A History of St Nicholas Church, Nicholaston

St Nicholas is thought to be one of several Gower churches which were removed at some time in the Middle Ages half a mile inland from the coast to its present site on the main road from Swansea. In the woods half a mile nearer Nicholaston Burrows and Oxwich Bay is a ‘church field’. The original simple form was then rebuilt in the C16 during the reign of Edward VI when, according to the C19 Gower historian, Revd. J D Davies, frescoes and the entry to the rood loft on the chancel arch wall were removed. Traces of these distinctly–cut drawings on the dressed stone were revealed underneath the whitewash when the building was almost totally replaced in 1894 by the present church. The only remaining masonry of the old structure is the chancel arch and the south east corner of the chancel, containing two aumbries and piscine.

The Victorian Decorative Gothic style church consists of chancel, nave, south porch and western bellcote. The architect was George Halliday and the lavish stonework to his designs was carved by William Clarke: both came from Llandaff and worked extensively across South Wales. Millstone grit conglomerate from the lower slopes of nearby Cefn Bryn, matching that from the original small church, and green dressed stone from Bridgend were used in the reconstruction in 1894.

The generous benefactor was Miss Olive Talbot who, like her older sister, Emily, devoted much time and money to good works and the church restoration was in memory of their father, Christopher Rice Mansel Talbot of Penrice Castle and Margam Park. He was a major landowner, industrialist, a Liberal politician who became the Father of the House of Commons and was described as the ‘wealthiest commoner in England’. His children were committed Anglo-Catholics who, when staying at their London home, attended the nearby All Saints, Margaret Street the fashionable cathedral of Anglo-Catholicism. The cost of restoring the church was at least £2000 but sadly Miss Talbot who had been an invalid for the last 20 years of her life, lived in London and never saw the result which is unique among Gower churches.

When the restoration was completed, the church was described by the Rev. J D Davies as ‘the most elaborately treated ecclesiastical building in Wales, if not the West of England’. Very few changes have takenplace in the last hundred years. It is impossible to do justice in describing the quality of the interior structures and richness of decorations. The triple arched east window which depicts the Crucifixion, with the Virgin Mary and St John, has carved columns of red porphyry with shafts of green Connemara marble. The reredos of exquisitely carved and polished pink alabaster, has five niches each containing white limestone statues. In the central niche is the Virgin with the infant Jesus on her knee; on either side are angels and prophets. The chancel and steps to the altar are paved with black, red and white marble, symbolising the earth, blood and purity. The teak prayer desks are carved with fish and pelicans. The roof of the chancel is of beautifully carved oak and includes the only surviving rafter of the earlier building – one of the few substantial pieces of mediaeval timber to be found in any Gower church. Musical angels with their instruments support the chancel roof.

The roof of the nave is oak with carved principals and gilded bosses and said to be the’ most elaborately treated oak roof in South Wales’. The nave seats are made of teak and the ends are beautifully carved with flowers, seeds, insects and reptiles. The pulpit is fronted with canopied, alabaster figures of the three great names of Victorian High churchmen: John Keeble, Edward Henry Liddon and Edward Pusey. The font is mediaeval, from the original church and made of a solid block of tofu, similar to gypsum, originally formed during a volcanic eruption.

The arch above the door has carvings of the heads of the twelve apostles, with an owl on the top of the left jamb and a cockerel on the right. The door itself is made of teak with elaborate ironwork on the outside. On the inside of the lock are the inscriptions ‘Pax Vobiscum (Peace be with you) with the initials GH, (the architect, George Halliday) and the date 1894.

As well as the east window there are several others of different sizes. A lancet on the north wall is one of two from the old church and depicts St David playing a harp. The impressive stained glass, described as ‘exquisite and restrained’ is by Burlison and Grylls, noted English glass makers. The window in the west wall is of St Nicholas holding symbols of children, sailors, pawnbrokers and Russia. He was their patron saint and above the porch entrance outside is his figure with hands outstretched in giving a blessing to those who sail the Bristol Channel below.

The bellcote is at the west end of the church and houses an interesting bell, cast by Van Won, a well known bell-foundry in Holland and elaborately decorated with seals and inscriptions including one in Dutch which translates into ‘I was cast in the year of our lord 1518’ . It may have been part of the cargo of a ship wrecked in the bay or a special bell sent to commemorate an important Dutch person who was drowned and buried at Nicholaston.

Valerie Beynon
June 2021

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