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tempus fugit

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Wednesday 23 February 2011: The Iron Room

Travelling back home along the busy north-south road that runs down through innermost Wales my eye was caught by an odd little green building up perched above the flashing traffic and I had to stop, I'd recognized a rarity.

In the late 19th century religious revivals (especially in Wales and the North of England) filled non-conformist churches and chapels to overflowing and more space was needed accommodate burgeoning congregations. Building in stone was slow and expensive but as luck would have it a new material presented itself: corrugated iron. The flat-pack places of worship flung up by eager hands were sniffily referred to by established congregations as 'tin tabernacles'. Nevertheless many of these simple metal structures have stayed the course and remain, a little rusty and dilapidated, still in pious or other use as meeting places or, as this one (called The Iron Room) for occasional exhibitions, talks and recitals.

By co-incidence, the church in this same village of Eglwys Fach was briefly the living of the turbulent Welsh priest-poet R.S.Thomas. Although not a Methodist, his mordant eye on Welsh history produced a poem that could well have been inspired by this very tin tabernacle. It's called The Chapel.

A little aside from the main road,
becalmed in a last-century greyness,
there is the chapel, ugly, without the appeal
to the tourist to stop his car
and visit it. The traffic goes by,
and the river goes by, and quick shadows
of clouds, too, and the chapel settles
a little deeper into the grass.

But here once on an evening like this,
in the darkness that was about
his hearers, a preacher caught fire
and burned steadily before them
with a strange light, so that they saw
the splendour of the barren mountains
about them and sang their amens
fiercely, narrow but saved
in a way that men are not now.

Published in Laboratories of the Spirit, 1975

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