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A labour of love: meet the ex-steelworker who saved the chapel where Richard Burton’s memorial service was held

03 Jun 2024 6 minute read
Bethel Chapel, Pontrhydyfen, which is open as a cafe and events space. Photo Richard Youle

Richard Youle, local democracy reporter

Cross the famous Pontrhydyfen aqueduct in the Afan Valley and you pass a row of terraced houses and a chapel before the road bends sharp right.

Forty years ago hundreds of mourners and well-wishers paid their respects inside and outside Bethel Chapel to the village’s most famous son, actor Richard Burton, although he was buried in Switzerland.

It’s a pretty imposing building from the front, capped by a well-preserved parapet wall, and was empty before being bought by steelworker Peter Bowen in 2013.

He moved in with his wife Jackie and their two children a year later having converted the vestry into a family home.

With that box ticked Mr Bowen began renovating the main chapel hall, and it opened officially as a cafe and community space in April following test events last summer. It’s on a popular cycle route and although Bethel Chapel Cafe is only open on weekends and bank holidays cyclists and walkers have cottoned on to this new pit stop.


It has been a labour of love for Mr Bowen, who retired from the steelworks at nearby Port Talbot four-and-a-half years ago.

“The chapel had gone up for auction but it’s my understanding that the guy who bought it pulled out,” said the 59-year-old. “I bought it before it went to the next auction.”

The £18,000 purchase was perhaps the easy part given the challenges of restoring a grade two-listed building with a structural problem high up in one corner.

The view from the aqueduct at Pontrhydyfen. Photo Richard Youle

Mr Bowen, who used to live in Clifrew and before that Cimla, had been aware of Bethel Chapel but didn’t know much its history before acquiring it. He said he gathered the congregation had dwindled to such an extent that they’d moved into the vestry, and later amalgamated with another chapel.

“We’d always lived in traditional family homes and were looking for something bigger,” he said. “I’d looked at a farmhouse and a couple of chapels which were not suitable, and this one fell into my lap.”

Bethel Chapel dates from 1850 and was largely rebuilt in 1903. An engineer by trade, Mr Bowen has turned his hand to many of the jobs onsite while also calling on carpenters and other tradesmen for more specialist work.


Asked what had been the most challenging aspect so far, he said: “I suppose the sheer scale of it, having never tackled anything like this before. It was daunting just doing the vestry.”

He said the problematic corner area by the parapet wall has been addressed and made secure, and that the roof was in reasonable condition – only missing some slates and needing some rotten timbers replaced and lead work renewed. The chapel hall remained watertight over the winter despite endless rain.

Replacing the floor in Bethel Chapel – one of many jobs to do. Photo Peter Bowen

There have been a few unexpected finds during the renovation. “We found some artefacts – oak printing blocks, communion wine glasses, some carpenter’s signature on steps,” said Mr Bowen.

The chapel now hosts crafts groups, functions and events linked to next year’s centenary celebrations of Pontrhydyfen’s world-famous stage and screen actor, who was born Richard Jenkins and later adopted the Burton surname in recognition of a teacher who became his legal guardian. A blow-up of a photo showing the star and his father, Richard Jenkins, walking across the aqueduct in the 1950s takes pride of place on a wall.


Mr Bowen and his wife run the cafe mainly by themselves, and he said it has been rewarding to see the transformation although there was still much work ahead. The to-do list includes replacing windows, restoring the main balcony, and rendering and repointing walls.

He urged anyone thinking of buying a chapel to think carefully and speak to others who had experience. He said he has invested around £150,000 in the project, excluding the purchase price, and had several grant requests knocked back notwithstanding £2,000 towards kitchen equipment for the cafe.

Ward councillor Tim Bowen – no relation – said the cafe and events space had been well supported by residents. “It seems to be a nice focal point, and people can take their dogs in there,” he said.

Afan Valley has a reputation for mountain biking, leisure cycling and walking but parts of it are closed to the public due to ongoing felling of diseased larch trees.

The forest was the first site found in Wales to be infected with a fungus-like organism – Phytophthora ramorum – in 2010.

The latest felling work organised by Natural Resources Wales (NRW) began in the late 2022 following the decommisioning of a high-pressure gas main. The felling was meant to be completed by last summer but finished in March this year.

Bethel Chapel owners Peter and Jackie Bowen. Photo Richard Youle

NRW said it upgraded mountain bike and walking trails and installed new picnic benches in the reopened areas but that two other sections remain closed because more trees have to come down.

A report before NRW board members last week said this was causing frustration for all those concerned about the impact on tourism. It added that NRW staff had updated businesses and Neath Port Talbot Council at a recent meeting in Pontrhydyfen, and that the agency would procure a new contract to complete the felling work.

The council, meanwhile, is tendering the Afan Forest Park cafe-visitor centre following its closure and said it hoped to confirm a new operator “very shortly”. A council spokesman said the adjacent South Wales Miners Museum and Afan Valley Bike Shed remained open.

There are also plans for a major tourism and leisure development on land by nearby Croeserw. The £250 million Wildfox Resorts project – featuring lodges, leisure and adventure activities – could be completed in 2027, according to its developers.

Chapel owner Mr Bowen said the Afan Valley’s number one asset was its scenery and that tourism was a lifeline. Businesses, he said, were struggling and volunteers put in a lot of hours to maintain trails.

Now the grandfather of an 18-month-old boy, and just over a month from turning 60, he seems to be busy in retirement in a place that’s home. “There’s nothing not to love about the Afan Valley,” he said.

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Hefin Wyn
Hefin Wyn
7 minutes ago

No mention of the stalwarts of the pulpit at Bethel. Not even what denomination it belonged to. We seem to be losing our collective memory.

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