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Did you know that the crookedest church in Britain is tucked away in a sleepy valley of the Brecon Beacons? It’s called St Martin’s Church Cwmyoy which is located in Wales.
In fact, it may surprise you to know that this 12th-century wonky temple leans even further than the Leaning Tower of Pisa! That’s right, it leans a whole degree further than the famous tilted monument in Italy.
Every wall, roof and most notably the tower is wildly out of alignment! Nothing in this church seems to stand straight.
You’re probably wondering why, and more importantly how, did the construction of this church go so sideways (excuse the bad pun).
Well, as there is so little recorded history of this old church, it’s crookedness is shrouded in mystery, legend and magic!
It’s this lopsided enigma that has attracted visitors here for centuries and has seen this little place gain the title of ‘Church of the Year’ more than once.
I’m sure I’ve piqued an interest by now, so here’s a complete guide to the most crooked church in Britain or St Martin’s Church Cwmyoy.
Why is St Martin’s Church Cwmyoy crooked?
I always like to start these things with a legend because, you know, why let the truth get in the way of such an interesting story?!
Well, there are records that show that there was a religious site here far beyond the Norman Conquest in Cwmyoy. But, the construction started on the current building in the 12th century.
What stood here before has altogether been forgotten with the passing chapters of time. However, there is a legend that still surrounds the site chosen for building this church which is nearby the famous Hatterall Hill in the Black Mountains.
According to local folklore, this area was the location of an ancient landslide which took place during Christ’s crucifixion. After which, darkness descended over the land and it stopped the church’s ability to stand straight!
Of course, you and I and most people nowadays know that could never be the case. So, I guess we have to look at science to explain the lopsided foundations for the temple.
Apparently, it was the result and lasting legacy of the Ice Age that happened over 10,000 years ago! As the temperatures rose and the ice melted, a glacial valley appeared nearby which caused the land to slide.
If you look just beyond the church, you can still see a big ‘crack’ on the side of the mountain where this happened. This is also the reason for Cwmyoy’s nickname of the ‘Valley of Yoke’!
The history of St Martin’s Church in Cwmyoy
As before, there is evidence of a religious site being placed here way before the likes of the topsy-turvy stone structure we see today.
It was a place dedicated to St Martin of Tours, who was the third bishop and saint of Tours in France. This location became a popular stop on the pilgrimage to St David’s Cathedral in Pembrokeshire.
The walk would see pilgrims firstly traipse through the Black Mountains, to the likes of Llanthony Priory, and then make their way Westward across the land.
The Cwmyoy Crucifix that we see inside the church today would have been venerated by Christians here on their holy expedition.
There are very little historical records that surround the current structure in Cwmyoy. However, we do know that William De Lacy ‘moved in’ after the Norman Conquest of 1100. He also founded the Llanthony Priory nearby.
His son, Hugh de Lacy, then decided to build a new manor home and church at Cwmyoy which then saw priests out of Llanthony Priory serve here.
Most of the church dates back to the 13th-century and the structure was constantly renovated over the next 300 years for obvious reasons. They couldn’t stop it leaning over!
In fact, it’s thought that the church went lopsided very early on in the medieval era. By some miracle, the church roof still remained intact despite its misalignment.
Unfortunately, during the Dissolution of the Monasteries initiated by Henry VIII, Llanthony Priory was dissolved in 1538. As a consequence, the church stopped being run by the Llanthony priests and the manor home was gifted to Sir Nicholas Arnold, who was the Lord Chief Justice for Ireland.
Following this, there was a major renovation that took place in 1887 to try and tame the leaning tower of Cwmyoy!
Aside from the famous crucifix relic, the most notable monuments date from the 18th – 19th centuries. These are carvings for memorials made by the Brute Family whose work can be prominently found all over the Black Mountains.
The Most Crooked Church in Great Britain!
Today, St Martin’s Church is a Grade I listed building and has been called the Crookedest Church in Britain. This is due to the whole church being out of alignment, not just the parish steeple!
It’s been referred to by Simon Jenkins as a ‘galleon in a storm with the chancel about to slide overboard’!
Indeed, you’ll find that nothing in this church seems to be in alignment. Not even close!
The walls don’t stand straight, the corners don’t meet, the church ends slant different ways! It makes you feel a bit dizzy tell the truth. It’s a miracle it is still standing today.
The most famous feature that gives it away before you even step foot inside has to be the church tower which leans at an alarming 6 feet over its true position.
If you put it into context, the Leaning Tower of Pisa leans around 4.2 degrees from its true position. Whereas St Martin’s leans out at 5.2 degrees! Strange but true.
Is the church going to tilt further and will it ever fall?
No! Thankfully, there were some buttresses installed during the 1960s which were put in place to stop the tower from tilting any further.
They did this by placing tie beams and metal rods within the walls itself. You won’t be able to see them but it does give you some reassurance when you walk under the tower!
A good job too as it would be a tragedy for this quirky church to finally tumble. It’s now a popular stop on the Cistercian Way and sees many visitors each year.
Is the church crooked inside as well as outside?
Yes! In fact, it’s even more interesting to see the full effect that the Ice Age landslide had on this Gothic church by seeing the wonky structure inside!
It really does feel like you’re entering a galleon in a storm. You’ll find that the corners don’t meet, the archways and doors are on a slant and even the pews seem like they’re on an angle.
It reminded me of an optical illusion or one of the funhouses you used to go inside at the fair! Where you feel unsteady and the room seems like it’s going to move from under you.
You must go inside if you make a visit here. If only to look upon the Cwmyoy Crucifix which has also had a remarkable journey itself.
Notable features inside the Crooked St Martin’s Church
The Cwmyoy Crucifix
Remember earlier when I mentioned that this location was a pitstop on an ancient pilgrimage?
Well, the Cwmyoy crucifix would have been the ancient relic that the pilgrims would have worshipped while they were here!
Wayside crosses were put in place throughout the UK to mark religious sites in the fight over Paganism.
Once the Christians had ‘won over’ the locals in that place, a stone cross was placed at the site to show that the land was now Christian. Almost like a modern day advertisement!
The Cwmyoy Crucifix was a wayside cross that was planted at the site in the 11th century. This would have marked the area of St Martin’s and told the pilgrims that they had finally arrived.
It has an unusual carving of Christ on the Cross where he is wearing a mitre-esque headdress. Some experts say that this headdress would have been similar to those worn in the Holy Roman Empire during the 11th century. But, other theories suggests the headdress can also be found on Irish crucifix carvings too.
When the Dissolution of the Monasteries took place in 1538 and Llanthony Priory fell, the crucifix was buried in the churchyard for its safety. Luckily, Henry VIII’s men didn’t ever try to recover it due to the remote location of the church!
It was then dug up again by a local farmer in 1861 and gifted back to the church in 1935.
Unfortunately, the crucifix was stolen in 1967. But, was eventually recovered a few years later in a London Antique Shop. By the Keeper of Sculpture at the British Museum, no less!
It was then returned to its rightful place, unfortunately, without it’s stepped base. It was then set in stone to ensure that it can be seen by all who visit in future generations.
The weeping chancel
Another notable person who has visited St Martin’s Church is the local Monmouthshire writer and artist, Fred Hando.
He famously described the church chancel as a weeping one and claimed that the non-alignment of the nave and chancel axes were deliberate.
The weeping chancel was meant to represent the body of Christ in death. Where the nave stands in for the body and the chancel representing the head falling to the right.
Brute family sculptures
As mentioned before, there are number of skilfully carved funeral monuments which are scattered throughout the church.
These were all made by three generations of the notable Brute family who were famous masons within the Black Mountains.
They lived in the distant and remote village of Llanbedr in Crickhowell within Powys. But, you’ll often find their work in Monmouthshire (Kingdom of Gwent), Llanelli and beyond!
It’s well worth having a look around here as the monuments are so well preserved! Maybe it’s due to it’s remote location and the lack of visitors, but the carvings almost look brand new and trapped in time.
How to visit St Martin’s Church in Cwmyoy
Ugh. This was the only downside of visiting this church. As much as I loved exploring its quirkiness, the drive to get here was far from enjoyable.
I mean, even Henry VIII gave it a miss due to the remote location! But, I guess there were no roads then.
Despite it being in the middle of nowhere, I would still say that journeying up here is worth it to see this gorgeous church!
St Martin’s Church is tucked away in the Vale of Cwmyoy in the Brecon Beacons. It’s only a 4-mile journey to Llanthony Priory, so it’s well worth adding this place on as part of your road trip.
The address for your sat-nav is (strangely) Abergavenny NP7 7NT.
Like most of the more rural parts of the Brecon Beacons, if you’re driving (which I would recommend as there are no trains or buses) you’ll find you’re driving on single track lanes. These will have high, dense hedges and very few passing places.
I found myself reversing back for what felt like a mile when I met another car head on more than once.
As you descend up to the church itself on the steepest of hills, it get’s even more windy and narrow. But, it almost feels like you’re travelling back in time! The whole place is very traditional and there are almost no signs of modern conveniences.
I actually had to ask a local on how to get up to the church as it’s full of houses perched on the hill too.
There isn’t ‘official’ parking here, but there is an off-road lay-by where you can park with consideration next to the church.
You may find it more enjoyable to walk here as part of a trail if you’re traipsing the Black Mountains.
St Martin’s Church Cwmyoy opening times
This church is still an active place of worship in Cwmyoy and services regularly take place, usually on Sundays.
St Martin’s doors are usually left open throughout the week, during the day for curious visitors who want to board the galleon in a storm!
There is no electricity inside and the church relies on natural lighting. So, it’s best to visit during daylight hours to see anything.
Although there is no charge for visiting the church itself, kind donations to keep fantastic historic churches like these going are very much appreciated.
Why not visit Llanthony Priory next?
If you are heading this way on a rather racy drive through the Black Mountains, I would highly urge you to pay a visit to Llanthony Priory after your visit to St Martin’s.
This was the original priory founded by William de Lacy after the Norman Conquest in the 12th century.
This gorgeous hermitage was home to the Augustinian canons and tucked away in Vale of Ewyas. So, it packs a punch with over 900 years of history!
Although the priory today is a ruin, what is left is absolutely breathtaking along with the dramatic backdrop of the Black Mountains.
I could have spent hours here admiring all the ruined archways and crumbling foundations. I came here early one morning and found it incredibly peaceful.
It’s completely free to visit and you can pop inside the Llanthony Priory Hotel who jointly owns the land along with Cadw.
Around the area there are plenty of lovely walks along the England/Welsh border.
You could even visit Offa’s Dyke. This was the borderline that King Offa created to separate his kingdom of Mercia with Wales in the 8th century!