Saint Tysilio's Church Sellack

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Although Sellack’s first priest is recorded as John de Henle in 1291 the church had certainly been here well before that date.

It would have grown from a small simple wooden building caring for a population of probably no more than a few dozen. There is a record that in the 7th century a grant was made to Nud, Bishop of Llandaff, of Lann Sulac (Syllyg) – in modern welsh ‘Silio’. This suggests that the Celtic Christian Church (and not the Roman) held sway locally at that time.

Later, Bishop Herwald ordained Iacob ap Amhyr as priest in Lann Suluc. Herwald lived in the reigns of Harold II and William I – the conqueror.

By the 12th century, wood had given way to a building in local sandstone. In 1291, when our record of priests begins, Pope Nicholas IV valued the church at Baysham (Sellack was officially Baysham from 1291–1351) at £20 13s 4d per year! The vicar’s portion was £5.

At this time the church would have had a NAVE – the main body of the church for the congregation, a CHANCEL – the east end of the building where the priest officiated and a NORTH AISLE – this for larger congregations and as a path for processions (one of the original arches leading from the nave to the north aisle still remains).

Early in the 13th century a NORTH CHAPEL was added, but 100 years later both aisle and chapel were rebuilt and the WEST TOWER and SOUTH PORCH were added.

Apart from some minor alterations three centuries later, no more major rebuilding was done until 1840. Then the parishioners, who have been described as somewhat overzealous and with more money than sense, knocked down most of the north aisle and built (badly) the NORTH TRANSEPT as we have it today. Our abiding view of this in the 1990s was that the roof leaked! The roof has since been repaired and made good.

Major repairs and restoration were undertaken on the 15th-century spire, the top of which was found to be in a ‘perilous state’, in the late 1980s at a cost of around £40,000. This was a remarkable venture for such a small community. However, just 25 years on the tower had developed a serious structural crack which needed urgent rectification to prevent possibly losing the spire completely. Another major fundraising task was undertaken and managed to raise the extraordinary sum of £140,000 to complete the work in November 2014.

From a book entitled 'Tales', published in 1820, is taken the following extract: "Sellack Church is pleasantly situated on the banks of the Wye, with a hill to the south. Up this hill is a pathway so steep that it appears, as you look at it, to lead up toward the clouds. It is pleasant to see the beams of the morning sun gild the weathercock and glitter on the running water. Whether at the dawn of the day or at eventide Sellack wears such a retired and peaceful appearance that the stranger is drawn to muse amidst the grey stones of this beautiful church."

Pax Cakes – A Rare Custom

The rare custom of distributing cakes after the Palm Sunday Service is observed here in Sellack. Hentland and Kings Caple also observe this custom, which is thought to be unique to this small area.

They are known as Pax Cakes – clearly because they are distributed with the salutation ‘Peace and Good Neighbourhood’.

The cakes are now really biscuits and carry an impress of a lamb and a flag. They were originally buns and at Sellack and Kings Caple ale was at one time also provided, but this was discontinued some time ago. The bequest to provide this was two shillings per year and the cakes, a bequest left by Lady Scudamore, was at the rate of five shillings per year.

It is not known what actually prompted the gift but it may perhaps be meant to be part of the preparation for the Easter communion to receive which, profitably, we must be in ‘charity with all men’. ‘Peace and Good Neighbourhood’ might suggest this.

Always known now as the ‘Pax Cakes’ ceremony the original bequest was called ‘cake money’.

The origins are with the family of Thomas More, vicar of Sellack and Kings Caple in 1442. For those times he was a wealthy man (he owned Pengethley and Ivorston). He died on Palm Sunday 1448, leaving £20 to charity locally. A large sum for the times – no one in his parishes (including Hentland) was worth more than £2 per year! He willed ‘that bread and ale to the value of 6s 8p be distributed to all and singular in the aforementioned churches for the good of my soul’.

Matters however did not run smoothly for this bequest. As with other affairs, Henry VIII caused problems! When he had finished with getting rid of monasteries he turned his attention to charities in ordinary churches where pious people had left gifts for ‘the good of their souls’.

With many a twist of fate, however, the Palm Sunday bread and ale continued, although several pennies were whittled away down to 5s 10p. As the years passed, the Scudamores became the benefactors and the administration of the fund changed from time to time. In 1836 the charity commissioners found that a Mr Jones of Baysham Farm was regularly paying 5s to all three parishes. For economic reasons ale was dropped out of the reckoning and from 1831 it was only the cakes that were mentioned.

‘Peace and Good Neighbourhood’ is the traditional greeting when the cakes are offered and received – probably said at the 15th-century instigation. Since then, apart from some high-spirited encounters at Sellack Tilt-up, Caple Feast or at the cricket matches in Hentland, the three parishes have largely obeyed Thomas More’s injunction to be good neighbours.

Thomas More lies buried near the East Window in the chancel of this church. Let us not forget him. 

More Recent History - July 1995

We celebrated the 100th birthday of the footbridge that connects us with Kings Caple. To read the history of this bridge click here. The open air ‘Bridge Service’ on the banks of the river continues to this day in July. Here is an account (written at the time) of the weekend’s activities:

In 1895 there was a sense of urgency and purpose when the suspension footbridge was built across the river to join Kings Caple and Sellack – and not a little ongoing fuss. Over the weekend of July 14th – 16th 1995 the centenary celebrations were so enjoyable that any fuss and urgency were a hundred years away! On both banks of the river both parishes worked hard and happily to achieve this.

Sellack‘s now well established ‘Music on a Summer’s Evening’ opened the programme of events on Friday. The packed audience in the church sat amidst a welter of summer flowers and fully enjoyed a delightful and varied evening of music and readings. The soloists, who were Joyce Backhouse (Organ), Jo Fishpool (Soprano), John Mitchell (Accompanist), Eleanor and Elizabeth Oakley (Piano, Flute and Soprano Saxiphone), Caroline Stratford (Guitar) and Richard Hales (Readings), were all greatly appreciated and most warmly applauded. From Bach to Lloyd Webber, and a lot in between, there was something for everyone. In the fine tradition of Summer evening concerts Richard Dodsworth had produced the ‘best yet’.

On Saturday, in both churches, there were exhibitions. Kings Caple school children and the playgroup separately depicted the bridge and river scenes in models and paintings, with no little flair and ingenuity, whilst at Sellack there was a welcome with flowers and an intriguing glimpse into past days with a display of church records. Latin scholars would have enjoyed the records before 1625!

Both villages came together again in the evening on the riverbank at the Sellack end of the bridge. Crowds came and enjoyed the lively and good humoured Jeff Hoar’s Jazz Band who played late into the evening. With the barbecue and refreshment tent striving manfully to keep up with the constant demand and the skittles, tug of war (won by Kings Caple – by some means or other!) and other games for the children; it was truly a summer’s evening enjoyed by all.

At the morning service in Kings Caple, Rev. David Enoch spoke of the wider implications for building bridges for communities and individuals alike and the necessity to maintain the sureness of standards and faith. In the evening he conducted a very well attended open air service back down by the bridge. Hymn singing was led by members of the ‘Breakaway Brass’ and on a lovely summer’s evening it seemed a perfect and serene closing to the ‘Across 100 Years’ celebration. The bridge that spans the Wye has in that time seldom joined the two village peoples more happily.

Ian Howard

John Oliver Brookes; A Life Remembered

St Tysilio’s Church said a very fond farewell to one of its stalwarts on Wednesday, 27th November 2013.

The Church was packed to capacity to celebrate the long and fruitful life of John Brookes. He never married, but was known affectionately as Uncle John to many in the Village.

John was someone who put far more into life than he ever took out. His dedication to his church, parish hall, parish and to others was exceptional. This dedication springs from values instilled into him in youth and that come from an era now only glimpsed in historical dramas and books.

He was born 90 years ago in the room he slept in until a few days before his death. He was the 5th child of 5 sons, and 2 daughters. His father was a Waggoner responsible for horses at Court Farm, Baysham and John obviously grew up with a love of the country.

At the age of 5 John started at the village school, but although a fair writer did not have the opportunity to go on to the Ross Grammar School; if he had he would have liked to become a clergyman. He left school aged 14 and went to work at Strangford Farm.

A mark of his long and varied life can be gleaned from his own memories as told to Leonard Sainsbury and to the Hereford Times of a bygone time sowing, harvesting, threshing, all done by hand or with horse power. A time when shearing and milking were by hand on a starting wage of nine shillings a week.

He lived through mechanisation of these tasks and operated tractors and other machinery but never owned a driving license. He learnt to lay hedges and took great delight in hedge laying in his retirement, much to the improvement of the parish.

When he retired at 65 he had worked on the same farm for over 50 years. For this he was awarded the Silver Medal at the Three Counties Show to go with his bronze medal for 25 years. No mean achievement.

He was a member of the Sellack choir from age 7 till 20, a member of the football team, Parish Council, Village Hall Committee and Churchwarden since 1976. In 1980 he was captain of the youngest bell ringing team in the county. His team of 8 ringers had an average age of 17.

In retirement John devoted himself to the church and the parish. He was often to be found improving the footpaths, organising events in the Hall or doing a multitude of unsung but kind tasks for the benefit of others.

John took his last service in Sellack church at the beginning of November when he read the concluding sentences of matins. His presence in the church was always constant; only sickness keeping him away. In his early retirement he would walk to Church every day to check it, prune the roses, mow the grass and do anything else that required attention. Even as he grew older he would often walk to Church just to pass a few hours and talk to visitors.

John was the end of a generation and it will be hard for those who know Sellack to imagine it without his constant presence. He will be sadly missed by many, even those who did not really know him but who would be met with a wave and smile as they passed him along the way.

A man at ease with himself who ran the great race and kept his faith till death.