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Posted on 25/10/2017 by David

Many North Wales churches are small, spartan places. What makes them special is their location and their histories. Rather than grand, ornate places of worship, our quiet churches prefer to remain hidden, deep in the forest, high in the hills or even surrounded by the sea. You don't have to be culture vultures to find them fascinating!

Here are the latest two entries in our series exploring some of North Wales's most fascinating churches...

St Michael's Church - Betws-y-Coed

Betws church 1

Just behind Betws-y-Coed railway station, St Michael's is the oldest building in the village with a beautiful riverside location. Look out for a stone effigy of Gruffydd ap Dafydd Goch, grandson of Dafydd, the brother of Llewelyn ab Gruffydd who was the last native Prince of Wales.

The Welsh word Betws is derived from 'Bede House' (house of prayer), which was thought to be on the site where St Michael's was rebuilt in the 14th century.

There was no parish in Betws until relatively recently. When Thomas Telford opened the A5 and nearby Waterloo Bridge in the 1820s it brought staying visitors to Betws-y-Coed. They needed somewhere to attend church.

The rise in demand led to restoration and extension in 1843. The gallery at the west end of the church, previously used as the village schoolroom, was removed and the north transept was added.

Much of the joy in visiting St Michael's is exploring the churchyard, and viewing the River Conwy from the nearby "Sapper's" pedestrian bridge. Even when Betws village is at its busiest, St Michael's remains a restful haven with the sound of the river never far away. Simply cross Old Church Road from the railway station to find it.

The church is officially closed for public worship, a service is normally held on St Michael’s Day (in September) and a candle-lit Carol Service in December. The church is normally open daily, 10am until 5pm, Easter until the end of October. At other times a key is available, during opening times, from the Conwy Valley Railway Museum.

Llangar Old Church - near Corwen

Llangar 1

Just five minutes off the A5 at Corwen, on the banks of the River Dee, this church is a hidden gem. It's overshadowed by the better-known Rug Chapel just off the A494 a few miles away, but this simpler, more atmospheric site deserves a visit just as much.

It's older than Rug, dating from the 14th century, and historians laud Llangar because unlike many other places of worship it avoided Victorian alterations; a new church was built in nearby Cynwyd village instead. To find Llangar, park in the layby on the B4401 to Cynwyd, cross the road and follow the steep old track down to the site.

The original Welsh name for the church was Llan Garw Gwyn, which loosely translates as 'Church of the White Stag'. A local holy man told the builders to hunt a white stag and build the church where they found it, using the deer's blood in the mortar mix to build the church strong. Whether there is any truth to this is debatable, but what can't be disputed is the painting of a deer on one of the inside walls.

Indeed, the highlights of Llangar (apart from the lovely location) are its medieval wall paintings, including one of Death, a skeleton holding a winged hourglass and arrow. The painting probably dates from 1748 and is intimidating, to say the least!

The churchyard is on really steep ground and features 'leaning' headstones as well as coffin-shaped kerbed graves. Look also for the clusters of raised tombs on the south side of the church.

Sadly, for most visitors the churchyard remains the most accessible part of the church. Other than a few special open days per year, organised by custodians Cadw, access to Llangar church is linked to Rug. To explore inside, you need to buy a ticket to access Rug and then request a visit to Llangar.

Failing this, you can peer through the church's windows and see the wall paintings from outside.

Do you know of any sacred or holy places in North Wales with interesting or unexpected stories? We’d love to feature them in future blogs!

Do let us know if you visit either of these churches and what you thought of them, you can even share your photos with us on Twitter using @NWHC.

Click here to read part five in the series. 

LLangar church 2

Images courtesy: St Michael's Church pictures courtesy of St Michael's Church Facebook page: Llangar Church Pictures from Professor Howard Williams, shared under Creative Commons License: