Looking out from Pembroke Castle in south west Wales, you can see on the skyline a thick copse of trees, out of which emerges the tower and spire of the 12th century church of St. Daniel (Deiniol) – said to be one of the oldest religious sites in the county.
St Daniel is believed to have come to Pembrokeshire some time in the early 6th Century. The church stands on the spot where he built a hermitage and thanks to a spring which supposedly appeared when he sprinkled water he’d collected from the River Jordan, and which had magical healing powers, it became one of the most famous places of pilgrimage in Wales.
Now, however, you’d be fortunate to even know it was there.
We happened upon it accidentally at the weekend while driving from Stackpole Quay to Pembroke. Up a narrow lane, you find the thick-walled church – now closed, bricked and boarded up. But the graveyard is still in use, with the most recent burial dating from 2009.
What is curious, though, is that the church has become surrounded by tall trees and undergrowth, but as you proceed down through the graveyard – and forwards in time – the vegetation gradually lessens till it reaches a neat, clipped lawn. Grand Victorian and Georgian monuments and family tombs give way to Celtic crosses and smooth granite gravestones, mortal fashions arrive and fade away in a single line of graves while the rows proceed into the new centuries. And as each generation passes from living memory, and memorial, the undergrowth gobbles them up; scooping them into its arms as if the church is embracing them into history.
There is an amazing sense of abandonment, yet one without melancholy. I never think of graveyards as sad or scary places because I’m always reminded of Larkin’s An Arundal Tomb:
Side by side, their faces blurred,
The earl and countess lie in stone,
Their proper habits vaguely shown
As jointed armour, stiffened pleat,
And that faint hint of the absurd—
The little dogs under their feet.
Such plainness of the pre-baroque
Hardly involves the eye, until
It meets his left-hand gauntlet, still
Clasped empty in the other; and
One sees, with a sharp tender shock,
His hand withdrawn, holding her hand.
They would not think to lie so long.
Such faithfulness in effigy
Was just a detail friends would see:
A sculptor’s sweet commissioned grace
Thrown off in helping to prolong
The Latin names around the base.
They would not guess how early in
Their supine stationary voyage
The air would change to soundless damage,
Turn the old tenantry away;
How soon succeeding eyes begin
To look, not read. Rigidly they
Persisted, linked, through lengths and breadths
Of time. Snow fell, undated. Light
Each summer thronged the glass. A bright
Litter of birdcalls strewed the same
Bone-riddled ground. And up the paths
The endless altered people came,
Washing at their identity.
Now, helpless in the hollow of
An unarmorial age, a trough
Of smoke in slow suspended skeins
Above their scrap of history,
Only an attitude remains:
Time has transfigured them into
Untruth. The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.
For all of its abandonment, the church and graveyard of St Daniel’s, perched on a hill in Pembrokeshire, is a testament to 800 years of love.