Sunday, 10 December 2017

Service of All the Teddy Bears

It was 29th October. I was exploring The Black Mountains, a hilly region north of Abergavenny. I'd stopped off at Llanthony Priory, just to take a quick look. It was a ruin, of course, but there was quite a lot still standing. It was well worth half and hour.

In its heyday, when it was an active religious community, it would have been a most peaceful and pleasant place in the summer. In winter, less so. The high surrounding hills suggested that the winter months would have been notably damp, and that if it snowed the Priory would have been cut off from the outside world.

The Augustinian community here began in 1118 and lasted until 1538, when the Dissolution came. The inhabitants were not monks, but canons, all of them ordained priests who could conduct regular church services around the area. The Priory had an offshoot in Gloucester which gradually became the main house, this one becoming just a backwater. The few canons remaining in 1538 were pensioned off, and the buildings plundered for dressed stone. Later, some fresh residential rebuilding took place within the Priory grounds, and part of that is now a hotel.

Here a few a few pictures of the Priory.

From here, I drove up the valley to a hamlet called Capel-y-ffin. 'Ffin' in Welsh means 'boundary', so perhaps the name means 'chapel on the boundary'. The place is certainly close to both the Monmouthshire county boundary and the Welsh Border itself, so this is not a completely wild guess. Here is a location map. Click on it to enlarge.

Capel-y-ffin really was little more than a few houses, a red telephone box, and a chapel. And a sheepdog, who looked as if he were going to say something unfriendly about my parking outside the chapel. I saw the look in his eye. It said 'I'm watching you! One movement I don't like, and I'll bark furiously! Two movements I don't like, and you're dead meat!' I was not to be cowed, however. I tested his resolve to leave bite marks on the Melford rump by inspecting the red telephone box, as a first objective. 

Gosh, what a forlorn-looking box, with its door swung open to the elements! It must be decommissioned and abandoned, surely. But no.

Fully-functioning! I suppose the mobile phone reception must be dodgy here, then, and access to a public landline is still needed. 

You know, I can't remember the last time I ever used a public phone box. Maybe at Victoria Station in London in the 1990s? Since 2001 I've carried a personal mobile phone, and haven't needed to use any of these red boxes. Nor have I wanted to - how hygienic might it be to touch the handset, or put the speak-into part close to one's mouth? Not very, I'm thinking. I'm rather fastidious about such matters. I shouldn't think the average local swineherd or travel-stained backbacker would stop to wash their hands or clean their teeth before making a call. 

Offhand, I wouldn't know how to operate the phones in these red boxes, and would have to study the instructions carefully. And this one took only coins: if lacking the right change, one might be thwarted!

Moving carefully, for the sheepdog was still not showing any sign that his heart had melted, I wondered whether I was pushing my luck by lingering here. Fiona was a safe refuge from this hell-hound, and she urged me to be sensible and drive her onwards into the hills and the Gospel Pass. But she was a distant and dangerous road-width away, and if I could reach her without being attacked then I might as well go the whole hog and look at the chapel as well.

I was not going to be bullied. One must stand up to tyrants, and never surrender. I gave the hell-hound a disdainful look that said 'Be careful. I have Super Powers. I don't know quite what they are, nor how to demonstrate them to you, but any false move from you and they will undoubtedly be triggered, with devastating effect. So back off, boyo.' He backed off. I entered the churchyard intact.

Ah, a church - not a chapel. OK. Let's look more closely.

It was small and pretty, with a quirky timber bell-tower. A low entrance door. 

What a quaint entrance! Why three keyholes, implying three keys to open the door? Did a trio of keyholders have to turn up? You know, as if there were something inside that had to be guarded or kept away from casual view - so that special precautions were needed, lest people like me enter at the wrong time. Did they all convene at dawn and dusk, to unlock or lock the door? Was there a set order, a ceremony, a ritual? Anyway, daytime was clearly OK. They just locked it at night.

I unlatched the door and went inside. Within, there were seats on two levels. The floor space was so small that there had to be an upstairs gallery.

It was charming. More than that. It was cared-for, cherished. There were flowers, and there were artistic touches with a Byzantine flavour.

Now who might that androgynous person in the picture be? The church was dedicated to St Mary the Virgin, but the person in the picture could have been a man or a woman. Ha, a non-binary saint, peradventure? Look how close the ordinary fields and mountains - and the wild weather - would be for the people attending services here!

The fixtures and fittings of the church were all present and correct. An ancient font.

A pulpit from 1780.

Bench seats from 1783.

An old organ, with an intact keyboard but worn stops. And harvest-time music. Elgar's Nimrod too.  

And...teddy bears. A line of them on the front bench. All sizes. Apparently an entire bear family.

What was this all about? Churches often have a play area for tots and very young children, but these clean and carefully-arranged creatures did not seem to be toys. Were they meant to be a permanent resident congregation? Were they the only congregation? Certainly, the humans attending the scheduled services might hardly outnumber them. For some services, the bears might easily outnumber the humans. 

Perhaps they represented the humans? Did each human member of the regular congregation contribute a bear, so that there was a one-to-one correspondence? Were the bears' names exactly the same as their owners'? So that the bear named Sally had been donated by a woman called Sally, and resembled her in some recognisable way. And that when this woman wasn't herself in the church, her bear would represent her, like a Voodoo doll. Were the bears stand-ins for living people only? What if they represented people who had died, so that they could still take part in the services? 

Was that notion strange, bizarre or outright creepy? I wasn't sure. 

No, they must just be toy bears, and the local children did play with them, and simply set them up in a neat row after each session here. After every session. Without fail. Surely they did.

But if not, then there was that spooky idea that at night they held a service of their own. A Service of All the Teddy Bears. Becoming animated. Aware. Able to whisper words into the darkness. Did they sound like their owners? Or former owners?

What kind of service? For whose benefit? For what purpose, good or evil? And what would happen if they were interrupted in their midnight chanting? Would baleful, beady eyes be turned on the intruder? Then what? What could they do?

I earnestly hoped they were locked in after dark, safely locked in by The Three who held the keys and knew the secret, so that no innocent person might blunder in on something frightful. 

The Black Mountains might be very well-named.

As I drove on, towards the high Gospel Pass, I wondered if I had misunderstood the sheepdog's behaviour. Had he been trying to warn me?


  1. Ah... now you have posed a conundrum that I will have to resolve before my planned visit to the area in the Spring. When I blogged about Llanthony Secunda last August I got my 'facts' from which states: It was founded in 1136 by Miles de Gloucester, 1st Earl of Hereford, as a retreat for the monks of Llanthony Priory... Monks, canons or maybe both? I suspect that Historian Lucy will be right, but it will be fun to find out.

  2. But be careful about checking out the teddy bears just up the valley...



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