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Hen Eglwys Silian Old Church: delivering a grassroots community heritage project

The small village of Silian is typical of many rural communities in south-west Wales in that it falls within the top 20% of Wales’ most deprived areas in terms of access to services [i]. Indeed, its parish church – recently made redundant – is the only available public building in a village with no other amenities. I write as an archaeologist, long-term resident, and director of newly-formed Community Benefit Society (CBS), Menter Silian, which aims to transform the former church into a multi-purpose community hub and tourism facility.

St Sulien’s Church from the south-west (photograph: author)

St Sulien’s Church is central to Silian’s main settlement. Both probably derive their names from the personal name, Silbandus, commemorated in the fifth- to sixth-century inscription (‘Silbandus iacit’) on a carved stone (known as Silian 1) incorporated into the church’s south wall [ii]. Churchyards in south-west Wales are frequently curvilinear, an indication of pre-Norman origin [iii]. Concentric outer enclosures are comparatively rare [iv] and Silian’s is a particularly well-preserved example: it is one of a series of conjoined curvilinear field boundaries which may have formed part of the early medieval ecclesiastical landscape.

Oblique aerial photograph of St Sulien’s Church (centre) viewed from the north, within its curvilinear churchyard and concentric outer enclosure (Crown Copyright: Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales)

Two pieces of ninth- to tenth-century stone sculpture (known as Silian 2 & 3) and a circular medieval font bowl with four carved faces lie loose within the church. The collective presence of all four monuments is critical in helping provide an understanding of Silian’s unique place in the nation’s ecclesiastical history, before and immediately after the Norman Conquest of Wales. If the project fails it is likely that the three portable artefacts will be removed to a museum, which would not only break their direct link with the site, but also break up the collection itself. While Silian 2 has statutory protection as a scheduled ancient monument, the other artefacts currently do not. Cadw's (the Welsh Government’s historic environment service) regional inspector of ancient monuments was alerted to their at-risk status by the community. She conducted a site inspection shortly after the church closed and recommended further scheduling. She will now work with the community to ensure their protection during future capital works and appropriate display within the newly renovated building.

Cadw’s Regional Inspector of Ancient Monuments and Archaeology (South-West Wales) (left) recording the currently unscheduled medieval Romanesque font with four carved heads (right) (Photographs: author)

The building, a simple rural High Victorian church, was rebuilt in 1872–3 to the design of R.J. Withers. It is the latest of his works in south-west Wales, with the unusual, geometrical bellcote being a good example of his later, more adventurous work [v]. The interior retains its original fittings, including the alter, circular font, pine pews and choir stalls. Although unique, the building is not considered ‘one of the best examples of type’ (Rhodri Davies, Cadw Historic Environment Service, pers. Comm.) and is not listed. Aiming to protect the redundant building, the community prepared a case for listing which was unsuccessfully put to Cadw. State-led conservation legislation bases its decisions on a narrow range of age, historical or aesthetic-related values, in which community values do not figure.

Church interior (photographs: author)

Since the late 1990s, however, organisations such as English Heritage and the National Trust (for example, the National Trust’s ‘Spirit of Place’ initiative) have placed an emphasis on understanding community values and identifying the core factors which make a particular place unique [vi]. The former church is not only unique in terms of its architecture, but also in terms of its social history. Fixtures and fittings (e.g. memorial plaques to World Wars I and II, the stained glass and the oak lectern, donated by local families) are all part of its story. The local knowledge of community members is a precious asset and key to understanding this ‘spirit of place’.

The East Window (close-up of bottom panel). Not only significant as the only Welsh example of the work of Bromsgrove-based Arts & Crafts artisan, A.E. Lemmon, it is also an important part of the ‘spirit of place’. Its three panes depict the lives John Stewart (first headmaster of Silian National School) and family, each portrait thought to be a true likeness of the family member it represents (photograph: author)

In 2018 Menter Silian was awarded a total of £12,100 in grant funding from the Architectural Heritage Fund and the Local Authority’s LEADER scheme, to facilitate a feasibility study into the viability of transforming the former church into a community facility. This paid for architectural expertise and help with community consultation. The latter generated an overwhelmingly positive response from the community, demonstrating a strong need for a multi-functional facility and enthusiasm for active involvement in the long-term running of the building.

Menter Silian’s first community consultation event, attended by Cadw’s regional sites and monuments inspector, our conservation-accredited architect, and community members (photograph: author).

Study visits to a range of successful community ventures in West Wales have provided examples of best practice and opportunities to learn from similar projects. For example, in 2015–2016 Cwmni Cletwr, a not-for-profit organisation in the small coastal village of Tre’r Ddol, was awarded some £800,000 (including £497,000 from the Big Lottery Fund) in grant funding in to purchase a disused filling station and build a new, state-of-the art community building to provide a shop, café and community space. Treftadaeth Llandre Heritage was awarded some £100,000 from the European Regional Development fund in 2016, as part of the Peaceful Places tourism trail. The group adapted St Michael’s Church into a space for both religious worship and community purposes (conference room with kitchenette, toilets, and a mezzanine floor above). Both visits proved pivotal in shaping Menter Silian’s building designs and marketing strategy.

Michael Haager of Treftadaeth Llandre Heritage, discussing the renovation of St Michael’s Church with members of Menter Silian (photograph: author).

Menter Silian is currently working on its five-year business plan and is in the process of sourcing some £30,000 in grant funding for a project development phase. The project aligns with strategic aims of funders such as the Architectural Heritage Fund and Heritage Lottery Fund, which encourage the empowerment of communities to discover new, long-term sustainable uses for historically important buildings, whilst helping address local issues. I am able to offer expertise in liaising with heritage professionals and articulating the building’s heritage value, while other directors contribute a range of different skills. To fill the gaps, there is specialist coaching and peer-to-peer mentoring from National Lottery-funded programmes such as Catalyst Cymru: Resilient Heritage and Enterprising Solutions.

Community support and engagement is key to the project’s success and maintaining momentum during the development phase is critical. To this end, Silian’s newly established gardening group aims to transform neglected communal areas around the church. The group is reliant on the labour and skills of volunteers, with specialist support from the local garden centre. The work is strengthening community cohesion and there is now a palpable sense of pride in where we live.

The new community gardening group and some of its projects so far (photographs: Menter Silian and author)

The project’s success depends on many factors. These include positive relationships within the community and between it and professional heritage bodies; positive interaction with tourism organisations and the Local Authority; the continuing availability of specialist support; enthusiastic volunteers; and (crucially) the dedication and long-term commitment of Menter Silian, whose directors must develop expertise in the planning and delivery of an economically sustainable heritage project. Even with all these resources in place, the amount of capital investment needed is significant, and there is uncertainty over whether it will be available in a post-Brexit, post-coronavirus world, where grant funding will be limited and competition fierce.

To keep up-to-date with the project, follow our Facebook page, Hen Eglwys Silian Old Church.

Nikki Vousden is a final year SWW DTP student in Archeology at the Universities of Exeter and Reading


[i] Welsh Index of Multiple Deprivation: (accessed May 12 2020)

[ii] Edwards, N. 2007, Corpus of inscribed Stones and Stone Sculpture in Wales: Volume 2 South-West Wales, University of Wales Press: Cardiff, 127 & 189–191

[iii] Ludlow,N. 2009, ‘Identifying Ecclesiastical Sites in South-west Wales’, Edwards. N (ed), The Archaeology of the early Medieval Celtic Churches

[iv] Edwards, N. & Vousden, N. 2015, ‘A rediscovered piece of early medieval stone sculpture from Silian, Ceredigion’, Archaeology in Wales 53, 125–130

[v] Lloyd, T. Orbach, J. Scourfield, R. 2008, The Buildings of Wales: Carmarthenshire and Ceredigion, London: Yale University Press, 570

[vi] Clark, K. 2014, ‘Values-Based Heritage Management and the Heritage Lottery Fund in the UK’ in APT Bulletin: Journal of Preservation Technology 45 (2–3), 66–70, 68–69

Retrieved May 15, 2020, from

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