St Peter’s Church, Heysham: a melting pot on a cliff edge

Yesterday’s visit to Heysham took me to the ancient ruin of St Patrick’s Chapel and the mysterious stone barrow graves at the edge of the cliff.

A short walk from the chapel ruin is the Church of Saint Peter, which also has its roots in the Anglo-Saxon period. Grade 1 listed, the building still retains some of the original fabric but has been developed over more than a thousand years, the final additions being made in the 19th century. In the main, the Church is medieval.

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The first thing that strikes me when I enter the church yard is its picturesque back drop – quite literally, it’s perched at the edge of the cliff where rolling waves flood the rock pools directly below.

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It’s hit and miss as to whether the church is open, perhaps depending on whether somebody from the parish is available to supervise. Yesterday I was lucky.

The interior is small and dark; typical of its era, with that slightly musty smell of age, wax and polish that I really quite like. Behind the altar is a memorial stone inscribed to the memory of one William Ward, vicar of the church, who departed life in 1670. The engraving style is common amongst 17th century tombstones, where words at the ends of rows are split and there are no spaces between. The window in the photo was installed in the 1300s.

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The most interesting exhibit in the Church is the hog back Viking tomb which dates back to the 10th century, around the same time the barrow graves were dug out on the cliff above. There are other hog back stones in Scotland and elsewhere in the north of England, but the St Peter’s example is considered to be in the best condition.

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The stone was brought inside the Church in 1960s to save it from further decay. Engravings on both sides have been interpreted as tales from Viking mythology; a Christian trefoil is also depicted. The melding of Pagan and Christian narratives was not unusual.

Another interesting feature is a decorated medieval sepulchral slab which would have covered a tomb.

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Back outside, I took a turn around the graveyard to learn more about the people of this idyllic place. The lower section of an Anglo Saxon cross is somewhere in the grounds but I didn’t come across it.

The medieval stone coffin next to the path was originally under the window of the south chancel inside the Church. It contained a body, presumed to be a former rector because of the fragment of a chalice found in his hands. The body was reinterred inside.

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The post of a Saxon sun dial (the face is lost) is also grade 1 listed.

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Morecambe Bay is a stunning but particularly hazardous stretch of the north-west coast line, where fast incoming tides can rush in from all sides and catch people unaware. Some readers will recall the tragedy of the Chinese cockle-pickers who were drowned in 2004. Two years later a helicopter crash in the Bay claimed seven lives; the names of the pilot and six gas rig workers who died are commemorated on a memorial stone at St Peter’s.

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Within the railings is the grave of sisters, Agnes Wright, 18, and Mabel, 14, who drowned together in June 1895 whilst bathing near the rocks within sight of their own home on the cliff, more victims of treacherous tidal currents.

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I noticed, as in all grave yards, a few surnames recurring over the decades or even centuries, a sign of roots and continuity. I also, inevitably, noticed a few sad stories like little Stewart’s, a boy clearly popular with his school friends.

And one or two enigmas such as the young and apparently unique James McAvoy.

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My lasting impression of this village is that people and communities come and go but for all of them this has been home for a time. Some arrived from across the seas and made lives here, bringing custom and culture; becoming part of the the land and its story. Maybe they stayed; perhaps they returned to the Nordic lands or across the Irish Sea. Other folks can trace their roots here back through the centuries to Domesday. Archaeologists have discovered evidence of life at Heysham going back 10,000 years or more. It’s wonderful to be able to see the legacy of this cultural melting-pot everywhere you look.

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St Patrick’s Chapel and Heysham Barrow Graves

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Today was the first day in a while when there hasn’t been a downpour. With the forecast looking good I decided to take full advantage and head to one of my favourite places. Heysham is a coastal area just outside Lancaster, probably better known for its port and power station than for its sea views. You will not be surprised to know that neither of those facilities was the reason for my visit. A little way along the coast from the docks and the sites of industry is one of the most picturesque spots in the north west of England, and it is amazing how many people know nothing about it.

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Overlooking Morecambe Bay, Heysham’s sea cliffs are a beautiful place to sit and look down to the rock pools below or to walk the many coastal paths, appreciating the bracken, grasses and heather.

It’s no wonder that such a place as this evokes a strong sense of spirituality and a connectivity to the forces of nature. Others before us were moved to make it a place of prayer and contemplation. There is evidence that the newly Christianised Anglo-Saxons first built a small wooden chapel on the cliff head in the 5th century. That older chapel was replaced in the 9th or 10th century by the structure whose remains still stand today.

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The chapel is dedicated to Saint Patrick who was instrumental in spreading the new religion. Although associated with Ireland where he was adopted as patron saint, Patrick was an English man, hailing from the Ravenglass area of Cumbria. Aged 16, he is believed to have been kidnapped by pirates and taken to Ireland where he was held as a slave for about seven years. The story goes that Patrick had a dream in which a ship was waiting to take him home, and this spurred him on to make his escape from captivity. He boarded a ship bound for France but strong winds blew it off course to Heysham where Saint Patrick landed.

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A cemetery existed around the chapel where about 80 members of the community were interred. More interesting are the 10th century barrow graves, hewn from the rock close to the cliff edge. It isn’t known who occupied the graves, but probably figures of importance. Due to their size it is speculated that they may have held bones only. Herein, it is believed, is the reason for the building of the new and larger chapel around the same time: to provide a place for visitors to the barrow graves to pray for the souls of the dead. They now enjoy Grade 1 listed status.

I love coming here. Not only is it a lovely place to be near the sea away from the crowds, but also to appreciate those others who have left their marks on the land.

The Lune Aquaduct, Lancaster

There are few things more relaxing than sailing on a canal boat on a fine day. With average speeds not exceeding 4 miles per hour on English canals, slowing right down – in every sense – is almost mandatory. I’ve enjoyed a lot of boat trips over the years with sightseeing from the water often being on my itinerary when visiting new towns and cities. Today’s little journey took me along a short stretch of the Lancaster Canal in my home county of Lancashire.

We boarded the generously proportioned Kingfisher at the Water Witch Pub which is just a short walk from the centre of Lancaster. Kingfisher Cruises operates a range of excursions throughout the year and more frequently during the summer season. We had opted for a short sail which would take us just a couple of miles outside the city but taking in a very significant landmark.

The heavens opened as we boarded, making it necessary to stay under cover for the first part part of the journey. I was lucky to have a seat near to the front of the boat and was quickly outside as soon as the rain stopped.

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The boat meandered serenely through the tranquil water, lush green banks on both sides.


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Our destination came into view: the Lune Aquaduct.

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Completed in 1797 to take the Lancaster Canal over the river Lune, the Aquaduct has grade 1 listed status. It is over 200 metres long and spans the river 16 metres below. Built from sandstone, five arches support the water trough. Designed and constructed by John Rennie and Alexander Stevens respectively, the structure cost nearly £50,000 – more than twice the estimated budget.

The sun was shining as we approached the Aquaduct, so the skipper decided it was safe for us to disembark to better enjoy the scenery.

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A group of children was getting ready to enjoy a kayaking session, their bright multi-coloured vessels like an art installation against the sandstone.

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It would have been nice to spend more time on the Aquaduct but it wasn’t possible to moor there for more than 10 minutes, and another trip was to follow after ours. It was time to turn the boat around and sail back.

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A Warm Welcome To The Painted Ladies

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This year I have planted a lot of verbena bonariensis. I love this plant with its tall stalks supporting clusters of tiny purple flowers. Verbena grows quickly in almost any location and any soil, which is perfect for charlatan gardeners like me whose skills fall far short of their enthusiasm. Tiny plants which I placed in April are now about 6ft tall. The delicate appearance of the thin stems belies their strength; I am mesmerised by their waving and bending with the strongest of winds, bouncing back upright and unperturbed.

My main reason for including verbena is its attractiveness to pollinators at a time when we have to do our bit to help out wildlife, even in the humblest and smallest of gardens like my own. I’d noticed that the verbena didn’t seem to be as popular with the bees as some of the other plants such as the cat mint and lavender; butterfly visitors were also few and far between….until this week.

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Looking out of the kitchen window on Tuesday morning I was delighted to see three butterflies flitting gracefully from one purple floret to another, lingering long enough to feast. I quietly stepped out to take a closer look and was able to identify the visitors as painted ladies. They certainly did look like works of art, scallop-edged scarlet wings embellished with bold black and white markings. I marvelled at the trio for 10 minutes, contemplating the magical metamorphosis of unremarkable caterpillars into such beautiful creatures as these.

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Since Tuesday there have been more and more painted ladies gracing my garden, favouring the various verbena. At one point I counted eight on the same plant. I had wondered about their sudden arrival on the scene as if from nowhere; had they hatched somewhere nearby? It was wonderful to sit and watch their charming, oblivious exhibition.

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Deciding to find out more about my lovely colourful visitors, I came across some online news items about a mass migration of painted ladies to the UK this summer. So that explains it! 🙂. Painted Ladies are not rare or endangered, and they migrate here from Europe every summer, but this year promises to see huge numbers crossing the English Channel. I was utterly amazed to read about the epic journey which starts in North Africa and sees these tiny fragile-looking creatures achieve such an incredible feat. I don’t know how long they will stay, but I look forward to these ladies enjoying my verbena for as long as it lasts.

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A day in the life of the garden

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It’s the start of a new July day. It gives me great pleasure each morning to walk around my tiny garden whilst my coffee is brewing. I love to look for any new flowers which might have opened up to greet the sunrise and I feel a childlike excitement when yesterday’s bud has become today’s bloom. I tread the little stepping stone path through the carpet of cat mint, banana mint, scabia, lavender, verbena, salvia and buddleia in shades of purple, blue and white. It’s almost silent except for distant sounds of traffic. The bees are already busy harvesting nectar for the hive. They are not the only fans of the cat mint.

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It’s very warm already today so I bring my coffee back outside. I love this time of day. I don’t like noise so I operate a secret ‘time share’, relishing the moments when others are not out in nearby gardens. At other times ear phones are a godsend. 🙂

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I have some chores to attend to but return mid-morning, coated in factor 50 sun cream and with a new book to begin. I’m pleasantly surprised to find that although the school holidays have started, it’s still quiet. Maybe families have gone out for the day. A dog barks somewhere. Somebody is mowing a lawn in the next street. I recline my chair and open the first page but am distracted by a butterfly settling on the banana mint. I watch it until it flitters away.

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In the heat I inevitably start to nod off. I can see the heat shimmering in waves as my eyes close. I don’t resist. The heady sweetness of the caryopteris and the intensely vibrant geraniums appearing through the tall stalks of verbena add to the almost hallucinogenic other-worldly feeling.

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The harsh chattering of a magpie in the tree wakes me suddenly. I don’t know how long I’ve slept. Wondering what has sparked the commotion, I check if my cat that climbs has caused the alarm call. Fortunately, the tree is cat free. I admire my yellow Chinese lanterns hanging in the lower branches, storing up sunlight for their after-dark display.

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It’s time to go back indoors for a sandwich and to top up the sun protection. I drink a couple of glasses of water and remind myself to water the garden later.

Back outside, I decide to dead-head some spent flowers to make room for new growth. I have left the red roses to cascade onto the ground, creating habitation for insects.

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Small pots of wildflowers change day by day. Next year I will grow more. I love the surprise of not knowing what will emerge from the soil.

Last year I discovered Nigella or ‘Love in a Mist’. I was enchanted by the intricate structure and ability to grow anywhere, even from between paving stones where seeds must have been dispersed by the wind. I scattered a couple of packets around May time and the results are delightful once again. They have sprung up in sunny and shady spots alike, and need nothing apart from a sprinkle of water – my kind of flowers!

It’s mid-afternoon. I’m not getting on with the new novel. Life’s too short so I abandon it after five chapters. There is more activity now; a paddling pool is being inflated according to the excited shrieks I hear from two little sisters a few houses down from mine. A hedge trimmer whirs into action, brutally cutting through the tranquility. Two of my cats, also lovers of peace and quiet, return from whence they have been and offer a quick greeting before heading indoors to a favourite chair or bed.

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I follow them. I’ve been lucky and have enjoyed more time to myself than I had expected. In an hour or two there will be barbecues, music and the sounds of play all around. They are joyful summer sounds, and I don’t begrudge them for a moment, but I prefer the quiet. I hear an ice cream van play the theme tune to ‘Match of the Day’ as I go indoors.

I’ve been out for the evening but it’s still balmy when I return. It’s also quiet again in the garden, the only human sound the low indecipherable buzz of a TV coming from an open window. I’ve been told some wonderful news and feel like a glass of something is in order. In the darkness, the garden is a magical place. Lights twinkle. I pick out the shapes of moths darting through the air. Sometimes there are bats, but not tonight. There are always cats though 😁.

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Derwent Water, North Lakes

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Derwent Water is one of the most popular of the Lake District National Park’s attractions. On the edge of the small but busy town of Keswick – a Mecca for walkers and visitors to the North Lakes region of Cumbria – Derwent Water pulls in thousands of visitors all year round.I have to confess, it’s not one of my favourite Lakeland destinations precisely because it’s so touristy. Far from being an idyllic country town, Keswick (in my experience) can become very crowded and doesn’t quite seem to have enough facilities. I know that mine is a minority view and that many people love both keswick and Derwent Water. I like it too…. I just like other lakes and Lakeland towns more.

Regular readers will know that I don’t drive, so Keswick is bit of a trek for me: a train to Penrith (that’s the easy bit) followed by an hour long excursion on a bus which runs once every couple of hours. Last time I went on my own I decided I would not return because of the crowds, struggling to find somewhere to eat and (mainly) a lot of time wasted waiting for buses. However, when a friend suggested a drive I was glad to accept. Being driven out for the day is a luxury for me, especially when it’s to a location not easily accessible by public transport.

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Derwent Water is three miles long, one mile wide and 72 feet deep, so not one of the largest bodies of water in the region. It is fed by the River Derwent and above it rise the peaks of Skiddaw and Cat Bells, both popular with walkers. Walking around Keswick, almost every other person looks like they are kitted-up and bound for a hike. Cat Bells in particular is popular as at a mere 451 metres it is considered an easier climb for the non-hardcore walker. Being a cat person, I just like its name which is believed to be a distortion of Cat Bields home of the wild cat. I don’t know if there are still any wild cats living up there – I doubt it – but there have been, sadly, a number of lost dogs over the years. When I last visited a couple of years ago I saw appeal posters all over the area for two different dogs which had gone missing during walks. I can’t understand why people don’t take better care of their dogs in potentially hazardous environments. Thankfully, one of the dogs was found by a rescue team funded through a social media appeal; I remember reading about it shortly after. Brilliant news! Not all outcomes are so good.

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There were dogs aplenty frolicking at the water’s edge on this occasion, or swimming out eagerly to retrieve a skimmed branch or ball, bringing it back like a top prize to smiles and praise, eagerly waiting for it to be thrown again.

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Further down the lake there were quieter spots to be found away from the crowds at the north end near to the town.

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Like the bigger lakes of Windermere and Ullswater, Derwent Water also runs pleasure cruises but on much smaller vessels. It was far too warm to be crammed like sardines inside one of the launch boats, though I would have liked to see more of the islands. I may try to persuade my chauffeur to take me back in winter.

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Instead, we watched from the bank as the voyagers sailed off on calm water. Shaded by overhanging branches, we sat for another hour or so enjoying the gentle melodic ebb and flow of Keswick’s lake and watched the dazzling sunlight dancing on its surface.

Southport beach

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I’m officially on leave for five glorious weeks. Even if the sun doesn’t shine every day it’s still glorious having more time to relax and recharge the old batteries and having weekdays at my disposal to do as I please. Monday was scorching hot; too hot to do anything except laze around in my garden for most of the day – so that’s exactly what I did.

Yesterday was another very hot day and I decided to brave the sticky discomfort of travelling on a hot and potentially crowded train to Southport, the nearest seaside resort to my home, 35 minutes away on the west Lancashire coast. I wasn’t going for a paddle – though the idea was tempting on such a sweltering day – but because I wanted to buy some curtains from a well-known retailer which happens to have a store on the sea-front retail park. I dislike shopping and tend to do it online when I can, but at least this was for something specific (quick in and out) and the beach was a bonus. The train wasn’t too bad as the schools around here don’t break up until tomorrow or Friday – next week will be a different story.

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The sea was in when I arrived. To me, nothing is as soothing as the gentle rhythmic rolling of waves, and I can happily sit for a couple of hours, just listening. I think I was about 40 when I first saw high tide at Southport beach; all through my childhood that sight had evaded me and, like many people, I had come to believe that the water never advanced any further forward than a point about half a mile out. As kids, we always had to walk for 20 minutes just to get our toes wet.

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Southport is a different place now to the exciting resort that I remember from my childhood. But that can be said of everywhere, and change isn’t always a bad thing. British coastal waters are certainly much cleaner now, for sure. I don’t think people worried too much about that back in the day, or possibly were not even aware. I don’t ever remember being told in the 1970s that I shouldn’t go into the Irish sea, though in the 1990s I was certainly saying that as a mum myself. Fortunately, legislation and Health & Safety initiatives have improved seas for recreation, if not yet sufficiently for marine animals, sadly and shamefully.

In the 1970s Suthport was buzzing. It had a big funfair with the usual thrilling rides, candy floss kiosks and all the rest. There’s still a fair now though a much scaled-down version. Though Southport is known as a retirement town, the young families still arrive and appear to enjoy its charms. I was happy to see buckets and spades still seem as popular as ever with the little ones.

It’s amazing how quickly the tide turns, both incoming and outgoing. The seaweed-strewn sand was revealing more and more of itself as I sat and reminisced. Reluctantly, I dragged myself up and across the coast road to get some lunch and search for curtains. In the end I found that the ones I’d liked online were a pale imitation in reality; a bit like memories and the present day. I didn’t feel that I’d wasted my time though

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Crossing the road back to the beach I saw that during the hour-and-a-half or so that I’d been gone, the sea had also gone, leaving pools and rivulets and sand sculptures fashioned by the waves.

Closer to the sea wall, the grasses gently moved in the delicious breeze. I could have been somewhere far away, tantalisingly exotic…. as long as I didn’t look behind and back across that road 🙂

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