Heysham (it is pronounced ‘hee-shum’, not ‘hay-sham’) sits on Lancashire’s coast at the southern end of Morecambe Bay. I knew of it as a ferry port, offering services to the Isle of Mann and Ireland, as well as home to the popular nuclear power station and, frankly, had no burning desire to visit either. But the village of Heysham is a peach and, beyond it, on a sandstone headland just above the parish church of St Peter’s Heysham, stands the ruin of St Patrick’s Chapel as well as some very curious graves.
St Patrick's is the site of a fairly rare early Christian chapel. It is odd to think of our ancestors worshipping in this windswept spot, oh such a very long time ago. The place is undeniably evocative, notwithstanding the aesthetic blemish of the power station looming to the south. Power stations and car ferries are real newcomers. It is relatively easy to shut these things out, even to dismiss the dog-walkers, and try to imagine what it must have been like before civilisation came. For some reason, I had an almost overpowering vision of a Viking longship pulled up on the sand of Half Moon Bay. It lay at a slight angle, oars shipped, sail neatly furled, the painted dragon prow staring and grinning lopsidedly. Men were gathering driftwood for a fire on the beach; others explored, stretching, scratching, laughing and calling to one another. Somebody sang. Guards, several wearing chain-mail, stood watchfully on the low cliffs. A time-memory, perhaps, somehow recorded and played back; or just my over-active imagination.
The Norse raiders and Irish pirates that once plied the sea routes in these parts would probably have been no friends of any Christians. St Patrick was, they say, captured and taken from Britain to Ireland by pirates. There is a local tradition that he established a chapel on the headland sometime in the 5th century, after being shipwrecked nearby. If he did, it would probably have been built in wood. Our sandstone ruins are later than that – 8th or 9th century – roughly 27’ long x 9’ wide and with a fine, decorated, Anglo-Saxon doorway. Beneath them are the buried remains of an earlier, even smaller, chapel which was rendered, inside and out, with decorated plasterwork – it sounds as though it was an elaborate, important, place. Early Christian chapels, usually simple, one-roomed, buildings, could be associated with a particular person, or saint, and often became places of pilgrimage or veneration. Is that what happened here?
Just outside the chapel to the west is a group of six rock-cut graves, by which I mean they are actually hewn out of the bedrock. Four are shaped to take bodies, two are rectangular, but all are far too narrow, and shallow, for normal corpses to be interred in them. They are on an east-west orientation, so likely to be Christian, and have sockets cut into the rock at the heads, possibly to take wooden head crosses. They were once protected, at least partly, by a wall. These days, they are mostly filled with sea and rain water. So far as I am aware, Heysham’s Stone Graves are unique in Britain. They were carved before the Norman Conquest and possibly date from 10th century.
There are two more rock-cut graves south east of the chapel, though these are not quite on an east-west alignment. Pre-Christian, or poor workmanship?
(Incidentally, Heysham’s Stone Graves feature on the cover of “The Best of Black Sabbath”, a double CD unofficial compilation released in 2000. Put that in your pub quiz.)
The remains of about 80 burials, men, women and children, have been found in three adjoining cemeteries near the chapel, mainly to the south. Some bodies had stone-lined tombs, some may have had coffins, some were placed in crevices in the bed-rock. The central and larger of the three cemeteries once had a wall round it. One particularly interesting burial was of a woman, wrapped in a fine shroud; in her grave was a bone comb of an Anglo-Scandinavian type from around the 10th century. One grave contained a large stone carved bird’s had, which has been dated to the late 7th/early 8th centuries. There are further burials in the chapel, dating from 10th – 12th centuries.
St Patrick’s seems to have been a relatively busy place, then. It declined, apparently, from the 12th century onward because - it is speculated - people were making greater use of the parish church of St Peter’s. This occupies a charming spot, overlooking Morecambe Bay, and you can imagine that a window seat might make even the most boring sermon tolerable. But what puzzles me is that the church is said to date from 7th century – so probably contemporary with, or perhaps earlier than, St Patrick’s Chapel. Why did the good people of Heysham need so much spiritual support, spread across two adjacent sites? What was going on? Whilst the church was evidently for the benefit of the parish, perhaps the chapel had more limited, private, use. Or was Heysham some kind of religious centre in pre-Conquest Britain?