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.

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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When a friend suggested an evening drive to the beach at Formby point, I gladly accepted. Accessed by way of a lonely road through woodland, the sand dunes at Formby would not ordinarily be somewhere I could visit by my usual means of public transport as night time loomed.

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We exchanged  greetings with dog walkers and joggers. An older couple helped a small child look for shells whilst sea birds trotted across the damp sand, investigating the shallow pools left behind by the outbound tide.

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Staying  close to the shore, we made a seat out of stone steps at the foot of the lifeboat station and looked out to sea.

Dusk was descending. The sky shifted through a muted palette of greys, mauve and smoky amber as the sun’s lamp was slowly dimmed.

The camera’s zoom lens revealed the hazy shapes of distant pedestrians, on four legs and two, traversing the expanse of the beach, out to the water’s edge and back again.

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Buoys bobbed in the shallow water, guiding to safe passage marine vessels bound for the port of Liverpool, or sailing into the night towards Dublin. Towering wind turbines stood still, imposing but strangely graceful.

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The silver ribbon of sea, its mirror-surface bouncing back the last of the light, marked the end of the road where the silhouette of a solitary vehicle was stopped at the water’s edge.

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Formby Point: the beach beckons

Happy New Year to all – and welcome to my first post of 2019! I’m really excited about the year ahead and about sharing some of my adventures with you as we travel around the sun one more time. I’m quite new to blogging myself and have been inspired by some great writers who I have found over the past year or so;  I look forward to following my favourite blogs again this year and to making some new discoveries.

And so it begins. January arrived, dry and bright. I carried on with the ruthless clear-out I started after Christmas, and I even got out into the garden for a bit of a tidy up in preparation for the start of the new growing season. Spending time in the sunshine always makes me feel good, no matter what the time of year.

Today was reasonably mild and the sky a joyous blue, so I decided to make my first seaside outing of 2019.

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Formby is a coastal town between Liverpool and Southport in the north-west of England. Its abundance of very rich and celebrity residents (including premiership football players) and luxury properties has resulted in the dubious nicknames  Califormbia and Formby Hills. The chances of me recognising (or even having heard of!) a reality TV ‘star’, a current ‘soap’ actor, or a football player are roughly equal to the chances of one of them recognising me. I was really hoping to see some of Formby’s other famous locals, the indigenous red squirrels whose abode is the large area of National Trust pine woodland which stretches out along the Formby coast. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be on this occasion.

Temperatures had dropped overnight and the ground frost sparkled in the sunshine. Sections of felled fir trees had been left on the path.

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There are two approaches to Formby beach: the first which is shorter and probably more popular involves a very energetic scramble over a range of steep sand dunes; the second – which I opted for – took me on a longer, beautiful meander through the dunes along a sandy path. The azure sky and the landscape reminded me of long ago Aegean holidays.

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Several benches along the walk have been dedicated to the memory of people who loved to spend time here. What a lovely way to be brought to mind each time a loved one or stranger sits for a while to admire the vista.

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On top of the dunes, sand mountaineers looked out to sea.

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Squawking magpies kept their own lookout from the trees tops.

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And apparently it’s never too cold for an ice cream.

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The National Trust has laid a long board walk to make the beach accessible for prams, wheelchairs and folks like me who don’t climb dunes.

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The entire path from the Lifeboat Road car park down to the beach is navigable for wheels and bad knees. Here, I made some new friends in their stunning hand-knitted jackets.

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The board walk ended and the wide beach came into view. The tide was out and the firm sand was perfect for walking. whether on two legs or four.

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One of my new colourfully-clad friends insisted we had a long game of throw and fetch the stick. Fortunately, he did all the running!

With my playmate called away to rejoin his family pack, the steps of the lifeboat station served as a convenient bench for me to sit for a while and enjoy my first beach visit of the year… hopefully, the first of many.

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An English Village

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I recently visited the little-known village of Trim. It is a unique place on the west Lancashire coast boasting an abundance of desirable residences and traditional independent shops on the edge of the village green.

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Brightly painted narrowboats are moored along the canal, attracted to the peaceful surroundings and the hospitality on offer at the Horse’s Head pub.

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In some ways, this place has been frozen in time and gives the impression of an England that no longer exists.

Trim enjoys impressive facilities for a rural location of its modest size, including a post office, fire station and a police station.

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Two train stations: Trim and Brady provide frequent services, which seem to be unaffected by industrial action and chaos resulting from new timetabling.

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The vintage green line train passed by about 20 times or more during my short visit. Another train of an unusual European design conveyed some eccentric passengers including a Princess Diana lookalike and her consort, both in Edwardian dress, and another woman – possibly an artist – who offered me a rude two-digit salute, though she may just have been flashing a particularly showy ring.

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Trim has a fascinating ethnically diverse population. A community of faerie folk lives deep in the wild grasslands to the west of the village.

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The faerie realm amidst the wild lands

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Based on my observations, they appear to go out in pairs or threes, looking utterly miserable. Seemingly interested in watching from a distance the comings and goings of the human villagers, the wee people don’t appear to participate in village life. I didn’t see any faerie men in the locality, so it’s possible they live as a female only collective.

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Mushroom magic or mushroom misery?

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A recent increase in crime and wickedness is threatening the very fabric (or mainly the glazing) of what should be a perfect place to live. Close examination of some of the posh properties revealed cracks in the surface of the shiny windows.

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Despite extensive house-to-house enquiries carried out by the local constabulary, they haven’t yet found out who is behind the window-smashing campaign. My money is on the person I saw peering through the panes of one house, rock in hand, about to strike. An enormous white sock pulled over his head made a cunning and effective disguise.

A more worrying development is the giant bird which has been making an appearance recently.

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Though it has been mainly foraging amongst the reed beds near to the faerie habitation, I saw it for myself in the centre of the village outside the taxi rank, and again later on top of the post office where it seemed, somewhat ironically, to be taking an interest in a cat which had ventured onto a nearby rooftop and fortunately was about to be rescued by the emergency services.

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Happily, the village people seem unperturbed by the colossal feathered presence, and life carries on in its typical timeless way.

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The cricketers watched their wickets on the green; a newly married couple emerged from the church; outside Bistro Pierre, a fine diner momentarily rested against the wall for support, possibly having had one glass too many.

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Outside the pub, a man served his time in the ancient stocks for some unmentionable crime. The faeries looked on…. still miserable.

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Arnside: a Cumbrian gem

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It has been a glorious summer in the UK but here in the north west of England we have seen the first hints of the arrival of autumn. The central heating has been on several times this week as wind and driving rain have brought a significant drop in temperature.

A few weeks ago, under an azure sky, I enjoyed a blissful walk by the estuary of the river Kent in the charming Cumbrian town of Arnside.

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I had passed by dozens of times previously when journeying by train northward along the rugged Cumbrian coast line, but I had never before disembarked there.  Friends had gushed about Arnside’s beautiful coastal paths which even very humble amblers such as I could enjoy before partaking of afternoon tea with a view over the water. It sounded like my kind of place.

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A short walk down from the station brought into view the most prominent local landmark, the Kent Viaduct which was built by the Ulverston and Lancaster Railway in 1857 to carry the railway over the estuary, connecting Barrow-in-Furness to Lancaster. With 50 piers and at 522 yards long, it was a feat of engineering in its day

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A grassy area seemed to serve as both car park and picnic spot where sun lovers had set up their deck chairs and were tucking into chippy lunches, the tang of the vinegar lingering temptingly in the salty sea air.

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I resolved to resist and walked further along the promenade to see more of Arnside.

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It is impossible to see from the window of a train passing over the viaduct the genteel façade of Arnside prom with its classy collection of quirky gift shops, luxury ice cream parlour, two excellent cafes and very interesting restaurant to which I will be returning to sample the impressive vegan options on the ‘east-meets-west’ fusion menu.

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I was surprised to find an award-winning 5* bed & breakfast establishment amongst the other handsome private and hospitality residences lining the impressive promenade. Any guest would be delighted to stay in a room with such a view.

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At high tide, the sea returns rapidly as elsewhere around Morecambe Bay. A siren is sounded by the coast guard at regular intervals to warn unsuspecting beach-combers of the incoming danger, but I was quite safe to enjoy my stroll along the rocky track, headed in the direction of Silverdale to the south.

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The fells of the south Lake District rose in the distance to meet the sky; across the bay, Grange-over-Sands glittered above the water.

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My strappy sandals were not the best choice of footwear for the terrain and I decided after a mile or so to head back. Next time I’ll have to wear my trainers so I can explore further.

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The old county of Westmorland (now Cumbria) erected 139 cast iron Fingerposts between 1894 and 1905. They were made by Joseph Bowerbank at the Victoria Foundry in Penrith. Of the 30 that are still in existence, one on Arnside beach points the way to Silverdale.

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On the walk back, I passed a drinking fountain with a sad story attached.

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A memorial to little Richard Moberly Clayton Grosvenor who died in 1903, aged 4, it was commissioned in commemoration by his grandparents. I didn’t fancy imbibing the rather ferrous looking water so decided instead on a pot of tea at the Ramblers Café as I congratulated myself on discovering yet another Cumbrian haven.

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