Wednesday, 25 December 2013

A Mouse at Christmas

I can-not profess to be a regular church goer these days, but on Christmas Day it seems fitting that I should write about a country church that has a very special place in my heart. Today I took my 80 year old father to a Christmas Day service in the small church of St Llywel in the hamlet of Llanllowell about 2 miles from Usk. This little church, that holds a maximum of 50 people at a push, was where I went every Sunday afternoon to Sunday School with my younger siblings in the 1960s. The four of us would walk down the lane from our home at Yew Tree Cottage in Llewellyn's Dingle just over 1/2 a mile from the church. Today it felt good to stand with my Dad and sing Carols alongside others who had gone to the same Sunday School with us all those years ago. Growing up in the countryside and attending this small church on a weekly basis, we learnt to appreciate the wonderful world around us, the wonder of the changing seasons and to treat animals, nature and other human beings with kindness and respect.

We all lead such busy lives today, attending church is not something many of us find time for. I don't think you actually need to attend  a church to demonstrate the principles of appreciation, kindness and respect, for me its always been about how you live and treat people that matters, rather than ticking a box to say 'I go to church'. Some of the most spiritual feelings I have experienced have not been within the walls of a church, but out in wide open spaces, on mountains, clifftops, walking through virgin snow or in woods filled with the heady scent of bluebells and on the back of my horse feeling immersed in and part of the countryside around me. But sitting within the walls of this tiny ancient church this morning, with others from the same community where I grew up, felt harmonious, unifying and comforting and maybe that is what it is all about - being together and being thankful and respectful for what we have individually and collectively.

History of St Llywel's

 The church is dedicated to St. Llywel, a Celtic saint, a disciple of St. Dyfrig (who died in 546 and is buried in Llandaff Cathedral). Llywel was also a companion of St. Teilo (who became bishop of Llandaff and died in 580). Llywel spent some time with Teilo in Pembrokeshire at the court of King Aercol whom he saved from poisoning. St. Llywel’s church is first mentioned in 1254. The font is Medieval and the limestone used in the south window of the chancel is a feature of other local churches of Medieval origin (eg the nearby church of SS. Peter, Paul & John, Llantrisant). The slit window in the North wall of the nave would also suggest that the church is Medieval. However, it was substantially restored in the 1870s when the West and North walls were rebuilt. The doorway was probably restored to match the walls as originally the door would have been divided. It is possible that the doorway was rebuilt during the reign of James I, the door lock is Jacobean and this suggests that a new door was fitted. The lintel is part of a medieval cross which would have stood in the churchyard. The pattern on the lintel is a compass drawn engraved flower. On the left hand side of the doorway, the doorjam bears three simple crosses. These may represent three men from the parish who joined the Crusades.

The Church Mouse
Many visitors to St Llywel's wouldn't know that there is a mouse permanently resident at the church.  I looked for the mouse today and was pleased to see he is still there, if a little weather worn, sitting on top of the church gate. There are in fact two carved wooden mice at St Llywel's one on the gate and one inside on the altar rail. 

As children we loved to look for these mice and there is a fascinating story behind their carving. The Mouseman of Kilburn was a master craftsman who made furniture out of oak and every piece bore his personal signature - a tiny carved mouse. His name was Robert Thompson and he was born in 1876, a member of a family of carpenters and wheelwrights in the Yorkshire village of Kilburn, that stands beneath a hill on which a huge white horse is carved.
Though initially apprenticed as an engineer, he returned home in his twenties to work with his father making wheels and gates, but he was greatly admiring of the Ripon School of Medieval Woodcarvers, whose carvings can still be seen in Ripon Cathedral, and wanted to produce work of equal quality. He read about the old craftsmen's methods and started experimenting with an obsolete tool, the adze, which they had used.
After the First World War he was commissioned to make war memorials and one of them, a massive carved oak cross, caught the eye of a visiting cleric from Ampleforth College, who became Thompson's first patron for the carved furniture which was to make his name. He made many pieces for Ampleforth, including refurbishing the school library, and that brought his work to the notice of connoisseurs throughout the country.
It was at this time that he started carving a mouse on his handiwork, and the story goes that a fellow carpenter remarked they were as poor as church mice, whereupon Thompson carved the mouse that became his signature and that of the men who worked with him. It is still used today on furniture and ornaments made at his old workshop run by his two great grandsons. Every piece of furniture produced by Robert Thompson's Craftsmen Ltd, as they are now known, is completely handmade, They work only in English oak and every piece has a mouse carved on it somewhere. Mouseman carvings and furniture can be found in churches and private homes throughout the UK and abroad. Today there are about 18 craftsmen employed in the workshop, and each of them has his individual way of making a mouse.

For me seeing once again today on Christmas Day,  the beautiful, carved mice at St Llywel's Church symbolised the need to respect life, however small that life might be.

Thanks to the Church In Wales for The History of St Llywel's

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