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Gone for Good? ~ A Documentary Film & Photo Project Exploring the State of Our So-Called Sacred Spaces

Penclawdd is a village of 3,500 people located on the Gower peninsula in south Wales. Its bountiful coal, tin and copper mines saw it prosper during the Industrial Revolution, which boomed alongside an equally formidable religious revival.

Churches and chapels were built and extended to house the ever-growing congregations, becoming bedrocks of local life and sources of great community spirit. But was it really religion that brought and bound these people together? What was the true role of “The Church” in all if this?

Gone for Good? is a secular exploration of what’s left of these “temples of togetherness”. It provides no answers, but begs the perennial question, as so many have before: What is wisdom?

Watch the Documentary (9 Mins)

Why?

I grew up in Penclawdd, but left some 20 years ago. As a child, it never occurred to me that there was anything unusual about the high volume of religious buildings in the village. I am not religious or from a religious family, although I do remember our school nativity plays being held in the various churches, and visiting Welsh singing festivals called gymanfa ganus.

What is interesting to me, apart from their abundance, is that they are all in various states of repair. Some are still functioning, running weekly Sunday services, while others are abandoned, up for sale, being converted into houses or commercial units. There is an impending sense of slow decay, the first whiff of milk gone sour still fresh in the air.

I didn’t necessarily have a fixed agenda or notion of what I wanted to say about the religious buildings, but instead set upon the work with an open mind and the goal of sharing whatever it was that I would find as a result of imposing a rigid conceptual rule on myself – ”to photograph all of the religious buildings in my village”. 

What I hoped was that, by focussing on my own little village, using it as a model, my discoveries would say something about the state of religion across the UK, or at least the state of religious buildings. Objectivity, I decided, was vital.

Gone for Good - Tabernacle, Penclawdd, Gower : Ben Holbrook54

Influence

The main influence on this project was actually a book I read called Religion for Atheists by writer and philosopher Alain De Botton. A non-believer himself, De Botton suggests that modern society has a lot to learn and gain from adopting ideas of the church. He explains that religion, or at least aspects of it, could help us to:

– build a sense of community

– make our relationships last

– overcome feelings of envy and inadequacy

– escape the twenty-four hour media

– go travelling

– get more out of art, architecture and music

– and create new businesses designed to address our emotional needs

De Botton is not, I hasten to add, suggesting that we all start buying into the supernaturalistic ideas of religion or start “believing”, but simply that the organisation of religion, the structure it provides, is something we lack in contemporary society. This is an idea I feel is difficult to argue with.

I didn’t set out to “prove” this in any way with Gone for Good?, but I suppose it did give me a level of sympathy or empathy that made me feel more comfortable broaching the topic of religion as a non-believer myself. I knew my intentions were pure, my motives morally banal. 

If I were to lean in any direction it would be in support of my local religious community and not against them. This made it easier to create the work in the first place, although it quickly became apparent that the results were somewhat biased, that I was siding with the local religious community.

This could be interpreted as hypocritical, as, fundamentally, I am not religious, but having read De Botton’s book, I realised that I was not alone in believing that, perhaps, there may be ways to benefit from religion as a community without having to commit ourselves to blind faith. Or as De Botton puts it, perhaps there is such a thing as “wisdom without doctrine”. 

“I never wavered in my certainty that God did not exist. I was simply liberated by the thought that there might be a way to engage with religion without having to subscribe to its supernatural content – a way, to put it in more abstract terms, to think about Fathers without upsetting my respectful memory of my own father. I recognized that my continuing resistance to theories of an afterlife or of heavenly residents was no justification for giving up on the music, buildings, prayers, rituals, feasts, shrines, pilgrimages, communal meals and illustrated manuscripts of the faiths.” (De Botton 2012)

Broadly speaking, I wondered if the overarching benefits, or function, of belonging to a religious community may in fact have more to do with community aspects than the religious aspects.

“So opposed have many atheists been to the content of religious belief that they have omitted to appreciate its inspiring and still valid overall object: to provide us with well-structured advice on how to lead our lives.” (De Botton 2012: 111)

While searching for other photography projects on the topic of religion and community I discovered Sunday Service by Chloe Dewe Mathews.

This project is an exploration of African Christianity in London. Housed in abandoned commercial spaces – industrial estates, former office blocks and bingo halls, on busy high streets – there are said to be some 240 African churches in the borough of Southwark in south London alone. Research carried out by Roehampton University considers this to be the highest concentration of African Christianity anywhere outside of Africa.

I was obviously very interested in this project, not only as it talks of religion in contemporary Britain, but also because it shows how communities are reimagining architectural spaces and their environments to suit their needs. After all, what is the most important element of a church? Its spires and stained-glass windows? Its religious effigies? Or is it simply the space itself – a safe environment in which to gather? It’s not the grandiosity of the venue that is important, but the community it houses. And it’s community that I feel has been lost as a result of religion’s dwindling attendees.

In a sense, Sunday Service shows the inverse of what I have seen in my own project, i.e. the conversion of old commercial spaces into religious buildings, rather than the conversion of religious buildings into commercial spaces and dwellings. Somehow I feel this supports my suspicion that the religious spaces in my project/village are, or at least were, community centres as much as places of worship.

What is lost with the closure or sale of each church/chapel? Perhaps it’s not so much religious faith, but community spirit. And what is sacred if not this?

My Findings

I must confess that it didn’t take long for me to feel saddened by what I discovered. These religious spaces are not, as I imagined, primarily about religion, but about community. They are temples of togetherness, places to pray, yes, but also places in which people of the village could connect and share their lives. I wanted to emphasise this fact, which is why I decided to include the archival images I found during my research. 

Going through old archival images, I was amazed to see the size of the gatherings. Whether it was a Whitsun walk or an Easter service, people  always came together, there was a sense of community that is all but gone entirely today. 

While photographing each building, I met many local people who were happy to talk. Many, from what I could tell, were primarily upset about the closure of certain buildings because they would be converted to housing, which would be a nuisance to them as neighbours. Others had more sentimental connections, such as Dr. Edward-Rhys Harry, who I interviewed as part of the project.

Essentially it became obvious to me that what was most interesting was not the buildings themselves but the people who once inhabited them. The archive images I included show large groups of people and I felt it was important to try and talk to them. Edward is one of these people, a local who grew up attending Bethel Chapel and later became a deacon there. He is now a renowned musical composer and conductor, putting the skills he learnt in Bethel to good use. 

I also discovered that almost every building is now used for something other than what was originally intended:

Saint Gwynour’s Church still runs services, but seems to be better utilised by the children who live in the nearby housing estate. One girl who I bumped into every time I visited to take photos explained that, because there’s not much to do in the area, she goes to the church to read her manga comics and play with her friends.

Capel Isaac is now a large “architect-built” show home, which I remember being converted decades ago – currently for sale for over £500k. 

Capel Isaac, Penclawdd, Gower, South Wales, UK

Saint Gwynour’s Church Hall, which I remember being a gym and martial arts studio, is currently being converted into an art gallery.

Gone for Good - Saint Gwynour’s Church Hall, Penclawdd, Gower : Ben Holbrook31 Gone for Good - Saint Gwynour’s Church Hall, Penclawdd, Gower : Ben Holbrook31

Penuel Calvinistic Methodist Chapel is now a very large and beautiful family home.

Gone for Good - Penuel Calvinistic Methodist Chapel, Penclawdd, Gower : Ben Holbrook73

Bethel Chapel has been vacant for many years (due to unaffordable maintenance costs) with the congregation now using the much smaller Sunday School building to the rear of the property. The chapel itself has, I learned from various neighbours, been sold to a construction firm based in Bristol that specialises in the conversion of religious properties into residential dwellings. It will be turned into either six or ten dwellings, depending on who you speak to, one of which will have the huge organ in their living rooms, due to the planning and building restraints imposed on listed buildings.

Gone for Good - Bethel Chapel, Penclawdd, Gower : Ben Holbrook82

Gone for Good - Bethel Chapel, Penclawdd, Gower : Ben Holbrook82

Gone for Good - Bethel Chapel, Penclawdd, Gower : Ben Holbrook82

Gone for Good - Bethel Chapel, Penclawdd, Gower : Ben Holbrook82

The herculean Tabernacle church, which is something of an icon of Penclawdd, is still used as a place of worship from time to time, although the congregation also uses the smaller Sunday School building to the rear of the property more often than not. I can’t help but feel, from seeing what is happening to Bethel Chapel, that the Tabernacle will end up in the hands of a development firm.

Gone for Good - Tabernacle, Penclawdd, Gower : Ben Holbrook54

Gone for Good - Tabernacle, Penclawdd, Gower : Ben Holbrook54

Gone for Good - Tabernacle, Penclawdd, Gower : Ben Holbrook54

The Old Manse, which sits just behind Tabernacle, has been a family home (to the lovely Brown family) for many years and is now also a popular B&B. The other two old manse houses in the village are also now family homes. 

Conclusion

In the end, I think it’s clear that Gone for Good? is not an objective project, that I am saddened by what I have learned and, despite my lack of faith, see the loss of these spaces as a cultural loss to my village and local community. 

I hope this project will inspire people (particularly atheists) to reconsider the role that religious spaces play in their local communities, and also to consider the value of religion in contemporary society. I’m not suggesting that we need some kind of religious revival, but I am suggesting, like Alan De Botton, that the demise of these community-centric spaces has left a hole that only deepens as society and technology “advances”.

What is wisdom? I’m still not sure, but I don’t think it’s this.

What do you think? Is it a good thing that these temples of togetherness are fading away? What else could/should we do with them? Leave a comment below to have your say.

Now Watch the Film

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Camera Talk

Photos taken with the Nikon D750. Filmed with the Fujifilm XT3 (18-55mm) and DJI Mavic Mini 2.

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Categories:Gower Peninsula Photography Talk Wales

2 Comments

  1. Gwyneth Francis-Williams Gwyneth Francis-Williams

    Hi,

    I had the pleasure of watching your short film today. I took the time to find out more about you and read your blog on the reasons for your investigation.

    I greatly enjoyed your interview with Dr ERH. I found his pride and absolute respect for how his community had moulded him into the person that he is today to be heart-felt and very moving.

    As one who has strong memories of a childhood in Wales, yet has lived in England for most of my life, when I do return to Wales I always want to know of what has changed. Every generation will have different memories of their experiences growing up as a child.

    In my little village, Llandinam, the post office and shop, the grocers, butchers and blacksmith are long gone; the pub/hotel changes hands/ has make-overs every few years, the Presbyterian chapel where I was christened survives, as does the Church , and the school hangs on a thread, sometimes faced with threats of closure.

    Close to where I lived in Hampstead, two churches very close together, yet in all their elegance, dwarfed by the gigantic Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead, lay derelict. One then became the famous Air Studios Lyndhurst in 1992, of George Martin fame. A great way to fill a church with singing and music again.

    In contrast, where I live now, I am a chorister at a thriving C of E, but it is affiliated to a C of E primary school, and a hypocritical note is often banded about with new young families putting on a show in order to get their child a place at the school. I tend to disagree. I think that having a Faith is something that grows over time and is very personal. What one experiences as a child isn’t necessarily Faith, but rituals, patterns in behaviour and family/community dos and don’t.

    Social media now provides so many online options for people to develop spiritual awareness. A musician/actor and old colleague of mine is developing online courses in every possible avenue of healing/spirituality/psychic awareness/hypnotherapy/modern shamanism – you name it, he’s into selling spirituality, yet seems hell-bent on avoiding the term “religion” or talking of God. It’s all centred on developing a deeper awareness of “self”. In my view it’s the opposite end of the scale to community worship and being enlightened with sermons.

    Yes, it’s interesting how the empty sites/factories etc are sought after for African church revivals. It’s almost as if the strong community spirit and decline in industrialised Wales or Britain generally, is perhaps being replaced by strong communities in cities with naturalised ethnic groups, that either through language or cultural ties experience a sense of trust and familiarity.

    I think the mining industries held people and families together like glue perhaps because of the shift work involved, which might have been slightly different in fishing or agriculture or white collar jobs. Also I just wonder if “successful‘ communities whether religious or secular, become too insular whereby new generations feel the need to escape its construct. TV and broadcasting into homes changed so much too.

    Congratulations to you on your investigation and producing the film. Also to Edward-Rhys Harry for his powerful contribution.

    Sent from my iPhone

    • Thank you very much, Gwyneth. I really value your perspective and think you raise some very interesting points. You phrase it well when suggesting that faith and religion may not necessarily be mutually exclusive, that the ritualistic patterns and commitment to community is what many have benefited from most from their “believing”.

      As you say, I think there used to be so many things to tie communities together, whether it be a coal mine, church or chapel, but what does modern society offer? On the other hand, it’s clear that, as population figures have grown, people have found their own communities and sub-cultures to belong to. For many, football or rugby is their religion. Musicians have become figureheads, sports facilities places of (self) worship. Maybe that’s what I should do for my next project – seek out the places that now house contemporary communities.

      Thank you again, Gwyneth. Please keep in touch.

      Ben

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