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Roofs and Rood Screens

The Glories of Denbighshire Woodworking

‘We will make an altar, a choir, a white Virgin, Candles, a chalice, a roof beam Sculptured stones and a carven roof’.

So wrote the bard Lewys Môn in the early 1500s, voicing the people of Llangollen’s determination to rebuild their fire-shattered church. The astonishing ‘carven roof’ which resulted is among the finest medieval works of art in Britain, striking proof of the craftsmanship of local woodcarvers and carpenters. Fine quality woodwork, indeed, is a distinctive hallmark of many Denbighshire churches.

It appears most impressively in their timber roofs. Those at St. Marcella’s Denbigh and Ruthin, for example, would be outstanding anywhere, and some village churches (albeit on a smaller scale) are not far behind - Llanrhaeadr’s roofs being especially fine. Visitors may notice that many Denbighshire church roofs bear a noticeable family resemblance, and indeed they all belong to the same period (c.1480 - 1540). Most are technically known as ‘hammer-beam and arch-braced roofs’, and in many cases the protruding hammer beams are adorned with carved angels - one can be seen close-to at Llangynhafal. Several, too, have especially richly carved and barrel-vaulted ‘canopies of honour’, emphasizing the holiness of the altar beneath.

Local woodcarvers also displayed their art on timber porches (as at Llanrhaeadr) and the beautiful rood screens which separated the altar area from the congregation. The most imposing example is at Derwen, complete with its ‘rood loft’. Here again a family resemblance is noticeable, indicating the work of the same carver or group of carvers. An unusual motif of trailing ‘ivy-berries’, for instance, was the trademark of the craftsmen who made the screens at Clocaenog, Llanrhydd, and Llanelidan. The touching rood screen panels at Betws Gwerfil Goch, however, are unique survivors of the destruction which engulfed many screens during the religious upheavals of the Reformation.

Thereafter local carvers turned their attention to other furnishings - like pulpits (as at Llanelidan or Llangynhafal; altar rails (Denbigh); and communion tables (Denbigh again and Llanrhydd). That their expertise continued undiminished is proven b the wonderful 17th century woodwork at Rug Chapel - a reminder that much carved timberwork was originally also brightly painted. The tradition of local woodworking indeed persisted into the Georgian period and beyond - as witness the timber chandeliers of Llanynys, Clocaenog and Betws Gwerfil Goch; the ‘pelicans’ at Llangynhafal and Llanrhaeadr, and many a fine chair, chest and pew still gracing Denbighshire churches.

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'Ivy berry' trail, Llanelidan