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Map link for Llanafan Fawr
Text copyright © 2002 by Adrian & Lorna Foster, Foster & Foster Publishing
Photographs copyright © 2002 by Jeffrey L. Thomas
Since moving to Llanafan Fawr in 1991 the beauty, remoteness and the sense of timelessness here have never failed to impress me. When driving home from a mundane shopping expedition, thoughts miles away, a sudden unexpected sunbeam might pierce an ominous sky illuminating an isolated farm with a golden halo; or a magnificent red kite may suddenly soar into view, gliding in lazy circles eyes intent watching for danger or an easy meal. This is the stuff that dreams are made of and I feel privileged and extremely grateful to live in such a beautiful area. But Llanafan Fawr offers more than just beauty, for man has left his footprint here, for good and bad, for thousands of years leaving behind archaeological treasures some of which are only now being rediscovered after a millennia of being ignored, and some which are world famous. Llanafan boasts one of the oldest living objects in Britain, over 2,000 years old and still growing, together with unique gravestones, one dating back over 1,000 years.
Stories abound too of three separate murders (two involving the same families), of witchcraft and of miracles all of which have happened at Llanafan Fawr, a settlement that you can pass within the blink of an eye! As I researched the history of the area and passed on the facts I had gleaned to interested customers in the pub, it quickly became apparent that it would be sensible, if only to save my voice, to put it all down on paper. I trust that you will find this little booklet interesting and that it will give you an insight into the events that have created the beautiful sleepy little village of Llanafan Fawr. However, not everyone shares my view; some take peacefulness for laziness as illustrated by this anonymous medieval poem:
Llanavan full of hills, whose plains,
Are trod on by none but idle swains.
On High, grey rocks and heath are found,
Below, thick brakes conceal the ground.
Below: the church at Llanafan Fawr. Note the traces of the Iron Age mound beneath the tower.
300 B.C. - Iron Age Llanafan Fawr
Llananfan's remaining visible history dates back over 2,300 years but this is currently being actively researched by archaeologists. Lying in the field to the south of the pub (in the direction of Beulah) is a large circular mound measuring nearly 30 metres across, surrounded by a deep ditch with an outer circular wall or rampart. Enquiries about its origin revealed it to have been used as a cock fighting pit or even a bear baiting pit as these sports were pursued in this area in times gone by. Further research however produced old maps and reports showing it as an old motte or castle and even listing it as Llanafan Castle. Whatever the popular opinion however they all had one thing in common - that the site had never been excavated so no one really knew what it was. This situation is now slowly changing and we are currently learning more about it each month. A world renowned archaeologist, Mr Graham George, having recently moved into the Builth area came into the pub one evening for a drink. On mentioning to him the strange mound in the field at the side of the pub he seemed keen to have a look around it, and following a brief tour of the site Mr George promised to be back. A tentative survey of the site has subsequently led Mr George to believe that he may have a major find on his hands. The site, it appears, is linked to the church yard opposite the pub and dates back to the late Iron Age approximately 2,300 years ago. If you visit the church yard there are several things to notice, most of which I will mention later in the chapter pertaining to the church, but the three things I mention here indicate the age of the church yard and reveal the link between the two sites. Firstly, the church yard is circular indicating it as being pre-Christian, although now the front and right side of the circle have been cut across by the main road (which used to go through what is now the pub car park before being straightened) and by the lane down to Cilmery. Secondly, the current church is built on top of an existing mound. This mound is more pronounced at the rear of the church, but the circular mound next to the pub and the church mound are in alignment of the rising of the midsummer sun. Finally, and perhaps most awe inspiring is the huge yew tree at the far end of the church. This mighty yew, one of the oldest trees in Britain, was dated to be over 2,000 years old, possibly older, by the Conservation Society of London and a certificate was presented to the church signed by Professor David Bellamy (of the beard) which can be viewed in the pub. They reported when dating it that although the tree was of considerable size it was formerly much larger. Just stop and think for a second. A tree that was planted before Christ was born and is still alive and healthy and growing and pretty much ignored by everyone. Perhaps only in Wales would this remain a haven of tranquillity rather than being exploited as a theme park named Afan-World!
View of the ringwork/mound at Llanafan Fawr. Ancient Iron Age henge or medieval motte?
Perhaps the greatest significance of all of this is that the ages of the unexcavated circular mound, the church mound and the yew tree all coincide - whoever built the mounds would have planted the yew tree. Yew trees are known to have had religious significance with druidical society, and a tangible living link between them and us still lives and breathes!
Graham, our archaeologist, believes that the circular mound was probably a stone or wood henge which had sufficient significance to have warranted a defensive moat and wall built around it. He believes the stones, or wooden footings may still be buried in the mound and is attempting to obtain underground imaging equipment in order to survey the site further. It is also possible that the site will be featured on a future episode of Time Team the television archaeology program hosted by Tony Robinson, of Baldrick fame, so keep your eyes peeled. So while the site was undoubtedly used for a time as a cock fighting pit and probably worse, its original use is only now slowly being unravelled.
St Afan is a mysterious but important figure in Welsh history and at one time made Llanafan Fawr one of the most important churches in Wales as his body is buried here in the church yard. His tomb (shown right) stood at the beginning of the 19th century at over seven feet high and was surrounded by a dry stone wall. This probably means that the huge alter slab now marking his tomb then stood erect not flat as it is now. The slab is inscribed in Lombardic style with the words "HIC JACET SANCTUS AVANUS EPISCOPUS", (here lies St Afan Bishop). These words can still be made out on the stone.
Below: the tomb of St Afan in the church yard.
Saint Afan, or Avanus, is a purely Welsh saint and is unknown in the English church. According to some he was the grandson or great grandson of Cynedda Wledig, King of Britain. Others say he was the first cousin of the greatest of all Welsh saints, St David. This would date St Afan to have lived around 330 AD in the case of the former and 570 AD in the case of the latter. However, the most likely explanation as to St Afan’s identity places him around the 10th century as Bishop Jeuan. Bishop Jeuan did not enjoy his appointment as bishop for long. He is said to have been bishop for only a day when he was murdered by the Danes (Vikings) in one of their numerous incursions into Wales. The spot where he fell is in a meadow at Dolyfelin farm, about a mile away on the left hand side of the lane that runs by the church, and is marked by a six foot high standing stone.
Below: the 2,200 year-old yew tree at Llanafan Fawr.
St Afan made Llanafan into an important place of worship and pilgrims travelled far to pay their respects to the Saint. Indeed, in the taxation account of 1291 the ‘Ecclesia de Lavanan’, it is recorded as having the very high value of £13 6s 8d, good evidence of the booming pilgrimage business!
A stroll around this most tranquil of church yards brings a real sense of peace, perhaps forged from its long history. But here lie at least two murder victims. The first, St Afan, rests 10 yards to the left of the porch (when standing with your back to the porch) his tomb being 6 yards in front of the church. This is unlikely to be the original location of the tomb and the flat inscribed stone on top would have stood upright. This stone however dates from the 14th century, about 400 years after his death, indicating that St Afan must still have been an important figure.
Carry on past St Afan's tomb to the end of the church where you will notice the church mound extends outwards. This is part of the original Iron Age mound and can be seen especially well at the rear of the church. This mound ends at the ancient 2,200 year old yew (above right) - pause for a while and ponder the history it has witnessed. Also of note is the lack of graves behind the church. In Welsh mythology the north side of a grave yard was thought to be the devil's side so no one was buried there, but few sites maintain this tradition.
Below: the grave of John Price
If you return to the porch and then walk 30 yards along the grass path which runs diagonally left from the porch, on the left hand side is a double gravestone facing away from the path. This stone is unique in Britain as not only does it state its unfortunate occupant was murdered, but actually names the murderer as well! Go to the front of the stone and the left hand inscription reads as follows: John Price Who Was Murdered On The Darren Hill In This Parish By R Lewis April 21 1826. This macabre tale I shall recount later, but suffice it to say that relatives of both murderer and victim still live locally. More gruesome still is this was not the only murder involving these families!
The church itself has been rebuilt several times as its significance blossomed and then faded into obscurity. Of earlier churches only the foot of the church tower remains, the rest being rebuilt in 1886 although some early medieval relics remain. In the porch on the right hand wall several carved stones (below) have been incorporated which date from the 7th to 9th centuries. Go inside the church (if locked the key is available at the Red Lion) and located to the left of the alter is a single pillar stone incised with a Latin ring cross dating from the 7th century. To the right an ancient font of similar age is displayed.
Below: 7th-9th century carved stones in the porch at the church, and the 7th-century stone pillar inside the church.
The vicarage for the church no longer exists but was located beside the Chewfri river at the bottom of the hill. The vicarage was called Persant (corrupted from Berth Y Sanct) which means The Saint's Hedge, or the hedge near to where the saint was murdered. A good Latin grammar school was run from there in the 1700s. For a pleasant stroll walk down the lane to the bottom of the hill and turn left through the gate immediately after crossing a stream. A track takes you down to where the vicarage once stood and the garden walls are clearly visible. In 1996 a Mr CJW Evans, the eighty year old son of the last vicar to reside there, Rev Thomas Watkin Evans, visited the pub. He told how one Sunday morning when the household had just gone out, part of the walls collapsed and huge stones fell onto the bed where he had just slept. The house was then abandoned but later used by the home guard for hand grenade practise during the second world war.
Murder, Miracles & Witchcraft
Now the bit you’ve all been waiting for! Llanafan Fawr boasts, or perhaps hides, a history of at least 3 murders, the oldest being that of St Afan which has already been related. Two though are of much more recent times and involve two families, the Lewis’s and the Prices.
The Murder of Thomas Price in 1789
The victim of our first murder is not buried in Llanafan churchyard - that grave belongs to John Price murdered in 1826 and of his demise we shall hear later. We begin with Lewis Lewis who was accused of the murder of Thomas Price whose body was cast into the pools known as Varlen Fawr. Unfortunately for Lewis the body rose to the surface so he and his brother Thomas took the remains and burned them. Thomas Lewis turned King’s evidence and named Lewis Lewis as the murderer. Lewis Lewis fled. He was said to have a "wonderfully developed leg" which subsequently led to his capture. He was a very fast runner and "could catch wild ponies on the hill". He was once apprehended as he returned home to visit his wife, when, unbeknown to him, his house, Gorswen, was being watched. To take him to prison his captors had to cross the Chewfri river, which was full in flood, by means of a wooden footbridge near Abernefel. Old Evans of Lletherddu led the accused over the bridge followed by the parish constable. As they crossed the prisoner sprang into the surging waters, scrambled to the bank and fled up the steep hill opposite Abernefel. Chase was made but it was hopeless. He was next apprehended in north Wales but was recognized chiefly by his "well shaped leg, huge calf and small ankle."
Below: view of the porch and graveyard at the church.
Lewis Lewis's family however were no strangers to crime. The following is a list of some of his relatives' misdemeanours. David Lewis, uncle, convicted of stealing a turkey in 1796 and transported to Botany Bay, Margaret Lewis, wife of David, tried for murder of a male bastard child she had had since her husband was sent away. John Lewis, uncle, convicted of sheep stealing and sentenced to 14 years transportation. Brother, Thomas, and father, also Lewis, both implicated in this murder. But despite this criminal pedigree it was said that Thomas Price was "the perfect villain on the hill and far worse a man than Lewis Lewis". It was no uncommon thing for Lewis Lewis, the elder, to find 7 or 8 of his sheep dead on the hill and placed head to tail in a row - killed by Price and his dogs. Whatever the rights and wrongs, Lewis Lewis, the younger, was duly convicted and sentenced to be hanged at Brecon gaol. The hanging was quite a public event being the first in 30 years, and though Lewis initially denied his guilt he eventually confessed. As the cart drew away from under him he exclaimed 'God have mercy on me' before being launched into eternity. After he was hanged he was carried away to Garth Hill, near here, where his body was attached by chains to a gibbet and left to rot. One stormy night the gibbet was cut down by his family but unable to free the chains around his ankles they cut off his feet. The following day a John Price (not related) of Dolyfelin reported one of his hounds brought home a human foot!
The Murder of Thomas Price in 1826
From The Cambrian newspaper of April 29 1826 "On the evening of Sunday last the 23th April a most atrocious murder was committed on the body of John Price of Pantilow, In Llanafan Breaks, on the Darren Hill. The deceased was found that night, his neck was twisted till the blood ran out his ears, so that his death must have been occasioned by a dislocation of his vertebrae. A neighbour of the name of Rees Lewis who has absconded, is suspected of the murder."
Rees Lewis was a nephew to Lewis Lewis, the elder, and cousin to Lewis Lewis, the younger of the murder 36 years previously. It is this John Price who lies beneath the unique gravestone in the churchyard. Rees Lewis was eventually caught, tried, convicted of murder and was also hanged at the Brecon gaol.
Miracles In Llanafan
The following story was told by a man by the mane of Giraldus Cambrensis, or Gerald of Wales (depicted at right). He was a monk in the 12th century who chronicled his life, times and travels. In 1189 he was travelling through Wales drumming up support for Richard The Lion Heart (Richard I), the new king and his proposed crusades to the Holy Land. In order to pay homage to St Afan he visited the church yard and recorded the following story about what happened upon the profanation of St Afan's Church. "in the time of Henry the first one of the Lords of Radnor, coming into this country to hunt placed his dogs in the church of St Avan, called in the British language Llanafan, for a night and he also most irreverently slept in the church with them; but when he got up early in the morning, as hunters are accustomed to do, the dogs were mad, and he being blind was led out by hand; he lived many years in this state, but upon making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem he was restored to sight; whereupon he went to the holy wars, and in battle with the enemies of the Christian faith, he spurred his horse and rushed boldly into their thickest ranks, thus honourably concluding his life."
The moral of this story is obvious; if you've brought your pet dog with you, do NOT under any circumstances take in into the church.
Witchcraft in Llanafan(extract from the Breconshire Quarterly Sessions)
"Thomas Daniel, Of Ystradfellte, having noticed that the milk of his father's cows was in the course of last summer of a very extraordinary appearance, which he believed it to be affected by witchcraft. Accordingly he went, by his father's orders, to the defendant, Daniel Jones, at Llanafan Fawr, who immediately said it was the effect of witchcraft, and that he would prevent it. The witness then went to him again, and he promised he would be sure to put the milk right, and that he should see who did the mischief to it. Then he again looked into his book, and described the person of a woman, who, he said, was a witch. The defendant again directed the witness to use the same charm as before, with the addition of two horse shoes, having three nails in each of them. The witness then paid the defendant 2s 6d. This having failed in success, the defendant said he must be on the spot before he could effect the cure; and fixed a time to be at his father's house, desiring the witness to inform the neighbours of his coming, and that he could tell fortunes and recover lost and stolen goods.
The defendant afterwards came to his fathers' house and remained there for four days; during which he pretended, by various means - having generally a book before him - to find out the witch. He said there was a conjuring book of his at Glynllech, which he would give 5 guineas to have restored to him."
Unfortunately I have so far been unable to discover the outcome of the court case, but the fact that witchcraft was a generally accepted practice just 200 years ago seems incredible.
The Lost Treasure of the Monks
At the side of the pub is a track that leads up to a farm offering Bed & Breakfast called Gwernymynarch which translated means 'Wood of the monks'. There is ample evidence in this and other place names in the vicinity that there used to be a monastery located there, presumably linked to St Afan. A tale recently recounted to me by the owner tells of a deep bog located close to where the house now stands. When the monastery was about to be destroyed the monks threw their treasure into the bog hoping to collect it later, but they never returned. The narrator says the bog is very deep - who knows what treasures it may hold!
The Wedding Ride
A Llanafan tradition that continued within living memory concerned the wedding ceremony. It was the custom at Llanafan and Beulah churches that before the marriage could take place the bride would set off on horse back, riding side saddle across the fields. The groom would give chase and only when he caught her could they return to the church to be married!
The Red Lion Pub
The Red Lion can be dated confidently back as far as at least 1189 thanks to our friend Giraldus Cambrensis who, in addition to telling us the story of the Lord of Radnor who slept with his dogs in the church, also recorded that he stayed in the inn at Llanafan Fawr. This makes the Red Lion the indisputable oldest pub in Powys and probably the oldest pub in Wales.
The current Red Lion building dates back to the late 15th century, about 1472. The style of the building is known as a cruck frame building so called for the huge cruck beams which are still visible around the bar. The original building would not have had an upstairs; this would have been added in the 17th century. If you look at the picture on the facing page you will see several of these huge cruck beams, all of which still exist, one set by the bar, one set in the wall between the bar and large room, and a third set in the walls by the fireplace. Another set is hidden in the walls of the holiday cottage next door and these huge timbers can be seen joining at their apex upstairs.
Below: the Red Lion Pub today. One of the best in all of Britain.
Though in place over 500 years these mighty beams are second hand! If you look closely you will see holes in them from a previous use. In the Middle Ages this area was covered in huge swathes of oak forest, which was gradually felled for use in the construction of Britain's growing navy. The felled trees would be carried to the coastal navy yards by cart and, much as with today's haulers, rather than make the return trip empty they would carry back timbers from dismantled boats. This area has a number of cruck frame buildings due to this practice. Look at the old photo of the pub (right) upside down and you will see the shape of a ship's hull. An additional advantage is the salt water exposure helped to preserve the timbers which may explain their excellent condition today. This recycling of materials is not limited to the timber. Look at the shaped stones around the fireplace. Clearly visible are chisel marks left by stone masons when hewing the blocks during their original construction. These blocks are considered too grand to have been intended for this building and were probably pilfered from the church opposite during one of its reconstructions. Look too in the slates used in the floor in the big room compared to those in the bar. Slates of this large size are very uncommon and were very expensive, again indicating their likelihood of having first been laid in the church.
In 1472 when the Red Lion was originally built it would not have had stone walls but wattle and daub making use of the plentiful dung to aid construction. The original chimney would have been a simple hole in the roof, but for all this it would still have been a fine house by contemporary standards.
Until the 1990s the prime purpose of the building was, as it always has been, as a farmhouse that happened as a sideline to serve ale. Food was not served. The building has survived in its unique and original state because for the last 300 years it has remained in the ownership of the same family, the Jones and Davis family. Up until 10 years ago the pub was still run by Mrs Dolly Jones. She had an open cellar located to the left of where the bar now stands, and on examining the wooden beam running along the floor to the bar, what was once the top step is still visible - worn away by the countless footsteps. Dolly would descend the steps to fill her jug from the solitary barrel there and then fill the customers glasses from the jug. As she got older the cellar had to be filled in as she could no longer manage the steps. Her sons Rhys and Roy Jones still own the pub but rent it out whilst they concentrate on the surrounding farm.
Time however catches up, even in Llanafan! Until 20 years ago a huge horse sale and rodeo was held in the yard beside the pub and the course of the B4358 has been straightened and now trespasses into the circular churchyard. Today the Red Lion is famous for its food and hospitality and looks forward to the next 1,000 years with confidence. It hosts the world Tippit Championship every autumn, features regularly on TV and radio and at the time of printing is the Brecon & Radnor Powys Pub of The Year. It is proud to be part of and share in so much history packed into so small an area.
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