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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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.