A Peace Haven in the Mountains
By Wendy Hughes
Water has always been considered a necessity of life, and that is why so many of the early churches were built besides wells so the water could be used for Holy Baptism. Although today, many of these wells are overgrown and difficult to find, if we look carefully many can still be found.
One of the most enchanting little churches I have ever come across is at Partrishow, (pronounced like the Christian name Patricia). It is tucked away above Forest coal pit, about 5 miles north of Abergavenny in Breconshire hills. The picturesque county of Breconshire is full of hidden valleys and hills that have been smoothed over time into form broad strips of woodlands, and many feet have trodden along the slopes dividing Manllwyn (meaning pointer stone) and Llanthony from Talgarth, but so many miss this little church.
The tiny church, dedicated to St Issui is the pride of the Grwyne Fawr valley, which in spite of the havoc caused by Thomas Cromwell, the 19th century restorers have managed to retain its rare and magnificent wooden rood loft and screen. Half of the thrill of visiting a country church is locating it, and I am sure there must be a certainly amount of satisfaction on finally reaching Partrishow.
Legend informs us that a holy man named Issui set up his hermitage near the Holy well, marked by a flat stone slab. This is a pilgrim stone, incised with the Maltese Cross, and can be found around the corner of the wall facing the well. The stone is thought to be an ancient route marker for passing pilgrims visiting the nearby well to take the curative water. The well is formed from a small tributary of the stream Nant Mair, (Mary’s stream) flowing through a rock cleft, and was probably a place of pilgrimage long before Christianity came to these parts. It is just a short walk downhill from the churchyard and easy to spot as there is always plenty of strips of colourful cloth tied to the branches of nearby trees.
It is from his little cell that Issui instructed the people in the Christian faith and gained their affections. So we can all imagine how devastated the people felt when news circulated that he had been murdered by an ungrateful traveller who had come to the cell to seek shelter, but refused to be converted to Christianity. Issui was probably buried in his cell. Soon hiss little cell became a place of pilgrimage, and the well that had nourished the saint was reputed to have special healing properties, and early in the 11th century a rich continental pilgrim travelling through Breconshire was cured of his leprosy by the water of the well, and In gratitude, left a sackful of gold coins on condition that it was used to build a church on the hill above the well and it be dedicated to St Issui.
The earliest name for the Church was Merthyr Issui – Merthyr being the Welsh word for martyr to commemorate the murder of the saint. The church is largely mediaeval and in records housed at the National Library of Wales the name is given as Partrisho (1661), Partrishow (1721), Partricio (1793). How Merthyr Issui ever became Partrisho no one seems to know.
The name Partricio claims to be older than that of Partrishow, and this word might suggest a direct Romano-British origin with its founder saint. What is certain is that an anchorite did inhabit this spot, inviting men of ‘strong and lonely spirit’ to live without complaint through the long silent days.
In 1188 Archbishop Baldwin, accompanied by Gilaldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales) of
came to the church and tradition claims that he preached the Third Crusade standing in front
of the Churchyard Cross. In 1647 the destruction of all such crosses was ordered, but like so
many others this cross was only partly destroyed. Today it has a modern tabernacle top
graced with the statute of St Issui, Our lady, Archbishop Baldwin, and the Crucifixion.
Interestingly facing the cross, and along the front wall of the Church, runs a stone seat, a very
rare feature, and the yew tree opposite the porch is of a great age too, and although it is now
half dead, out of it’s middle grow two other trees, a holly and a mountain ash.
Inside the Church on the west wall the visitor will see an unusual feature, a mural of a striking
figure depicting Time with spade, scythe and hourglass. The doom figure was the last thing a
parishioner would see as he left church indicting that time was running out in which he could
mend his s or her ways and prepare for death. Perhaps we should look upon this as a
forerunner to the poster slogan ‘repent thy sins for death is nigh’. In those days most of the
people were illiterate so such pictures were the only way of teaching, and many of the interior
church walls would have been covered in such paintings. The artists were often itinerant
painters who made a living by travelling the area, but their colour range was limited. We find a
lot of red and ochre because these were colours easily dug up, and black was produced by
soot from lamps. Later James the First ordered that such ‘Popish Devices’ should be white
washed over and replaced with suitable texts, but traces of these pictures can be seen
seeping through the whitewash.
The font in a church can often provide a clue to the date of the earliest church. The right to
baptise was a cherished one, and when a Church was rebuilt, the old font would be retained
as link with the past. The ancient font at Partrishow is the oldest in Wales and bears the Latin
inscription, which when translated reads: ‘Menhir made me in the time of Genillin.’ This
Genillin, or Cynhillin, was the only son and heir of Rhys Coch (Rees the Red) Prince of
Powys, and Lord of Ystradyw, just prior to the Norman Invasion.
The road that led Archbishop Baldwin to Partricio, also brought the many travellers and
pilgrims, and we probably owe much of the treasures to their generous gifts. Such gifts might
well have paid for the late 15th century elaborate rood loft and screen, or it might have been a
gift from the Abbot of the nearby Llanthony Abbey, or maybe a gift from the Herbert family,
powerful landowners, and Lords of the manor of Crickhowell during the 15th century. The
identity of the wood carver has been lost in the mists of time, but some claim it is of Flemish
influence, others the work of an Italian engaged by the Abbot of Llanthony. It could also be
the work of a Welsh craftsman, as there are other screens along the Welsh border. Up the
early 16th century, most churches possessed a chancel screen and rood loft, and were
considered to be a great art treasure, as it is at Partricio. The rood, with its accompanying
figures of Our Lady and St John, was either suspended or fixed to the beam, to the east fo the
gallery. The western parapet was called the Candle beam, and these lit up the figures behind
them. The cost of the candles were more often than not met by bequests, left ‘for the light to
burn before the rood’ a most impressive sight when dressed in flowers and all candles lit. The
screen has few rivals, and different from most it was never painted, and so comes clean from
the tool, and we are able to admire the Irish Oak in its natural beauty. It is exquisitely carved
with the vine and dragon theme, which is found in some other old churches in the area.
Although some will argue that they see this as the Draig Goch (Red dragon) it is generally
accepted that the vine represents evil consuming good, but good prevailing from the rood
A peculiar feature of the church is a room at the west end that is entered from the outside and
has a stone alter table in the isolated room. This may mean that the room was used for a
devout worshipper for private prayer and meditation. Such stone altars were usually
consecrated by the bishop and then carved with five crosses representing the five wounds of
Christ, and there are two such stone altar tables in front of the rood screen, but the one in the
west room has six crosses instead of the usual five. Old stone altar tables are unusual, as
their destruction was ordered both by Edward VI and Elizabeth I and were replaced by
wooden tables. The use for stone seems to have arisen out of the practise of celebrating
mass on the stone tombs of martyrs. Even today it is quite usual for a stone ‘mensa’ to be
inserted in wooden altars in Roman Catholic churches, so strong is the tradition of stone
As you leave the church do have a look at an outhouse complete with a fireplace close to the
church. This was used by the priest to dry his clothes in the Welsh winters and stable his
pony during the service. In a county of mountains the priest would have a very long trek
between churches and isolated farms, in conditions that were far from ideal. That warm
outhouse with its glowing fire must have been a haven for the priest after a long journey and
again after a service in a cold church, before setting off with the flickering lantern tied to his
The Church has been spared the vandalism of other churches and stands today much as she
did towards the close of the middle Ages, and it has been suggested that this is due to its
isolation, but until fairly recent times, the main road from Abergavenny to Talgarth, and so into
Mid Wales came this way Thankfully today visitors can retreat to the woodlands above
Partricio and find clearings with picnic tables and benches amongst the tall pines and larches.
On a summer’s day you would be forgiven to imagining yourself not in a remote part of Wales,
but in Austria or Switzerland as you listen to the sound of cowbells coming down the valleys
and look through the conifers at the reservoir and imagine a pretty mountain lake, reflecting
the steep mountain slopes – a special peace haven in the mountains.