I WAS deeply interested to hear Mr Dutfield’s memories of the old postman who had to walk with the letters from Caerleon to Llanfair Discoed by way of Catash, Llanbedr, and the ‘Rock’. He would then spend his time cobbling at Llanfair and walk back by the same route at night. It was impossible for him to call at all the farms and cottages, so he left the letters at convenient places.

For instance, people living on Gray Hill or ‘Money Turvey would collect their letters at Mrs Bladon’s shop at the Pike in Llanvaches. Mr Dutfield can remember letters remaining in the shop window for a week before being collected.

Phipps, the postman, was a shrewd old character. If a child waiting at the Rock for a pair of shoes said that his mother would send the money on the morrow, Phipps would say, ‘You can tell mother that if she sends the money tomorrow I will try and remember to bring them.’ The shoes would be in his bag the whole time, and would be taken back to Caerleon, and brought back the following day.

Viewed from the east or west, the crag of Penhow, crowned with castle and church is an impressive sight. During the last war artists among the German prisoners of war could be seen making studies of the hill, and one of them told me that it reminded him of his homeland.

‘Pen’ is the summit, and conjoined with the Scandinavian ‘how’, gives us the ‘summit of the hill.’ There is evidence of Roman occupation on the site of the rectory near the church, and the strategic advantages of the hill commanding a prehistoric highway commended it to the Normans. Before 1271 the St Maurs had built in the chancel of Penhow church, and left 40s. to pay for the ‘beying of the bells.’

The original church, of the early English period, was the present nave and chancel. Tower and south aisle were a later addition. The tower was changed in 1840, during a ruthless restoration, from its old proportions to the present squat, pyramidal-roofed condition which strangely seems pleasant from below. In the tower are five inscribed bells, cast in 1744 by William Evans.

Near the entrance is the plain original font, big enough for a baby’s baptism by immersion. The arcade is the work of several minds, one seeking complicated decorations, the others simplicity.

Original also, though re-surfaced in 1840, is the stone screen separating nave and chancel., while the chancel retains its double piscina and the recess in the north wall which once held an effigy probably of St Maur. Before this recess, a light was kept constantly burning, provided for in the sixteenth century by the producer of one acre of land.

Out of the churchyard I found the tomb of ‘Roger Keene, Gent, of Penhow Castle,’ who died in 1830, aged 79, a mere stripling in comparison with our own beloved Roger Keene, who also was born in Penhow Castle. The massive steps of the ancient churchyard cross surround now a venerable yew tree.

Venerable too, was Elizabeth Tamplin, daughter of the vicar of Penhow. She died in 1783, aged 111 years, having lived through seven reigns.

Continue along the A48 for about five miles to reach the village of Crick. Turn left here to follow the road to Shirenewton. Runston church is on high ground to the right and may be reached on foot from a right of way which starts near a farm (SO 494917).

We stood - the bookman and I - on a hillock overlooking the Severn and Gloucestershire. The May sunshine enabled us to pick out the distant cliffs, Black Rock, and one of Mr Enoch Williams’ ferry-boats.

Nearer the trees of the plain displayed their new foliage, brighter than the green of meadows. The Wyndcliff arose, pale blue in the east. All was peaceful, gravely beautiful.

Among the turf at our feet were many big stones, some flat with the turf.

A big snake slithered across and disappeared in a hole, just as if the stones had swallowed it. Cool in the evening air, a thin wind whispered to us, ‘Runston, Runston, you stand in the dead village of Runston.’

We were not the first to record the eeriness of Runston. Archdeacon Coxe saw it first in 1800 by moonlight.

“The moon shone in its full splendour, affording light sufficient through the gloom of the surrounding trees, to examine the chapel... the roof was falling down, and the pavement was so slippery that I could scarce walk upon it without falling; a large and broken font was lying on the floor, among the weeds. The obscurity of this ruined sanctuary was broken only by the gleams of moonshine and the melancholy silence interrupted by the sound of my footsteps and the screams of the birds, which I disturbed from their nightly response.”

Half a century later those two grand men of Gwent, Octavious Morgan and Thomas Wakeman, visited Runston in January to find masses of snowdrops among the ruins, indicating sites of former gardens once filled by the smugglers, the sheep-stealers, and the poachers of the village.

Yes, the men of Runston were a disreputable gang.

Unable otherwise to dislodge them, their landlords allowed the houses to fall into disrepair and somewhere around 1770 services ceased in the chapel, and the village died.

Services have not been held in Runston Church since c.1770, and so I expected to find little of interest. Yet so strongly had the Twelfth Century masons performed their tasks that the chancel arch, the three windows, and the remainder of the walls retain their character.

The southern entrance, now piled up with bracken, was formerly square-headed, and surmounted by a semi-circular, stone tympanum, which was later removed to a neighbouring farm.

Of the three windows in the nave, the one on the north, which I have sketched, is still perfect. The window aperture measures two feet by six inches.

There are no grooves for glass, and it is difficult to imagine how the parishioners worshipped in such a dark and draughty temple.

There was no east window, and the chancel was lighted only by a small window on each side.

The hole in the south wall of the chancel may have been for an aumbry or locker, but the large number of smaller holes throughout the building constitute a mystery.

They are not putlog holes, for some are near the ground, but they may have been receptacles for timber on which other articles may have been fixed.

Tiny as it is - the total length is just over 41 feet, not counting the belfry pier - this sanctuary has stood, a hilltop symbol of holiness for over seven centuries.

- This is an extract from Hando’s Gwent, Volume One, edited by Chris Barber and reproduced with Mr Barber’s permission.