Saturday 7 January 2012: Storm damage
Not the storm which hit parts of Britain, especially Scotland, earlier this week but the 'Royal Charter' storm 140 years ago which destroyed most of the mediaeval church here, leaving just the fragment you can see above the beach.
The seaside village of Cwmyreglwys was once a populous fishing community like many others along the coast. Nowadays it's busy only in the summer when the old cottages fill up with holiday makers. In the winter it has a ghostly quality since there are only a handful of permanent residents. The shutters are closed and the pleasure boats are shrouded with tarpaulin.
The old church was for centuries perched above the sea that provided its congregation with a livelihood, and the surrounding graveyard was filled with the remains of worshippers who had gone before. Over time the sea encroached and there were occasions when in rough weather it washed the walls of the church and even gained entrance, for example from a contemporary description:
In the midst of the service the sea burst the north side door of the church in and filled the floor. The worshippers jumped on the seats, bier and window sills for refuge.
The churchyard was gradually being eroded by the high tides and a print of 1830 shows boats drawn up among the graves.
On the evening 25th October 1859 a nor-nor-easterly gale coincided with a spring tide while the parishioners were at prayer.
No warning came to those who sang
That peril threatened, now forsooth
Was here, as broke a solid wave
Smashed through the vestry, down the nave,
Swamped font and pulpit, pews and choir,
Wrecked the church within the hour.
Human remains were scattered on the beach as the sea sucked the earth from the churchyard. Coffins were washed away and had to be towed back to land. No one in the church was killed but up and down the coast ships were wrecked and almost 800 sailors lost their lives. The bodies of seven local fishermen were washed ashore next day and many dwellings were damaged beyond repair. Most of the villagers moved up the hill and in time a new church was built on higher ground.
The metal model of a trading brig, by the gate, was made by our local blacksmith to commemorate the losses of ships and sailors on that occasion. It's typical of the small craft that once plied up and down the coast delivering goods and acting as an informal passenger service. However, the Royal Charter, after which the great storm is named, was a steam clipper and the biggest of the 133 ships that were wrecked that night. She was returning to her home port of Liverpool, laden with Australian gold, when she was blown off course on the North Wales coast and sank in half an hour with the loss of 450 men, women and children.
The storms were bad enough this week but the damage they did had nothing like the catastrophic consequences of October 1859. The Royal Charter storm was reckoned as being Force 12, the very highest on the Beaufort Scale of wind speed.