Believe in me and you will live forever. The title of a Gloria Gaynor anthem? Words of comfort from Mary Poppins? The sales pitch for an upmarket French scent? No, it’s actually Christianity’s bottom-line and founding principle, the self-evident nonsense upon which ‘western civilisation’ has been constructed. It’s so serious that it’s funny.
It was in this atheistic spirit that I travelled to the eastern reaches of Cardiff this week, to St Mellons church for the funeral of an old acquaintance. Having recently visited every single religious building within today’s Cardiff boundaries for my book, I have become a bit of a church architecture anorak. So the 30 minutes I spent wriggling on a hard pew with a bursting bladder while enduring the glib solicitudes, outrageous claims and feeble hymnody of the Anglican mass passed surprisingly quickly as I scanned the strange edifice.
One of 13* medieval churches in Cardiff still in use and still on its original site, St Mellons is unusually large and complex for a Welsh church. Visible for miles on its pine-covered hillock, it was built by the Anglo-Norman conquerors in 1360 on a pre-existing Celtic site dedicated to 2nd century Gwent chieftain Eurwg, its size and battlemented tower a testament to its strategic position overlooking the main highway across southern Wales and the Severn seaways. Eurwg lives on in the Welsh name for St Mellons, Llaneirwg, but the precise origin of the English name has never been satisfactorily resolved, even though an antiquary of the standing of Edward Freeman (1823-1892) examined the issue exhaustively when he resided at nearby Llanrumney Hall between 1855 and 1860. Is it named after Mellonius, the 4th century Bishop of Rouen, or Melanius, the 6th century Bishop of Rennes? Nobody is certain. Since the 16th century it has been presumed to be Mellonius, and the annual hiring fair for agricultural labourers was held on the Ton beneath the church on his feast day October 22nd, a practice that only ceased in 1871.
Inside, many modifications over the centuries, culminating in the de rigeur Victorian revamp by George Gilbert Scott (1811-1878), have resulted in a dizzy array of different-sized arches, pillars, doors and windows, and there are quirky features like a large ‘squint’, which enabled worshipers in the chancel see what the priest was doing in the chapel, and an exquisite foliage Image Niche in the east wall. Also worth examining is the large graveyard which features the stone stump of a Celtic cross from Eurwg’s time, some venerable yew trees, and one of Cardiff’s most dramatic memorials; an artfully shattered huge broken column commemorating Yorkshire stonemason Benjamin Hemingway (1813-1856), who got seriously rich building railway bridges and docks in Cardiff and lived in neo-Georgian Quarry Hill House at the top of St Mellons Hill (a grim road and a ghastly pub in Butetown also bear his name). Not to be missed either is the intricately carved 1858 lychgate at the foot of Church Lane on Ty’r Winch Road, bilingually inscribed with the words of Psalm 39 (“Lord, let me know my end and the measure of my days…”). Many a Blue Bell braggard and White Hart wideboy would have taken those lines literally as they staggered out of the village pubs past the gate. Contemporary drinkers head the other way; into town to get bladdered with the immortals.