Restoration of Hen Gapel John Hughes, Pontrobert

The chapel was built by the Calvinistic Methodists around 1800, after a man called John Griffiths purchased the land from Matthew Lloyd of Rhospenbwa Farm, Pontrobert, in 1799. Two pieces of land were purchased at a cost of £14.45 each; one adjoins the old building owned by Matthew Lloyd, and the other, according to the deeds, is surrounded by landholdings of the Earl of Powis and land once known as ‘Rhospenbwa Common’. The second piece of land would be used as a cemetery. On the fourteenth of November, 1801, John Griffiths made conveyance between the Calvinistic Methodists and seven trustees to transfer the land to the church authorities. One of the trustees was John Thomas, Dolwar Fach, elder brother of the hymn writer, Ann Griffiths, and the first of the family to convert to Methodism circa 1794. Interestingly, part of the wording of the act reads like this: – “The meeting house may be let from year to year to some honest, devout and religious person for keeping a school”.

John Hughes became a friend and father in faith to Ann Griffiths after coming to stay at Dolwar Fach while working as a teacher of the circulating school of Thomas Charles of Bala in the year 1800, and for the last five years of her life, the hymn writer worshipped at Hen Gapel, with many other keen youngsters of the Methodist revival in Montgomeryshire. John Hughes was a weaver by trade, but after he was ordained in 1814 by Thomas Charles, he settled with his wife, Ruth, (who was a maid at Dolwar Fach) in the house attached to the chapel, where they remained for forty years, bringing up six girls, and seeing major growth in the number of worshippers and elders. John Hughes also used the building as a school (using his ability and experience in teaching, with the encouragement of Thomas Charles.).

John Hughes died in 1854, and Ruth four years later. Both were buried in the cemetery opposite, (there is no record regarding the burial place of their daughters, all unmarried, but they are assumed to be in the same grave) and although the chapel was used for about a decade more, it was judged to be too small to hold the large number of the faithful of the time, and it was closed in 1865 when a new chapel was erected in the village centre near the famous bridge.

The Calvinistic Methodist Connection’s efforts to sell the chapel were not realised until the year 1927, when it was bought by the wheelwright who lived in the house next door, Pentre Ucha. The new owner changed the look of the chapel by installing large double doors to get his carts in and out. Because of a clause in the deeds, he had no right to move John Hughes’ pulpit, which belonged to the Connection, but the condition of which deteriorated bit by bit, along with the building.

It next belonged to a descendant of the wheelwright, a businessman based in London who had no interest in maintaining the building, and when it became known in the early 1980s that he wanted to sell it, a local committee was formed, with the Presbyterian minister as Secretary, to discuss the possibility of raising funds for its purchase through a national appeal.  An article with a picture of the building and the pulpit in the community newspaper “Plu’r Gweunydd” in 1983 called for support for the proposal, and also explained the importance of keeping John Hughes’ pulpit ‘in situ’ rather than see it moved to St Fagans.

There was a strong response to the appeal, which enabled the committee to purchase the property for £10,000 and establish the Hen Gapel John Hughes Pontrobert Trust which would be responsible for seeking grants to restore the building and pulpit – designated as Grade II * by RCAHM Wales. The estimated renovation cost was £50,000, and it required grants from CADW and several other charities, as well as fundraising by the committee over twelve years to complete the work. A number of religious denominations contributed, with one very generous donation from the Independents of Liverpool, as well as smaller but highly welcome contributions from individuals and churches from all over Wales and beyond.

The chapel house was restored first and Nia Rhosier came to live there in 1993 as warden; she had felt a call to the ministry and had the idea to establish a Centre for Christian Unity and Renewal, and in April 1995, the old chapel was opened in its new form with representatives of all denominations present. Talks were given by Dr. Geraint Gruffydd, Honorary President of the Appeal (in Welsh) and Canon A.M.Allchin, Bangor (in English), with oral and musical contributions by adults and children of the area. The place was packed as seventy managed to sit on the wooden chairs (donated by nearby villagers of Llanerfyl), with a hundred or more listening by loudspeaker in the yard.

As hundreds of tourists and pilgrims started visiting the Centre, the Trustees and the Steering Committee actively continued to raise money to build toilets beside the chapel, where there was a stable at the time of John Hughes, (the stone from which was used to fill the gap in the wall formed by the double doors, making the building look exactly as it was before the wheelwright tampered with it). It was possible to complete the toilets, garage and office by 1998, and the creation of the Peace Garden at the rear of the chapel, through voluntary labour, followed two years later.

As well as holding Christian witness through prayer meetings, occasional divine services, societies, workshops, etc. we have services at dawn on Christmas morning and a meeting or service on August 12 each year, ‘Ann Day’ in the calendar of the Church in Wales, and the date of her decease at Llanfihangel yng Ngwynfa in the year 1805. Welsh learners come here regularly to practice speaking the language, and a Welsh Reading Group is held bimonthly. Local associations, such as the Welsh Associations of Pontrobert and Meifod are welcome to hold meetings, and during the foot and mouth crisis in 2001, Quakers from Dolobran used to meet here on Sunday mornings because the ban on passing over agricultural land prevented them from attending their meeting house.

Unfortunately the roof has leaked for many years now, and we need to launch a new appeal for contributions to the cost of replacing it. But despite all this, the Centre continues to welcome pilgrims from far and wide, and we are very grateful for your support, past and present.