St James’s Church, Lancaut, Monmouthshire

I’m at my family’s house down near Chepstow at the moment; sadly, because we’ve just had my grandmother’s funeral earlier in the week. To clear my head I went for a walk on Friday morning down to the banks of the river Wye.

This whole area has a long track record of human habitation. Almost the first thing I passed was the remains of an Iron Age fort – you can see it marked on the map here (old map), and here (Ordnance Survey). Here’s an aerial view. It must have commanded a pretty good view of the Wye both north and south. Not much is left now, it’s either been ploughed out or incorporated into the boundaries of the field. But at the western end you can still see the bank left over from the rampart:

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When the Romans got here they also had a strong presence in the area. We’ve found Roman coins buried in the fields roundabout – one of these days I’ll hire a metal detector and do a proper sweep of the fields - and down by the church there’s still the remains of where a jetty has been carved into a curve of the river (it’s clearer on the map than on the photo below).

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It’s at about this time that the iron and coal industries began to appear in the area. There’s also the remains of a 2nd century Roman villa just round the corner from my parents’ house, at Boughspring. It seems to have been abandoned during the 4th or 5th century.

A bit further forward in time, the area is also right on the route of Offa’s Dyke, built in the eighth century as part of Offa’s campaign against the Welsh. This was actually incorporated into the east end of the fort I mentioned above.

And then there’s St James’s Church down at Lancaut. The church is nestled right down on the banks of the Wye – here’s the view from Google Maps. Here are two views as you approach, one a photo from pre-1865, the other taken by me:

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Lancaut was an established village by the 7th century, it seems, and on the banks of the Wye would have been in a good position for rich farmland, as well as for access to river fishing and trading. Its name derives from Llan Cewydd – church of Cewydd, who was an obscure 6th-century Welsh saint.  

From the style of a font found in the church – now at Gloucester Cathedral - this seems to date originally from the mid-twelth century, ie post Norman-conquest. (There is some debate about whether it’s built on the site of a previous church building). After the conquest, the Normans built two big castles at Chepstow and Monmouthshire and so perhaps this village on the boundary of the Welsh border also benefited from a new building. Here you can see the oldest surviving part – this is from around the 13th century.

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Much of the rest is 18th century restoration – like the east-end window, and what may have been a bell tower at the west end:

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The village the church was part of sat to the west of the church – nothing is now left of it.

 (Much of my knowledge of the church is taken from Charles Parry, “A Survey of St James’s Church”, Transactions of the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaelogical Society (1990), pp. 53-103 - link goes to PDF).

One unusual thing is the design on the two memorial stones on the floor of the church. It has this heart figure, something I’ve never seen on seventeenth-century gravestones.

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There are still people making their mark on this landscape. Here’s a stile that was installed by soldiers from a nearby army base – they’ve also left a record of their presence here.

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