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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Morecambe, Lancashire

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I love the sea and the coast line so feel blessed that firstly I live on an island between three seas and an ocean, and secondly that I can travel from my home to the coast in about 30 -40 minutes.

Morecambe is a town on the Lancashire Irish sea coast, just five miles from the historic city of Lancaster and close to the county of Cumbria. Its notable former residents include Eric Morecambe of the comedy duo Morecambe and Wise (a statue is placed in his honour), actress Dame Thora Hird and DJ  and designer Wayne Hemingway, founder of Red or Dead.

I used to visit Morecambe quite often as a child, when our family would spend long summer days starting in the nearby south Lake District National Park. We would sometimes drive home via Morecambe Bay in the late afternoon to enjoy a couple of hours at the Pleasure Beach and savour cones of salty chips on the promenade.

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My dad was a steam train enthusiast, and nearby Carnforth had a good museum where it was possible to take short trips on long-since decommissioned locomotives. The deal was that we kids behaved ourselves whilst dad revelled in pistons and steam, and a trip to the beach and the funfair would follow.

In the decades which followed, this one-time venue of the Miss Great Britain beauty competition and popular retirement destination lost its sparkle and was heading for further decay. The once renowned art-deco Midland Hotel in its sea front location had once epitomised glamour and luxury, but like much else in Morecambe stood silent and abandoned, a sad memorial to its heyday.   I remember one visit to the town in the 1990s, albeit on a particularly grey day, and not being able to get Morrissey’s lyrics out of my head:

This is the coastal town
That they forgot to close down

Times have changed.

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Reinvestment in the town in the early noughties reversed the tragic trend. The seafront passes muster again and the Midland Hotel was revamped and reopened in 2008. It still contains some original features, apparently, though I haven’t had the pleasure of viewing them. On the one occasion I went for lunch there, I have to say I was a tad disappointed at the ordinariness of the interior; nevertheless, it is lovely to see it restored and it is very popular.

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Across the road from the Hotel, the former train station is now an arts venue, The Platform. I’ve seen musical performances there, none especially to my own taste, though it seems to pull in the crowds. I recall that on one visit to the town I encountered a very loud 1950s musical event taking place in front of The Platform; enthusiastic dancers in full-circle skirts or with slicked-back hair (imagine Grease on Morecambe sea-front!) were giving it their all. Not being a fan of that musical genre, I felt sorry for anybody who had booked into The Midland Hotel for a special weekend treat only to endure the rockabilly cacophony emanating from across the road. I also had fond memories of that building as a railway station and lamented its dubious repurposing.

Morecambe has a busy little town centre and the usual Bed & Breakfast establishments, candy floss and burger vendors that every seaside town offers its visitors, some of them still a touch on the shabby side, but overall it’s delightful to see the changes to the place.

The promenade is lovely with a nice café at the end and provides some lovely views over the bay .

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The Royal National Lifeboat Institute building in the distance
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The fells of the Lake District beyond the Bay