In recent years, lots of these spiritual places have been restored impressively too. Some have accompanying museums, cafes or places to stay. Many have beautiful walks nearby, both for the hardy hiker and the gentler stroller. It doesn't matter if you're a believer, or someone simply moved by the beauty of these buildings. Come with us through Mid-Wales, and find your own magical connection with our country’s religious history.
St Issui’s Church, Partrishow, Powys
Deep in the Black Mountains sits one of the most moving Grade 1-listed churches in Wales. Park in a tiny car park on a hillside, then go past the Holy Well. This is where St Issui, an early Celtic saint, worshipped. Rags, jewellery and crosses still adorn a tree next to it today (you can bring your own too).
Then walk on to the church, a gentle climb up the hill. Its old hermit’s chapel and cell were built sometime in the 11th century, and its font is definitely nearly a thousand years old (its impressive inscription reads 1055). The main church is full of fascinating features from a few centuries later. A very rare, intricate Catholic rood screen looms above the pews. Protestant texts glow in faded colours on the whitewashed walls. And then comes the eerie painting every visitor will never forget: a skeleton holding a scythe, hourglass and spade on the back wall of the church.
According to local legend, this wall has been whitewashed over many times. But brace yourself: the figure always reappears.
Maes-Yr-Onnen Congregational Chapel, Glasbury-on-Wye, Powys
At the top of the Gospel Pass you'll find our famous book town, Hay-on-Wye, and five miles to the west, the oldest Welsh chapel still in use today. A moving Grade 1-listed chapel on a small country road, Maes-Yr-Onnen was converted from a cattle-shed in 1696. As non-conformists were not allowed to worship until the late 17th century, secret meetings were held here before then. Oliver Cromwell is said to have once joined the throng.
You can still worship here – United Reformed Services are held here every Sunday. You can stay next door as well. The farmhouse adjoining the chapel is now a gorgeous, beamed and boarded Landmark Trust property, available for holiday rentals. The view of the Black Mountains from here is also worth a trip alone.
St Gwendoline's Church, Talgarth
In the beautiful village of Talgarth the 14th century St Gwendoline’s Church dominates the skyline. Here, one of Wales’ most important Christian figures was converted to his faith: Howell Harris, who helped lead the first Welsh Methodist Revival. He preached passionately all around Wales, but his heart belonged here. He was quite a celebrity in his day too: 20,000 people were said to have attended his funeral. He is buried by the altar rails.
To go inside, ask for the keys at the village’s Visitor Information Centre. You'll find a lovely, small museum about his life a mile outside Talgarth too, based at his old home, Coleg Trefeca. Today, this building is also a centre for spiritual retreat, continuing the work its committed old owner began.
Brecon Cathedral, Brecon, Powys
Set in the only walled cathedral close in Wales, Brecon Cathedral is full of exceptional relics. First find the 12th century font with remarkable carvings of a Green Man and a scorpion. Nearby is a medieval cresset stone, which held flaming wicks and tallows carried into the building by monks. After that, look up to see the stained glass window commemorating one of Henry V’s soldiers: Roger Vaughan was one of 200 local archers that fought in the Battle of Agincourt. There’s much more on these men at the beautiful Heritage Centre (free, but donations welcomed) next door, as well as video and audio installations exploring Cathedral life.
If you're interested in Wales' military history, the 14th century Havard Chapel is also the regimental chapel of the South Wales Borderers. Their colours from the Zulu Wars are hung proudly here. The Pilgrims Tea Rooms in the cathedral’s grounds is rightly popular too. It's open all year for breakfasts, lunches, teas, coffees and award-winning cakes.
The Pales Meeting House, Llandegley, Powys
In the beautiful northern quarters of Mid-Wales, you’ll find the oldest Quaker Meeting House in use in the country. The Pales is a 17th century thatched cottage in the Radnorshire hills, established by the founder of Quakerism, George Fox. The Quaker movement’s love of tranquillity finds a perfect home here, as does its commitment to education. A school for children was founded here long before state education, and regular events on geology and Green Art are still held here today.
Pentre Llifior, Berriew, Powys
On Cycle Route 81 in Montgomeryshire you’ll find one of only two surviving 18th century Wesleyan Methodist preaching houses in Wales. A humble red-bricked building from 1798, it’s been lovingly restored, with original box pews and hat pegs on the wall. You might have heard of one its founding ministers too. Reverend James is one of Wales' most popular beers, named after Pentre Llifior's founding minister, James Buckley. He also owned a brewery down south in Llanelli. No wonder he was known as the saviour of souls and satisfier of thirsts.
The chapel is open on Wednesday and Thursday afternoons from 2-4.30pm from April to September, and Sunday services are held every week at 2.30, followed by tea and cake. Small groups can also visit by prior arrangement, and enjoy tea and refreshments at the chapel. Contact Andrew Mathieson on 01938 555376 or go to the Pentre Llifior Facebook page.
Pendref Chapel, Llanfyllin, Powys
Some chapels in mid-Wales have tumultuous pasts. Take Pendref Chapel in Llanfyllin. Its first building was destroyed by a mob in 1715, following the Jacobite Rebellion. Its second converted pioneering Welsh language hymn writer, Ann Griffiths, to nonconformism. She dedicated her short life to music after that (she tragically died at 29 after giving birth to her first child). Our country's reputation as the land of a song can be traced back to her.
The three Living Stones Heritage Trails in this area include a fascinating seven-mile walk through her life, tracing the winding River Vyrnwy, meadows, woodland and hills. The John Hughes Memorial Chapel in nearby Llangyniew also pays homage to the man who transcribed Griffiths' hymns, alongside his wife Ruth, and helped them travel across the land.
The third Pendref chapel stands here today. A handsome example of Georgian and Victorian architecture, light fills it inside. Its beauty stands as a great testament to its community's history.
St Melangell’s Church and Shrine, Llangynog, Powys
The oldest Romanesque shrine in Northern Europe is in an unexpected place: a small Welsh church in the remote Berwyn Mountains. St Melangell was a 7th century Irish princess who saved a hare from a hunting party nearby. Legend says she was granted this valley in return, and a 12th century shrine was made in her honour.
The shrine has an astonishing history. The congregation dismantled it during the Reformation to preserve it from looters, hiding stones in the church walls and lychgate. Complete again today, it mixes Celtic motifs with Romanesque designs to stunning effect. The church been a site of pilgrimage ever since. Services are held here on Sunday afternoons in the summer, always followed by tea and cake.
Strata Florida Abbey, Pontrhydfendigaid, Ceridigion
Venture west in Mid-Wales through the Cambrian Mountains, and the Strata Florida Abbey appears. It’s majestic. Its unusual Latin name translates as Vale Of Flowers (or into our Welsh as Ystrad Fflur) and some of its original features remain. The huge carved west doorway is particularly impressive, as are the painted medieval tiles that have somehow survived. One even gives you the flavour of a person who lived here: it features a monk admiring himself a mirror.
Other eminent dynion lived and died here too. Eleven Welsh princes are buried in Strata Florida’s graveyard. So is Wales’ greatest medieval writer, Dafydd ap Gwilym, according to local legend. It is said he was buried, with fitting poetry, under one of the yew trees.
Capel Soar y Mynydd, Tregaron, Ceredigion
Imagine a church in an isolated, hilly location, then travel on this tiny, sheep drovers’ road to Capel Soar y Mynydd. This whitewashed longhouse sits quietly above the Camddwr tributary river, near the Llyn Brianne reservoir, built for the farming families that once thrived in this area. Most of them left in 1947 after a snowstorm cut off them off from the world for three months. Only one family remained – the Thomas Joneses of Nantllwyd Farm – who welcomed many visitors warmly in the hillsides until they left in 2012. These included former American President Jimmy Carter, on holiday in Wales exploring his love of our great Dylan Thomas.
Despite its remoteness, the church is kept open today, and is worth the rolling, rural ride.
Church Of The Holy Cross, Mwnt, Ceredigion
When Welsh sailors returned from their lives ar y mor, they would worship here, looking out to the rolling Irish Sea. This 13th century sailors’ Chapel of Ease sits high above the breathtaking National Trust sandy cove beach at Mwnt, where dolphins and seals are often spotted in the water. Local legend says that you’ll see something else it’s windy: the bones of dead soldiers from the attempted Flemish invasion of Wales in 1155.
Made of beautiful Preseli stone, the chapel is open daily for visitors. Or visit in July and August, when they hold Sunday services. Even more magically, come up for services at Easter or Christmas Eve. In all of these places, it's easy and lovely to breathe in Wales’ past and its present, to feel the faith in our glorious land.
John Hughes Memorial Chapel
Fully restored in 1995 as a centre for pilgrimage and prayer, the chapel was built for John Hughes, the famous Methodist minister who preached and lived at the Chapel until his death in 1854. He and his wife Ruth were instrumental in recording the hymns of Ann Griffiths after her death in 1805, the famous hymn writer who attended chapel here. The John Hughes Memorial Chapel is open for visitors Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday afternoons Easter to September.
St Cadfan's Church, Tywyn
St Cadfan was a Breton missionary who arrived in the rural coastal town of Tywyn around 516 AD. Along with his followers, he established a monastery and settlement there before heading north-west to the more remote Bardsey Island. St Cadfan's Church has been a site of worship and pilgrimage ever since. Parts of the current building date from the 12th century - although the site itself has had a varied history including Viking raids and collapsing towers! The Church houses St Cadfan's Stone, one of the earliest known examples of written Welsh and 14th century effigies including the Weeping Knight, who cries when it rains.