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.

Heysham Village and St. Patrick’s Chapel

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Heysham is a coastal village in the north-west of England, just a few miles from Lancaster and from Morecambe. It has a ferry port and the Isle of Mann Steam Packet Company operates  daily between Heysham and the Isle of Mann, 66 miles off shore. It is also, in my view, one of the most stunning locations in England. I am not on my own in holding that opinion: British artist JM Turner painted a view of Heysham in the early 1800s.

A very busy and noisy main road cuts through Heysham and it appears, at first sight, to be a quite ordinary sort of place: a doctor’s surgery; an assortment of takeaways; a hairdresser’s; a Co-op – all the usual suspects are in situ. Rows of neat but modest terraces back onto the sea wall, a curved buttress to protect against winter high tides. The port and dock can be seen in the distance; hardly the seaside idyll. But there is more than meets the eye in Heysham. Turn off the main thoroughfare and a hidden gem is waiting; a village within a village in another place and time.

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‘The village’, once a cluster of fishermen’s cottages typical of many dotted around the British coastline, now looks like a scene from a vintage chocolate box. This could be Midsomer or St. Mary Mead. I half expect Miss Marple to emerge from one of the picture pretty cottages to water an effusive hanging basket or wave to a genteel neighbour. There is still a slipway in the village but the fishermen are long gone. There is the unmistakable aroma of affluence, potted and climbing the bourgeois trellis. As the super-sleuth does not make an appearance I continue to explore the village alone.

Heysham village has been claimed, not reclaimed. One cloud on the otherwise perfect blue horizon is that few local people would be able to afford property prices here. Gentrification and the housing market have made this location – and may others like it – desirable residences now priced beyond the pockets of most whose roots lie in the local soil. Two tea rooms – one of them particularly characterful – an excellent pub offering great food, an ‘antiques’/bric-a-brac shop, a visitor centre and an out-of-place hair salon at the bottom of the cobbled the main street sums up the world of village commercial activity. There is no cash machine. It is notable and significant that this tiny hamlet boasts so many places in which to sup and dine, a testimony to the village’s popularity with visitors.

Most of the houses have character, clearly treasured by their lucky inhabitants. Homes in this village tend to have names rather than numbers. Explosions of vibrant flora burst forth from containers and beds, stopping visitors in their tracks. I take a photograph of a particularly enchanting garden but it feels wrong to do so; I am taking a liberty. An elderly couple sits on a bench behind me and I make an admiring comment. The woman replies that she lived here as a child when  the place was different, a simple fishing village. The family moved to Morecambe when her father stopped going out on the boat and had to find factory work. She would not be able to live here now and is visiting with a small coach party for the afternoon.

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So why do these visitors come? This quaint chocolate box location, despite winning the prestigious ‘Village in Bloom’ award twice in recent years,  does not in itself pull in coach parties. There is more…………

At the edge of the village the headland overlooks the poetically named Half-Moon Bay. There stands the remains of the 8th century St. Patrick’s Chapel, reputedly built by St. Patrick and his religious community when he arrived across the sea from Ireland bringing with him Christianity. Not much of the chapel is left, but it stands as a reminder of the importance of Lancashire and Cumbria in the story of early Christian spirituality. It retains an aura of mystique, enhanced by its magnificent surroundings. It is also a wonderful place to sit in peace and quiet. Alongside the chapel are the mysterious barrow graves, more of which can be seen in nearby St. Peter’s church yard. These ancient tombs speak of the lives and deaths of those ancient communities for whom that desolate craggy point was home and centre of spiritual life. Archaeological excavations have uncovered stone tools and grave goods indicative of much earlier settlements at Heysham.  The site is now cared for by the National Trust.

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The headland is a beautiful place to walk and sit, to look out to sea and down to the beach below. The cliffs along this stretch of coastline form a cove, private and sheltered. It is unsurprising that in the 18th century Half-Moon Bay served as an ideal location for smugglers bringing ashore their illicit wares on the low tides, in the dead of night, by the light of the moon. It’s easy to imagine it.

A down-hill walk back through the village leads to the beach. It is small and mostly quiet. The promenade along the south end borders a stretch of sand favoured by families building castles and paddling at the water’s edge. Cyclists and hikers pass by en-route to Morecambe or the Lake District beyond. The north end of the beach offers a different vista: a backdrop of cliffs, sea-weed covered shingle and a plethora of rock pools to sit amongst for an hour or three, undisturbed and solitary.

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The tide rolls out towards the ’emerald isle’ revealing a dense green carpet of sea plants on the beach and the white-winged birds circle above to feed on the fruits of the sea, oblivious to property prices and closing times. To them all is open all the time and they are free.