while still a single building on the outside consists of two distinct bays. The main altar is in St Asaph’s church. Angels carved into the hammerbeam roof look down on a simple interior with an ancient font and piscina still in place and some lovely stained glass. Odd and disquieting faces look down also, festooned in cobwebs, watching the parish meeting that was taking place when we arrived. We were welcomed and given an impromptu tour by one of the residents who shared his knowledge and passion for the building.
He told us how it had been restored by George Gilbert Scott and showed us where the pikemen had sharpened their weapons against the stone of the arches that divide St Asaph’s from St Kentigern’s church.
The reason for this shared dedication is not far to seek. Kentigern was exiled from his home in the north and during that period he visited Wales, founding the Celtic Monastery of Llanelwy, which is the Welsh name for the city. Asaph was one of the young monks of the monastery. Kentigern often stood within the icy waters of the river to pray and one day, frozen from his devotions, he sent young Asaph to bring a lighted brand to warm him. The youth returned, not with a torch, but with his apron full of glowing coals. Kentigern recognised the miracle and Asaph was installed as bishop when Kentigern left for the north.
It is also fitting to note that while the half of the church dedicated to the erstwhile bishop Asaph is full of coloured and showy glass, carvings and all the trappings of clerical power, the half dedicated to the Celtic Kentigern is far simpler and decorated only by the hearts that hold the roof beams.
We were grateful for the information and are always moved by the dedication our impromptu guides show to both their church and their community. It does, however, tend to stop us from exploring as fully as we might like. You cannot discuss weird theories about symbols when with those to whom a more orthodox interpretation is part of their faith. It is a matter of respect. On the other hand, we did get one really useful piece of information… the cathedral was open… but we needed to use another door… Thanking our guide, we hurried back up the High Street to visit one of the smallest Anglican cathedrals in Britain…