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Friday, 25 March 2016

St Patrick's Chapel, Heysham

St Patrick's Chapel, Heysham, Lancashire.

This is one of our friend Jenny’s favourite places and she said we should go; so of course we did.

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 Chapel, Heysham, Lancashire.

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.

Half Moon Bay, Heysham, Lancs.

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?

St Patrick's Chapel, Heysham, Lancashire.

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.

St Patrick's Chapel, Heysham, Lancashire.

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.)

St Patrick's Chapel, Heysham, Lancashire.

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 Peter's, Heysham, Lancashire

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?

Heysham's Stone Graves

I’m off to dig out my copy of Ozzy and the boys doing “Paranoid”.

39 comments:

  1. Amazing place! It does look very evocative. Somewhere I'd love to visit. Thanks for the article - love your Viking vision :)

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  2. Ach! Power stations! Who needs them? Obviously the good people of St. Patrick's didn't for a long time. :-)

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  3. Wow Those stone graves are weird and I can't believe how old the church and chapel are. Interesting post.

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  4. Intriguing, and great picutres as always.
    As for the shallow and narrow graves, could they have been for children? Probably not; somehow I imagine dead children would not have been placed in so painstakingly cut out graves, not even if they were the offspring of the most important, wealthy and powerful people around.
    Or maybe only relics, single body parts of "Saints", were put there for the congragation and visiting pilgrims to venerate them. Who knows!

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  5. What an intriguing place. At least an hour after reading your post for the first time I find myself still thinking about it. There's so much we still don't understand about our ancestors.

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  6. Very interesting read. I love posts about old churches.

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  7. Amazing history and wonderful photographs. I am intrigued by the burial sites. Such a lot of work to entomb the body. Thank you. Wishing you a Happy and Holy Easter.

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  8. Loved reading about this and your speculation. Loved, too your imagination of the Vikings arriving. The stone graves are very curious. Were the bodies placed in them and then covered with something? Why are they just crevices now? Of the bodies described that were found with artifacts, where are they now? Reburied?

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    1. I don't think anyone knows who/what was in the rock-cut graves. It has been speculated that they contained loose bones - relics, perhaps. I believe any human remains from the other graves were reburied in this instance - I think I read they were reburied in the churchyard, but don't quote me.

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  9. Hi Mike - you've certainly brought the place to life ... really interesting history - your imagery for the Viking longboat ... they did just need mud or sand to land in or launch from. The stone graves are quite extraordinary ... with lots of questions arising ...

    Cheers and a fascinating place to visit - if I lived near ... but one day perhaps - have a good Easter - Hilary

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  10. Layer upon layer of human history recorded in your neck of the woods! So much to ponder.
    And I love your vision of the ship, with so much detail of the sights and, especially, the sounds. I son't know from personal experience, but I think sounds must make a vision much more arresting!

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  11. Interesting. Love the locale. My mind often flings back to conquistadors traipsing through the heavy Florida brush, of the parks I hike, aback grand chargers and Arabians.

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  12. Wow! What a fascinating place, definitely not a part of Britain that I'm familiar with.

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  13. I assume you didn't go indoors. Otherwise I'm sure you'd have mentioned the amazing hogsback stone. https://www.flickr.com/photos/historyanorak/9803112644/
    We were very impressed with Heysham, and like you I didn't expect to be.

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    1. St Peter's needs its own article - and now you've spoiled part of the surprise. I expected to be impressed with the chapel - Jenni told me I would be.

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  14. Very interesting! Incredible photos! Have a beautiful Easter!

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  15. Maybe the people of Hays-um? Hay-shum? suffered a church split, due to personality conflicts. Seriously, an interesting post crafted with the help of a vivid imagination.

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  16. Very intriguing graves. I wonder if any records survived about who is buried there.

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  17. Thanks for the great tour, Mike! Another place to put on the 'to see' list for one day!

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  18. This looks like a charming but moody spot, quite capable of stirring the imagination as it did with you.

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  19. Beautiful shots. The place is quite evocative.

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  20. Another interesting post Mike. A happy Easter to you and your family.

    Madelief

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  21. I have never heard of rock graves before. Just think how long it must have taken to shape the rock. It leads to all manner of questions about the rituals of death.

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  22. Ah, St Patrick, my patron saint :) So interesting to see this ancient chapel - not in Ireland! How fascinating are those rock graves, which I have never seen before. So much we don't know about the past, and how these people lived. Happy Easter to you and Mrs BAB

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  23. Interesting stone graves. Can't say I've seen anything like them.

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  24. Fascinating stone graves! I've just been reading about St. patrick.

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  25. Those stone graves has my curiosity going. My initial thought was that they were merely ceremonial and never meant to be an actual grave, but I am now leaning more toward what remains is the bottom portion, with the rest of the stone vaults now being missing (along with the bones, of course). They may have been part of an old pagan gravesite that was destroyed by the good Christians at the time after they took control of the area.

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  26. A Bit About Britain has been included in our A Sunday Drive for this week. Be assured that we hope this helps to point even more new visitors in your direction, and to be clear, this is not a notification of the new site. The launch of the new site has been set back another month. Sigh.

    http://asthecrackerheadcrumbles.blogspot.com/2016/03/a-sunday-drive_27.html

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  27. Never seen that type of stone cut grave before only for keeping seafood alive yet contained or for a King's footprint. Very interesting place. Wonder if the rock cut fish and lobster keep, which I think was widespread and popular with Scandinavians, influenced the graves.

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  28. Well I'm glad Jenni suggested you go ... otherwise we wouldn't have been able to look at your great photo's and read the information.
    Top notch as usual, thank you.

    Happy Easter

    All the best Jan

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  29. I had not heard of stone graves before so thanks for showing your photos and information. Your blog title puts me in mind of the book I bought that is on my kindle, "Icons of England" edited by Bill Bryson. Have you read it?

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  30. Interesting...thank you for sharing.
    Carla

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  31. Absolutely fascinating and amazing and beautiful all together. Hope you had a good Easter, sorry to have been scarce here recently!

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  32. Thank you so much for the pronunciation guide (for those of us who never learned to pay attention in school, sorry!). :-(( Lovely tourist in the purple jacket.

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  33. Great bit of history, particularly like your daydream of the Vikings. I always find it odd that they seem to build a place of worship in the most remote of places like that headland, is it because they feel nearer to God being so isolated. I've see temples on the top of hills in Japan which must have taken some building because I got up there by cable car, they never had them when it was built. People do strange things. Must remember that chapel in Heysham if I get up that way, looks a great place to visit.

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  34. I made sure to pronounce correctly in my head while reading the whole post! It's a beautiful place and if I ever look for it, I'll need to be able to ask with the correct pronunciation ;)

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Hi - thanks for dropping into A Bit About Britain. New material is now being posted to www.bitaboutbritain.com and most of the material here will gradually be updated and moved over to that new site. Please drop in there, click on the blog page, and take a look round. TTFN - Mike.