Manchester Cathedral – a church rich in history
At the end of one of my wanderings around the city centre a while ago I had some time to spare before the next train home so as the cathedral had long been on my list of places to visit I called in to have a look round. Not far from Victoria Station and tucked away behind a triangle of bars, eateries and a couple of pubs the building isn’t exactly obvious so even on a busy Saturday afternoon there was only a handful of fellow visitors in there.
The origins of Manchester’s first churches are a little obscure but the Domesday survey in 1086 stated that the parish church of St. Mary existed on the site of the present cathedral. The land was owned by the Greslet family, Barons of Manchester, and the church was built beside their manor house which is now Chetham’s School of Music. Around 1215 the Greslets extended the church before the estate passed by marriage to the de la Warre family in 1311, then around 1350 the church was extended again, becoming the same length as the present cathedral though it was much narrower.
At the end of the 14th century Thomas de la Warre became both Rector of the church and 5th Baron of Manchester. A priest for more than 50 years, in 1421 he was granted a licence from King Henry V and Pope Martin V to establish a collegiate church dedicated to St. Mary, St. George and St. Denys, with a warden, eight fellows, four singing clerks and eight choristers. When he died in 1426 he left £3,000 for the benefit of the collegiate buildings and most of this was used to convert the Baron’s Hall into a house-of-residence for the fellows of the College to live in.
During the years which followed various parts of the church were rebuilt and extended, including the reconstruction of the nave and choir stalls, with the choir stalls themselves and their misericord seats being carved at the workshop of William Brownflet of Ripon between 1500 and 1506. The college was dissolved in 1547 under the Dissolution of Colleges Act which came into force that year then ten years later it was re-established as a Roman Catholic foundation by Mary I. In 1578 it was re-founded again by Elizabeth I as the protestant College of Christ with a warden, four fellows, two chaplains, four singing men and four choristers.
Fast forward to 1840 and under the Cathedrals Act of that year the warden and fellows of the collegiate church were promoted to Dean and Canons in preparation for the church becoming the cathedral of the new Manchester Diocese which came into effect in 1847. Initial proposals for a new cathedral to be built on Piccadilly Gardens didn’t proceed and a period of major restoration and building work was started on the church the same year. In 1864 the original tower, which had fallen into disrepair, was demolished and replaced with a new tower – identical to the old one but six feet taller it was formally opened in 1868.
In 1897, to mark Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, the Victoria Porch was built below the tower and adorned with a sculpture of the Queen carved by her daughter, Princess Louise. In the years between 1898 and 1936 more building work was undertaken which included a new West End and porch and extensions to provide a library, refectory and choir school. In 1925 ten bells, to be hung in the cathedral tower for change ringing, were cast by bellfounders Gillett & Johnston of Croydon, with the tenor (largest) bell weighing 1.3 tonnes. In 1936 the Derby Chapel, previously the St. John the Baptist Chapel dating from 1513, was refitted as the Regimental Chapel for the Manchester Regiment.
On December 22nd 1940, during the Manchester Blitz, a German bomb exploded a few yards from the north-east corner of the cathedral, severely damaging the roof and demolishing the medieval Lady Chapel and the chantry chapel. All the Victorian stained glass windows were blown out, the medieval choir stalls toppled inwards so as to meet one another and the organ case over the pulpitum was destroyed. It took almost 20 years to complete all the repairs to the building during which stop-gap measures were taken to repair the organ re-using the old pipework, and the Lady Chapel was rebuilt to the designs of architect Hubert Worthington.
In 1966, Margaret Traherne’s ‘Fire Window’ was installed to commemorate Manchester’s part in the two world wars and also as a symbol of renewal and reconciliation. This was followed over a period of almost 30 years by five new windows on the western side of the Nave : St George in 1972, St Denys in 1976, St Mary in 1980, The Creation in 1991 and The Revelation in 1995.
In 1996 the cathedral again suffered damage when the IRA bomb exploded on nearby Corporation Street. Restoration work followed and the Healing Window by Linda Walton was installed above the east door in 2004 to mark the completion of this work. In 2016 the Hope Window, designed by Alan Davis, was installed on the other side of the east wall, representing the journey towards new life. The donors also intended it to be a symbol of the strong bond which exists between City and Cathedral.
Further work in recent years has included new heating, lighting and flooring together with a splendid new organ sponsored by the Stoller Charitable Trust and built at Tickell’s workshop in Northampton for a total cost of around £2.6m. Installation began in July 2016 with the medieval screen between the Nave and the Quire being strengthened to support the four main divisions of the organ. The 4,800-plus pipes range from 6 inches to 32 feet high with the pipe shades designed by text artist Stephen Raw – those facing the Quire were gilded by hand using wafer-thin 23.5 carat gold leaf and the cut out lettering was taken from the words of the liturgy in Latin. After a long period of tuning the organ was officially handed over to the Dean of Manchester on April 3rd 2017 and was played for the first time on Easter Sunday that year.
In May 2021 the cathedral reached its 600th anniversary of becoming a Collegiate Church and in July that year was visited by Elizabeth ll, then a special Anniversary Service, delayed by a year due to the Covid pandemic, was finally held on May 5th 2022 in the presence of the Lord Archbishop of York.
Discovered in 1871 during excavation work in the South Porch area the Angel Stone is the oldest artefact in the cathedral and is believed to date from the 9th century. Now protected behind a glass panel it was difficult to photograph without reflections so I’ve taken the picture from the cathedral’s own website. The Holy Night statue was sculpted by Josephina de Vasconcellos in 1992 and represents the Holy Family in the stable.
The choir stalls themselves contain thirty 16th century misericords similar in style to those at Ripon Cathedral and Beverley Minster and considered to be among the finest in Europe. Unusual, comical and sometimes a touch bloodthirsty, one of the most notable is the earliest known depiction of backgammon in the UK. Although I photographed most of them it would be impossible to put them all on here so I’ve included just a few of my favourites.
The stand-alone Bishop’s Throne, although in keeping with the medieval choir stall canopies, is actually late Victorian, made in 1906 by Sir Charles Nicholson. Two kangaroos were included in the carving as a tribute to James Moorhouse, third Bishop of Manchester for seventeen years from May 1886 to his retirement in 1903 – previous to his position in Manchester he had been Bishop of Melbourne, Australia, for ten years from 1876.
Built around 1421 by Warden John Huntington, the original rectangular Chapter House was used as a daily meeting place for the Warden and Fellows of the Collegiate Church. Its present octagonal shape was introduced when it was rebuilt in 1506 by Warden James Stanley and the walls contain the coats-of-arms of various families, both royal and local, who have historical connections with the Cathedral, including Henry V, Elizabeth l and George Vl.
The Fraser Chapel was built in 1887 in memory of Bishop Fraser, second Bishop of Manchester from 1870 to 1885. Known as ‘the peoples’ Bishop’ he was renowned for his concern for the ordinary people of the Diocese and for organising collections for the families of workers on strike. Following damage from the 1996 IRA bomb the chapel was refurbished as a Chapel for Private Prayer and includes a modern painted reredos and a stained glass window designed by Mark Cazalet.
The statue of Sir Humphrey Chetham (1580-1653) was erected in 1853 and serves as a reminder of the link between the Cathedral and Chetham’s Hospital School. The school was founded in the original manor house buildings in 1658 with money left by Humphrey Chetham on his death three years earlier; in 1952 it became a boys’ grammar school then in 1969 became Chetham’s School of Music where the Cathedral choristers are educated. The world famous mid-17th century Chetham’s Library is also located in the school buildings.
Compared to cathedrals such as Canterbury, Lincoln and York Minster Manchester Cathedral isn’t a big place but in spite of parts of it being heavily restored after two lots of bomb damage there are still so many historical and interesting features that it would be impossible to photograph and write about everything. It was certainly well worth the time I spent looking round and I may very well make a second visit soon to see what I missed this time.
Day 8 – Two churches and another giraffe
Back in April friend Eileen sent me a link to an online local news article about the friendly neighbourhood giraffe and one of the following comments mentioned another giraffe situated in the village of St. George, a mile or so off one of the roads into Abergele, and as I was going into the town anyway I decided to make a detour and go in search of it.
The giraffe was said to be in the garden of the village pub but when I got there I could see no sign of it anywhere and the pub wasn’t open so I couldn’t go in and ask. I was delighted to find that the church was open though so I went in to have look round and got chatting to a local couple who were just leaving. When I mentioned I was looking for the giraffe they said it had been moved to another garden just over a mile along the road and they very kindly told me where to find it.
The Parish Church of St. George is Grade ll listed and was designed and built by C H M Mileham between 1887 and 1894, funded by Hugh R Hughes of Kinmel, a landowner and well known genealogist from a wealthy family. Constructed from local limestone with sandstone detailing and a single nave the church was built in the Perpendicular Gothic style, replacing an earlier double-naved church with medieval origins which had existed within the same churchyard.
Unfortunately, in spite of exploring several avenues of research I’ve only been able to find a few scant details of the church interior. The reredos and communion rail are oak, the octagonal font is limestone, and the oak chancel screen has a semi-octagonal lectern and pulpit built in. The south transept contains the organ and at the rear of the church is the Hughes family pew, upholstered and extending across the width of the building under a timber canopy. The stained glass east window is in memory of H R Hughes and and his wife Lady Florentia, given by their grandchildren in 1919.
Something which did puzzle me though was in a section of one of the stained glass windows – a tiny image of the windmill at Lytham on the Lancashire coast and a reference to Lytham’s Lowther College in connection to Bodelywyddan Castle. This was intriguing and deserved a bit of investigation.
Lowther College, a private girls’ school, was set up in 1896 in Lytham by Florence Lindley who was its first headmistress. In 1920 she leased Bodelwyddan Castle from its then owners and moved the college from Lytham to the castle, purchasing the property five years later and remaining as headmistress until 1927 when the college was sold to Allied Schools, an association of independent schools. She then moved a few miles away to Kinmel Hall where she converted the building into a ‘rheuma spa’ for the treatment of people with rheumatism. A well worn brass plaque below the window says it’s in memory of Florence, ”founder of Lowther College, Lytham St Annes and Bodelwyddan” so presumably this was the church she attended during and after her years at the castle.
At the bottom end of the churchyard was the Grade ll listed Gothic Revival style mausoleum, erected when the previous church still existed. Built of Derbyshire sandstone in 1835-6 by architect Thomas Jones of Chester it was commissioned for the Hughes family by William Lewis Hughes who was created first Baron Dinorben in 1831. Three of its sides have blind 4-light Perpendicular traceried windows while the front has a carved Hughes’ coat-of-arms combined with that of William’s first wife, Charlotte Margaret Grey.
With St. George only being a tiny place – more hamlet than proper village – there was nothing else to see once I’d looked round the church so I set off along the road in search of the giraffe. Thanks to the directions of the local couple it was easy enough to find and even from the end of the lane it was obvious that it was a much larger and taller creature than the other one. Made of wood it looked quite weathered in its appearance so must have existed for quite some time though I couldn’t see the significance of the flower stalk in its mouth.
Happy that I’d found the giraffe I followed the road down into Abergele, parked at Tesco and walked round to St. Michael’s church nearby. The first church building on the site was founded in the 8th century, the land having been granted by the Prince of North Wales to Elfod, Bishop of Bangor, for the purpose of establishing a place of worship on the banks of the River Gele. This early church was probably a group of timber domestic dwellings and a burial ground all enclosed by a fence, and worship would have been held in the open air.
The present church is built of local limestone and sandstone with a slate roof and dates from the late 12th/early 13th century when it was dedicated to St. Michael. It was modified and partially rebuilt around 1400, at which time the tower was also built, then after a period of neglect the building was restored in 1663. During the 19th century the Victorians made various alterations to the church including adding to the height of the tower in 1861 and building a castellated wall around the top. The tower itself is home to a peal of six bells – two by Taylor’s of Loughborough dated 1887, two dated 1844, one dated 1895 and a sixth dated 1730 – plus a single Sanctus bell, the smallest and oldest dated 1723.
The church clock was maintained in Victorian times by the poet David Griffith, a clock maker by trade and famous as the first Archdruid of Wales, and shortly after his 83rd birthday in 1883 he gave the clock a complete restoration. During the Victorian renovations the porch was built in 1879, replacing a previous stone porch, and the lychgate was erected in 1887 to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. The church interior and the lychgate were renovated in 2004.
Close to the inner door the octagonal font is set on two steps. Although the base is late medieval the bowl dates from 1663 and was given by vicar Henry Pugh to mark the church’s restoration and also to replace the original bowl which had at some point been destroyed. The bowl itself is lead lined and the cover is oak with a wrought iron handle. Set in the wall near the font are two Celtic Cross slabs dating from the 13th century and a stone coffin lid believed to date from the late 14th century after the time of the Black Death. Originally set in the tiled floor of the Chancery, probably sited there in Victorian times, it was moved to its current position in 2008.
The double nave is divided by an arcade of eight bays with octagonal columns and with the rood screen extending across both naves. Dating from the 15th century this screen is all that remains of the original rood screen and loft which were removed at the time of the Reformation in the 16th century.
The original organ was built by William Hill and installed on the south side of the St. Elfod Chapel after the 1879 renovation, then in 1924 it was completely renovated and rebuilt by Rushworth and Draper using pneumatic action and was moved to the north side of the chapel. In 1982 it was overhauled and moved to the west end of the north aisle but it was found to cause problems for the organist and choir who were now at opposite ends of the church, making the musical balance between them difficult. In 1999 the organ was moved back to the north side of the St. Elfod Chapel by organ builder and tuner Eric Newbound and the pneumatic action was replaced by electric action which provided a separate console.
Out in the churchyard and not far from the porch is the Penance Stone where those who had committed grievous sins would ask for forgiveness, and by the north wall is the memorial to the 33 victims of the 1868 Llanddulas railway disaster. Buried in an unmarked grave nearby are seven bodies which were washed ashore after the burning of the ”Ocean Monarch” ship in 1848 when 178 emigrants perished.
Also buried in the churchyard are the remains of the ‘Abergele Martyrs’, Alwyn Jones and George Taylor, members of the Free Wales Movement killed when their own home made bomb exploded prematurely on the day of Prince Charles’ investiture as Prince of Wales at Caernarfon castle in 1969. Initially it was thought they had been planning to blow up the royal train as it passed the town but an inquest found their intention was to target Government buildings close to where Abergele library now stands. In 2019 plans to erect a plaque to mark the 50th anniversary of their deaths were turned down by local councilors.
Unfortunately I hadn’t been able to explore as much of the church’s interior as I would have liked as the lady vicar was getting ready to close the building but it’s such an interesting place with many more things to see so a return visit will certainly be on my list for the near future.
St. Winefride’s Chapel and Well, Holywell
A mile up the hill from Basingwerk Abbey, on the B5121 and close to the small town of Holywell, is St. Winefride’s Chapel and Well, a Grade l listed building and Scheduled Ancient Monument known to many as ‘The Lourdes of Wales’. The only such place in Britain with a continuous history of public pilgrimage for over 13 centuries, the well itself is attributed to a legend dating back to the 7th century.
Winefride (Gwenfrewi in Welsh) was of noble birth, a young niece of St. Beuno, and in the 7th century lived with her family in the place now known as Holywell. According to legend, when she spurned the advances of Caradoc, a prince’s son, he drew his sword in anger and severed her head which rolled a short way down the hill, and where it came to rest water began to flow from a spring. When Beuno heard the news he interrupted a service in the nearby church, retrieved Gwenfrewi’s severed head, placed it beside her body and prayed. His prayers were answered and Gwenfrewi returned to life, though forever after she bore a thin white scar around her neck.
There are a few different versions of the legend, probably told by several different people over the years and further embellished with each telling, so predictably the tale has long been dismissed as far-fetched but Winefride herself was a real person rather than a legendary one. Devout even before her supposed martyrdom she became entirely devoted to a holy life and later entered the nunnery at Gwytherin, eventually becoming the Abbess there. On her death she was buried in the grounds of the nunnery and lay there until her bones were exhumed and relocated to Shrewsbury Abbey in 1138. Her enduring personality meant that she was revered as a saint from the moment of her death and her well at Holywell became a place of pilgrimage and healing.
In the late 11th century the well came into wider recognition when the Earls of Chester granted its ownership to the recently founded St. Werburgh’s Abbey in Chester. Ownership of the well stayed with St. Werburgh’s until 1132 when it was granted to the newly founded Basingwerk Abbey, but by 1157 it had been returned to St. Werburgh’s by Hugh II, the son of Ranulph de Gernon, Basingwerk’s founder. In 1240 however, ownership of the well was once more back with the Cistercians at Basingwerk, gifted to them by Dafydd Llywelyn, son of Llywelyn the Great, and it remained with them until the dissolution of the monasteries in 1536.
The original shrine and its church were relatively simple affairs but by the middle of the 12th century they had become more than a local landmark. In 1189 Richard I of England (Richard the Lionheart) made a pilgrimage to Holywell to pray for the success of his forthcoming crusade – he was the first known monarch to make the journey, which was a sure sign of how important the shrine had become.
Although the shrine itself escaped unscathed during the Welsh/English wars of the late 13th century the church did sustain some damage, for which King Edward I paid compensation of just over 13 shillings on November 3rd 1284, the day marked as St. Winefride’s feast day. The well and its shrine may have been spared from damage during any subsequent battles but general wear and tear eventually took their toll and in 1427 the Basingwerk Cistercians sought permission from Pope Martin V to repair and renovate the site.
The shrine and its chapel which can be seen today date from around 1500. After Henry Tudor’s victory at Bosworth in 1485 and his subsequent elevation to the throne, becoming King Henry VII, the Tudors became generous benefactors of St. Winefride’s shrine, mainly through Margaret Beaufort, Henry’s mother and wife of Thomas Stanley, and it’s probable that her generosity was behind the building of the new chapel and its well chamber. The work was supervised by Thomas Pennant, Abbot of Basingwerk between 1481 and 1523, and the quality of the workmanship, including a frieze of animals and the badges of Thomas Stanley (Margaret Beaufort’s third husband) round the building’s exterior suggests that royal masons may have been employed.
In April 1637, after many attempts over the years by various people, including Elizabeth I at the turn of the 17th century, to suppress the many pilgrims and their use of the shrine, Sir John Bridgeman, the Chief Justice of Chester, ordered the removal of the iron posts used to support the infirm when entering the waters and the shrine to be mutilated. On demanding an update six months later he was told that the posts had indeed been removed and the statue of Winefride had been whitewashed. The following year the death of Bridgeman himself, the stroke suffered by one of his wardens responsible for the desecration of the shrine, and the burning down of the house of another were seen as a divine punishment for their actions.
During the Civil Wars of 1642-49 the chapel and shrine were badly damaged and the whitewashed statue of Winefride was completely destroyed. In August 1686 James II and his wife, Mary of Modena, visited the shrine to pray for the gift of a son and heir and while there Mary gave £30 towards the building’s restoration. This money was put to good use, the chapel and shrine were substantially restored and a stone, dated 1687, was incorporated into the well basin, though it wasn’t until two centuries later, in 1886, that a new statue of St. Winefride was commissioned to replace the one which had been destroyed.
In 1723 the chapel, which had for so long provided unbroken service to pilgrims and the faithful, was taken over by the authorities and turned into a day school for the education of poor children, being substantially altered by the addition of various walls and rendering it unusable as a place of worship, although pilgrims still continued to visit the shrine below. It wasn’t until later in the 20th century that steps were taken to restore the chapel to its original state.
The only shrine in Britain to have survived the 16th century Reformation, the two storey architecturally unique building is set into the hillside, with the chapel immediately above the well, and it’s one of the most perfect examples of Late Gothic perpendicular architecture in Wales. The chapel itself has a north aisle, a nave and an apsidal chancel with one large stained glass window, while the three bays of the aisle mirror the three arcades of the vault in the shrine below, although the outer stone stairs linking the two floors are now blocked.
In the shrine the spring rises in a central basin in the shape of a truncated eight-pointed star, with steps at the front for access. The basin is enclosed by a low wall with columns rising to form part of an elaborately ornamented vault of unusually complex design, while the water flows beneath the surrounding walkway into a rectangular outdoor bathing pool. Around ninety sculptured bosses sit at the intersections of the vaulting ribs, these include angels, the green man, the arms of the Stanley family, and patterns incorporating foliage and strange beasts. In the centre, a pendant boss has six scenes from the life of St Winefride and Beuno and a corbel by the entrance portrays a pilgrim carrying another on his back, acting as a reminder of the importance of the well as a place of pilgrimage and healing.
In a separate small building to one side of the bathing pool is the Gatehouse Chapel where pilgrims and visitors can light a candle in prayer or in memory of loved ones. This simple little chapel contains a replica of “The Virgin with the Laughing Child”, an original statuette which was made around 1465 and attributed to the prominent Florentine sculptor Antonio Gambarelli Rossellino, although some believe it was actually created by Leonardo da Vinci. Although there’s no information on when this replica was actually made it was presented to St. Winefred’s shrine in 1996 by Fr Bernard Lordan (Parish Priest 1988-98) and was restored in 2018.
Moving forward into the 20th century, in 1917 disaster struck the shrine when underground mining on Halkyn Mountain cut the stream which fed the well spring. Not only did this lead to the well running dry, it also led to a decline in the Greenfield Valley industry which relied on the waters of the stream, but eventually another source was found not far from the original and the flow to the well was restored although much reduced. Strangely though – or maybe not – the fact that Winefride’s original miraculous flow now surfaces some distance away at Bagillt seems to be completely ignored.
In 1930 the Victorian St. Winefride’s Mill and Brewery were acquired and turned into the well gardens and custodian’s house which is now the museum we see today, and after the 18th century school room amendments had been removed work on restoring the chapel to its original state had been completed by 1976. Still in use to this day, Holy Mass is celebrated each Sunday at 5pm during the summer season until the end of September and an annual pilgrimage is held on June 22nd (or the following Sunday if the 22nd is a weekday) as this is the anniversary of Winefride’s death and miraculous return to life.
The chapel and well are in the ownership of the Church in Wales and maintained by Cadw, and there are three half-hourly bathing sessions each day. Open to everyone, whether devout or just curious, Protestant or Catholic, or anyone of any faith who wishes to visit, whether the legend is believable or not St. Winefride’s is without doubt an amazing, unique and very special place.
Basingwerk Abbey, Greenfield
Not far from the A548 coast road at Greenfield, Flintshire, is the peaceful site of Basingwerk Abbey, founded in 1132 by Ranulf de Gernon, the fourth Earl of Chester, who brought the Benedictine monks from the Savigny monastery in southern Normandy to North Wales. The abbey became part of the Cistercian order in 1147 and ten years later became affiliated to the Buildwas Abbey in Shropshire, thanks to which the Basingwerk Cistercians received significant salaries and lands in the English county of Derbyshire. In that same year Owain Gwynedd, Prince of Wales, encamped at Basingwerk with his army before facing the forces of Henry II at the Battle of Ewloe. The abbey suited him for its strategic location as it blocked the route Henry had to take to reach Twthill Castle near Rhuddlan, and in the fights which followed the English were defeated near Ewloe.
In the first half of the 13th century the abbey was under the patronage of Llywelyn the Great, Prince of Gwynedd. His son Dafydd Llywelyn gifted to the monastery St. Winefred’s Well with its pilgrimage chapel and the monks used the nearby Holywell stream to run a corn mill and process the wool from their sheep. In the latter part of that century the abbey suffered considerable damage during the Welsh/English wars and for that reason, in 1284, King Edward I paid compensation of £100 but by the end of the century the monastery’s revenues had become very low, though the situation was improved by permits obtained from Edward for weekly markets and annual fairs.
During the 15th century the monks benefitted greatly from the pilgrimage movement and the abbey wasn’t without its royal visitors. In 1416 King Henry V arrived on foot having made a pilgrimage from Shrewsbury to Holywell and in 1461 the abbey was visited by Edward IV. It was during that century that disputes occurred over the appointment of the abbots. In 1430 the monastery was occupied by Henry Wirral, a self-appointed abbot who ruled until 1454 when he was arrested for various offences; another dispute flared up soon afterwards between one Richard Kirby, previously a monk of Aberconwy, and Edmund Thornbar and though Edmund received the support of the general chapter Richard held office until 1476. The disputes were only brought to an end by the rule of the abbey’s first Welsh abbot Thomas Pennant between 1481 and 1523, a man greatly respected and adored for his generosity, high education and love of music and poetry.
In 1536, at the start of Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, the abbey was dissolved, its lands were granted to various non-religious owners and by the spring of 1537 all monastic life had terminated. Most of the buildings were dismantled, with some of the lead being used to repair Holt Castle near Wrexham and some being taken to Ireland for use in Dublin Castle, while the impressive roof truss went to the church in Cilcain near Mold and some of the stained glass was taken to Llanasa Parish Church just a few miles away. Eventually Basingwerk Abbey fell into ruin and it’s these ruins which can be seen today.
The original abbey church had a central nave and two aisles and at only 50 metres long it was among the smallest Cistercian churches in Wales. From the 13th century the plan of the abbey came into line with the rule of the Cistercian Order and various parts were built, rebuilt, added to and extended over the years.
The church’s southern transept was adjacent to a narrow sacristy just 1.8 meters wide behind which the chapter house was located within the ground floor of the east wing; initially a square shape, at the beginning of the 13th century it was rebuilt and extended eastwards. On its south side was a narrow parlour where the monks could talk freely without fear of breaking vows and the extension ended with a day room, above which was a dormitory on the first floor; this was connected by ‘night stairs’ to the church’s south transept to allow monks to quickly reach night masses.
In the mid-13th century a refectory 20 meters x 8 metres was built on the south wing, and typical of Cistercian abbeys it projected beyond the outline of the monastery buildings. In the 14th century new Gothic cloisters were created and the buildings on the south east side were enlarged, though these were rebuilt again towards the end of the century. By the end of the 15th century the abbey had been roofed with lead and decorated with stained glass windows, and new rooms had been built for guests on the south-east side. Of the ruins which can be seen today the 13th century refectory building is the one which has survived in the best condition, along with the western wall of the church’s southern transept, fragments of the east wing and the guest rooms on the south east side.
Following the abbey’s dissolution in 1536 the site was leased in May 1537 to Hugh Starkey who retained custody until 1540 when it was sold for just over £28 to Henry, the son of Harry of Llanasa, and Peter Mutton of Meliden. In later years the site was sold to the Mostyns of Talacre and it stayed within the family through the generations until 1923 when Miss Clementina Mostyn passed it into the care of the Welsh Office, through which it then passed into the care of Cadw in 1984.
Since August 1991 Basingwerk has been Grade l listed as an important example of a Welsh Cistercian abbey and is also classed as a Scheduled Ancient Monument. Now part of the Greenfield Valley Heritage Park the abbey is still a significant religious site and is the starting point of the North Wales Pilgrim’s Way, a long-distance walking route stretching over 80 miles south to Bardsey, the ‘Island of 20,000 Saints’ off the Llyn Peninsula.
Apart from New Year’s Day and three days over Christmas the abbey and its grounds are open daily, free to visit and dog friendly. The ancient remains have a fascinating history and through its wonderful architectural features it’s still possible to gain a sense of the dignity and grandeur of this once proud Cistercian abbey.
February mini break – Day 1
After three named storms in less than a week and enough rain to turn my garden into something resembling a soggy sponge pudding last Saturday turned out to be glorious and 8.30 that morning saw me leaving home for another weekend in North Wales, with a pitch pre-booked at the holiday park where I stayed in December. With the weather being so nice I decided to take advantage of it and visit a couple of new-to-me places on the way there, and my first stop was at St. Winefred’s Chapel and Well near the small town of Holywell.
Although the chapel is open daily to visitors the door is actually kept locked so I had to get the key from the nearby visitor centre, and once in there I had the place to myself. Dating from the beginning of the 16th century, with a stone floor and just one stained glass window, the chapel was restored in 1976 and is very simply furnished with just an altar, lectern and a few rows of chairs.
Expecting St. Winefred’s Well to be a small square hole in the ground with a flagstone surround, or maybe a small stone trough set in a wall, I was more than a little surprised when I saw it. Situated directly underneath the chapel water from a natural spring bubbled up into a large star-shaped stone basin beneath an elaborately vaulted ceiling and surrounded by carved stone columns. Believed for centuries to have healing properties water from the well flows into an outdoor pool where pilgrims can bathe, although it did look rather murky and according to the young couple who were actually in there it was also very cold.
At one side of the pool was an attractive little chapel and next door a couple of small changing rooms, while at the other side of the pool a nearby building housed a museum although this was temporarily closed. The whole place was quite fascinating and I could have spent much longer there so I may very well make a return later in the year.
The next stop on my list was down the road at the ruined Basingwerk Abbey just off the A548 at Greenfield. Founded in 1131 and extensively remodelled in the 13th century Basingwerk is still a significant religious site and it’s also the starting point of the North Wales Pilgrim’s Way, a long-distance walking route stretching south all the way to Bardsey, the ‘Island of 20,000 Saints’ 2 miles off the Llyn Peninsula. More details and photos of Basingwerk Abbey and St. Winefred’s Well and Chapel will be on a couple of future dedicated posts.
From Basingwerk it was only a short 2-mile drive to Llanerch-y-Mor and the derelict Duke of Lancaster, a ship taken out of service in 1979 and abandoned several years later. I’ve photographed it from one side on previous occasions so this time I wanted to see if I could get it from the other side but a high security fence and even higher hedges prevented any sort of a decent view.
My fourth and final stop was made more by accident than planned. Friend Eileen had forewarned me that there were roadworks causing delays along part of the road I would be driving along to get to where I was staying so I made a detour to avoid them and realised I would be passing close to Dyserth Waterfall which I had never previously been to, so it was a good opportunity to go and see it.
The River Ffyddion rises 4.5 miles to the east of Dyserth village and is joined a mile away by water from a spring called Ffynnon Asa. After falling some 70 feet over the waterfall the river makes its way westwards and joins the River Clwyd to the west of Rhuddlan. A few yards from the main waterfall was a smaller one and between the two was a rather waterlogged cave cut into the rock; there was no clue to its significance though there was a ‘danger, keep out’ notice near the entrance.
The spray from the main waterfall was quite substantial and with the sunshine it created quite a bright rainbow at one side of the bridge. Although their history is unknown the two massive walls to the left of the falls could be medieval and possibly built to support a water wheel which would have been driven by water diverted from above the waterfall. The steps between the walls were quite steep and led to an even steeper path which gave me a good view towards the sea and continued over the hill, taking me into woodland which invited more exploration, but I didn’t want to be too late getting to where I was staying so I retraced my steps back to the waterfall and the car park.
Checking in at the camp site reception there seemed to be some confusion as to which pitch I was on. I’d booked the pitch I’d had on my previous stay but someone had allocated me the next one to it which was apparently occupied, however after much faffing about I was finally given the pitch I’d booked in the first place and I was free to go round and get parked up on it. Once I was settled in I rang Eileen and arranged to call round an hour or so later, and I spent a lovely evening until quite late in her company along with her hubby and Tilly the cockapoo, which just nicely rounded off what had been a really good day.
St. Mary’s Church, Wigton
The Parish Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Wigton, was built between 1785 and 1789 on the site of a previous church built in the year 1100. Unfortunately no records of the old church exist so there’s no documentation of its size or appearance though it’s known that round about 1330 a pele tower was added to the building to fortify it after it suffered considerable damage during the Scots raids in the early part of the 14th century.
The contract for the new church was awarded to Messrs Pattinson and Holmes (joiners) and masons Parkin and Nixons (the Nixons being father and son) with one of the conditions being that none of the old church should be incorporated in the new building, though it seems that this condition may only have applied to the exterior of the building as some of the oak beams in the new church tower appear to have been taken from the old church.
Constructed to the same design as St. Michael’s in Workington and St. Cuthbert’s in Carlisle St. Mary’s was built of red sandstone from Shawk Quarry, Rosley, with the tower being raised about nine feet higher than originally planned so it might serve as a landmark. A new bell was cast by bellfounders William Mears & Co and in June 1790 it was transported from London to St. Mary’s at a cost of £3 19s; still in use and weighing 12.5 cwt it’s the biggest single bell of any parish church in Cumbria.
To meet the changing needs of its congregation and the people of Wigton St. Mary’s has seen many repairs and improvements over the years. In 1880/1881 the floor was remodelled and relaid with blocks, two new stained glass windows and a new heating system were installed, and the high box pews with their doors and brass name plates were removed and taken to the workshop of John and Daniel Pearson where they were converted into the open pews seen in the church today.
The first organ in the church is believed to have been a small barrel organ, later exchanged for a larger instrument which was in turn sold for £30 in 1859 to Causewayhead Church near Silloth. Thanks to the generosity of George Moore from nearby Mealsgate who personally paid the cost of £240 the second organ was replaced by a new 12-stop organ built by Gray & Davison, one of the leading London organ builders. This was situated in the West Gallery, the traditional site for church organs, but changing fashions meant that fifty years later its position was considered to be inconvenient.
In 1912 Harrisons of Durham built the current organ which was sited at the south east corner of the church within the space occupied by the former vestry. At a cost of £800 it was built much larger than its predecessor with two manuals, twenty stops and more than 1200 pipes, some of which came from the previous Gray & Davison organ. Harrisons were advised in their work by influential organ designer Colonel George Dixon of St. Bees and thanks to their combined expertise the organ was remarkably versatile.
Harrisons have periodically maintained and tuned the organ since its installation, carrying out repairs in 1938, cleaning and renovation in 1977 and further repairs to the pneumatic action in 1994. Unfortunately in more recent years the organ became less reliable and a complete restoration was necessary; a scheme was proposed by Harrisons and approved by the Parochial Church Council and in 2011 the Centenary Restoration Appeal was launched. In 2012, 100 years after it was originally installed, the organ was granted a ”Historic Organ Certificate” by the British Institute of Organ Studies then in January 2013 it was dismantled and various parts were taken back to Harrisons in Durham. After extensive work and the meticulous cleaning of 1200 pipes the organ was rebuilt and returned to full working order in June that year, with the total cost of the rebuild standing at £120,000.
In 1928 the remaining original ornate box pew, formerly occupied by the owners of Highmoor House, was removed from the eastern end of the north aisle and twenty five years later a side chapel was installed in its place by the Reverend John Ford in memory of his mother. The chapel is dedicated to St. Catherine and behind the communion table is a reredos made of re-used carved oak panels of North German origin. In 1952, prior to the installation of the side chapel, the church interior was completely redecorated, with the midnight blue of the flat ceiling and the gold detailing on the decorative plaster roundels complementing the overall scheme.
In 1958 the whole of the church’s exterior, including the tower, was restored and improved with the work being carried out by Messrs John Laing of Carlisle, and during this time the bell was re-hung. Between 1973 and 1976 the vestries were modernised, the ceiling insulated and the whole building rewired which meant that further redecoration was necessary though this kept to the Reverend Ford’s original scheme. The following year a number of pews were removed from the back of the church to provide a space for social gatherings and informal activities then in 1985 the vicar’s vestry was repositioned to provide a space for a new kitchen.
Designed by R B Edmundson of Manchester and dedicated in 1865 the East window was donated by William Banks of Highmoor to celebrate the coming of age of his eldest son, though the centre section attracted widely differing opinions. Featuring Jesus blessing little children it was described as ‘fine Venetian glass’ by one person and ‘intensely ugly, portraying grotesque children’ by another, though William Banks had paid for the best which was available at the time.
Throughout the life of the church there was never any serious attempt to install a complete ringing peal of bells until discussions in early 1996 resulted in the Parochial Church Council voting to pursue the possibility. A structural survey of the tower proved positive, estimates were obtained and early in 1997 an application was made to the Millennium Commission for a 50% grant; work then started to raise the remaining 50% and by the end of that year the Millennium funding was in place. An order for a new set of eight bells was placed with John Taylor, bellfounders in Loughborough and work was started on preparing the tower.
In 1998 a band of novice ringers started training and on February 19th 1999 the bells arrived in Wigton, being initially displayed in the church before being installed in the tower and tested on March 3rd. On Easter Sunday that year the new band of ringers rang the bells for the first time for the morning service and on May 1st the first full peal of 5,088 changes was rung by members of the Carlisle Diocesan Guild of Bell Ringers. New Year 2000 was rung in by the new local ringers and since then the bells have been rung regularly for services and special occasions. The original 12 cwt bell, standing in a steel frame and ball bearings, remains in the top stage of the tower and continues to be rung for funerals and to sound the hours every day.
In 2006 broadcaster and author Melvyn Bragg (Lord Bragg of Wigton) who grew up in the town, offered St. Mary’s the gift of three new stained glass windows, not only remembering his relatives past and present but also with a theme of bringing Wigton into the church and showing St. Mary’s as part of the community. Brian Campbell, a well known local artist, was chosen to design the windows and after many meetings with church authorities the designs were approved. Alex Haynes of Albion Glass, Brampton, created the stained glass and the windows were installed on the north side of the nave in July 2009.
Each of the windows is filled with images of the town, the church and its people and the left hand window shows much of the commercial life of Wigton including the auction mart, mill, factory and a street with church. St. Mary’s church tower is the dominant feature in the centre window while the right hand window includes the George Moore fountain, Highmoor Tower, Nelson Tomlinson School, the cenotaph and the Caldbeck fells, and even though the windows are so modern they all contain Christian symbols.
During the first few years of the 21st century it became apparent that the church roof was raining in and wasn’t in a good state of repair. Following meetings with architect Elaine Blackett-Ord it was agreed to apply to English Heritage for grants to help towards the cost of repairs and fund raising began in 2007. The contract was awarded to local firm RMT Slating & Tiling and work on the nave roof was completed first, with completion of the tower roof in 2010.
Since it was built in the late 18th century each generation has contributed in some way to the present church and it’s hoped that those latest roof repairs will keep St. Mary’s waterproof for the forseeable future. It’s a lovely old building with many interesting features and after discovering it while I was doing the Wigton Heritage Trail in September I was glad I was able to look round and uncover some of its history.
Bowness-on-Solway and Port Carlisle
A day where I end up almost in Scotland. Well not quite, but it was only just across the water….
Wall to wall sunshine and blue sky on the first dog walk showed the promise of a lovely day to come, with an early morning mist slowly clearing from the valley where the river ran down below the fields. Other than the occasional bleat of a sheep everywhere was completely quiet and it all looked so lovely that I went back to the tent for the camera and repeated the walk just so I could take a few photos.
My destination for the day was Bowness-on-Solway and Port Carlisle, two villages within a mile or so of each other on the eastern end of the Solway Firth estuary where the rivers Esk and Eden meet. I’d seen a photo of Bowness ages ago – on someone else’s blog I think – and though there didn’t seem to be much there it had intrigued me enough to want to go there on a nice day.
Set just off the road on the western edge of Bowness was a small parking area with just about enough space for half a dozen cars. Unfortunately it was full and the road through the village was too narrow to park anywhere else so I drove on to Port Carlisle and was lucky enough to find a small lay-by close to a section of Hadrian’s Wall Path at the start of the village. Now to be honest I really don’t know what some people find so fascinating about walking 84 miles from coast to coast along a path which supposedly follows the line of an old wall, much of which now doesn’t exist anyway, but for curiosity’s sake I went along the short section through the village.
The village itself is little more than a hamlet of less than 100 houses mainly situated on the landward side of the coast road. Originally called Fisher’s Cross it was renamed Port Carlisle in 1819 when it became the sea terminus of the short lived Carlisle Canal. The Hadrian’s Wall Path actually bypassed the village, running behind a handful of houses on the seaward side of the road where not far from the shore were the remains of a long brick-built wall which was once the sea wharf for the port.
Through an area of scrubland I eventually found an offshoot from the path which took me back onto the road at the far end of the village and a hundred yards along I found the Wesleyan Methodist Chapel, built of brick in 1861 though much altered internally over the years. In 1873 it had enough pews to seat a congregation of 150 but by 1940 these had been reduced to seat 90, then by 1980 they had been further reduced to seat 60. In the years since then the front of the chapel has been partitioned off to provide a lobby and a small kitchen, the ceiling has been boarded in and the remaining pews replaced with chairs.
Delighted to find the chapel open I went in to take a quick look and found a simple little place with just two identical stained glass windows and a rostrum at the far end, while a table at one side and the absence of any rows of chairs suggested that the building is probably used for things other than worship.
Walking along the road through the village I passed a couple of terraces of Georgian houses. The first row was fronted by a long cobbled area used for residents’ parking while the second row had very small front gardens, then at the end of the row was the Hope & Anchor pub with the Port Carlisle Bowling Club opposite. Between the road and the bowling green was a long, wide and very empty car park with a notice on the fence saying it was for the use of club members only. To be honest I thought that was a bit selfish when any visitors to the area have to find somewhere to park at the edge of the narrow road; I’m sure the car park is big enough to allow a just few spaces to be set aside for visitors, especially if there’s no-one there playing bowls.
Driving back to Bowness I was lucky enough to find just one available space in the small parking area with extensive views across the water to Annan Beach in Scotland and the outskirts of Annan itself. Leaving the van I walked back through the village, an attractive little place with a primary school, the King’s Arms pub, a bistro and a mixture of old cottages and more modern houses and bungalows with well kept gardens.
Sharing the same open courtyard with the bistro was a very small cafe with two or three picnic benches outside. I would have loved to stop for a coffee and a snack but several fancy hens and a whole load of tiny little chicks were roaming about and sitting under the tables – I didn’t want Snowy to grab an early dinner so I kept walking to the far end of the village then turned and retraced my steps back to the van, and with one final shot of the nearby signpost I set off on the drive back to the camp site.
Since returning home from the holiday I’ve found out about a few things of interest which I missed that day, both in Bowness and Port Carlisle, and though I won’t have the opportunity to go back again this year I’ll certainly make a longer return visit to both places the next time I’m camping in north west Cumbria.
St. Augustine’s Church, Pendlebury
While I was on my 2-week stay-cation last September, and on one of the area’s Heritage Open Days, I visited St. Augustine’s Church in Pendlebury, eight miles from home and an easy 20-minute drive heading towards Manchester. I’d never been there before but it had come to my attention the previous day and it sounded interesting so off I went.
Known locally as the ‘Miners’ Cathedral’ because of its vast cathedral-like proportions and its location in the heart of a one-time coal mining community St. Augustine’s came into being thanks to the generosity of one man, Edward Stanley Heywood, one of the family of Heywood Brothers who were influential Manchester bankers. Situated about five miles from the centre of Manchester the church was designed in 1870 by architect George Frederick Bodley (1827-1907) assisted by Thomas Garner, and construction started in 1871 with the foundation stone being laid in September that year. The completed building was consecrated in May 1874 and the total cost including decoration and furnishings was borne by Heywood himself. The church’s first vicar was Heywood’s brother-in-law Dr. Alfred Dewes who devoted his life to St. Augustine’s and remained there until his death in 1911.
George Frederick Bodley served as an apprentice architect for five years then at the age of 23 set up his own practice in 1850, eventually setting up a partnership with Thomas Garner in 1869, and it was during the later years of the 19th century that some of his finest churches were built. In designing St. Augustine’s Bodley had also designed a bell tower which was to be a free-standing structure linked to the church on the south side and standing higher than the main roof, but the ambitious project to build a church of cathedral proportions was extremely expensive and as Heywood considered the bell tower wasn’t essential the plan was abandoned and the money was used to provide a vicarage, school and gatehouse. The church itself was built of red brick, with a clay tiled roof and dressed stone for the windows and doorways, and the building’s dimensions measured 160ft long from east to west, 50ft wide and 80ft 2ins high at the ridge of the roof.
Above the main west doorway three niches contain the statues of St. Augustine flanked by the Angel Gabriel on the left and the Blessed Virgin Mary on the right, and high in the wall below the apex of the roof is a recess housing the single church bell. Above the porch doorway on the south west corner, which was originally the main entrance, are another three niches housing statues, with the centre one being Our Lord with his hand raised to bless those entering the church, and at each side are the carved 1874 date stones.
Below the window in the east wall is a memorial showing the Risen Christ and commemorating the 178 men and boys, the youngest only 13 years old, who lost their lives in a devastating underground explosion at the Clifton Hall Colliery on June 18th 1885; the bodies of the victims were buried in the grounds of several local churches with 64 of them being interred at St. Augustine’s. The churchyard also contains the war graves of twelve service personnel from WW1 and four from WW2 and is a favourite spot for tortoiseshell butterflies who continue to make the grounds their home.
Before opening for public worship it was Bodley’s express wish that St. Augustine’s was provided with chairs for the congregation rather than pews. This was not only from an appearance point of view but also to prevent the system of paid pew rents whereby the wealthy could have exclusive use of a particular pew for themselves, their family and friends. This system in other churches had often discouraged the poor from attending services as they could find themselves having to either stand up or sit on cold bare floors; there are seven rows of pews towards the front of the nave but these were later additions.
At the north west corner of the nave is the octagonal font, standing two steps above floor level. Each of its eight sides has an arched recess containing a shield, with four of the shields bearing the IHS monogram while the others have roses and fleur-de-lys. The font cover is a finely crafted piece of woodcarving and has a traceried lower section with three tiers above and an angel at the top.
High up on eight of the internal buttresses in the nave are a series of elaborately carved and gilded frames containing paintings depicting several saints, and of these eight the front two on each side of the nave have been restored. The four on the north wall are saints Paul, Peter, Gregory and Augustine while those on the south wall are the Venerable Bede and saints Ambrose, Jerome and Augustine of Hippo; unfortunately bright sunlight shining on the paintings of Gregory and Augustine made them difficult to photograph successfully so I only got six out of the eight.
The square pulpit is carved in the 16th century style with ‘linen fold’ panelling on the three sides. A later addition was a shell-shaped ‘sounding board’ suspended above it from an iron bracket, this was to project the speaker’s voice into the nave; in 1929 it was described by a writer (unknown) as “an American contraption – very effective but also very ugly”. Church records show that it was installed during Bodley’s lifetime and it was known that its appearance reduced him to tears; fast forward to 1996 and it was removed after extensive consultations with everyone concerned.
Spaced at intervals along the walls of the nave and continuing into the north and south choir isles are a series of carved wooden plaques, possibly later additions, telling the story of the Crucifiction; I photographed them all but there were far too many to include them all on here so I’ve selected just two.
Dividing the nave from the chancel is the oak rood screen, an elaborately carved design of Bodley’s with a wide central arch and six open sections with delicate tracery, surmounted by the base of the (incomplete) rood loft forming a deep canopy to the screen itself. Just in front and above the screen on the north side of the nave is the organ loft with its richly coloured and gilded organ case, again designed and crafted by Bodley; the organ itself was originally built by Brindley & Foster of Sheffield, later rebuilt with pneumatic action by Ernest Wadsworth & Co of Manchester then rebuilt with a detached console in the mid 1990s.
The doorway to the organ loft is on the opposite side of the nave to the organ and the door itself has large hinges depicting leaves and acorns, another example of Bodley’s meticulous attention to detail. Before the organ was rebuilt in the 1990s access to the console was gained by walking across the top of the rood screen, hazardous enough but made worse with the installation of a bank of heating pipes covering most of the canopy top. Although very effective in combating the cold down-draught they also prevented the use of the safety handrail, making the journey to the console doubly perilous, although a certain Dorothy Morris, St. Augustine’s organist for over 30 years, regularly made the hair-raising journey until she was well into her eighties.
On both sides of the chancel the ends of the rear choir stalls incorporate ten carved creatures, five on each side, and include a cockerel, a dog, and several mythological beasts. In the north choir isle behind the stalls is a small shrine while in the south choir isle is a permanent Lady Chapel with its own altar and seating for eight people, both created in the mid 1990s. The richly painted chancel ceiling was restored and repainted in 1971 but some later damage to the external roof resulted in water ingress which caused the paint to peel in several places, which seemingly hasn’t so far been rectified.
Bordered by gold vine leaf trail and completed with gilded cresting at the top the huge reredos fills the centre of the east wall while at each side the wall is lined with ‘linen fold’ oak panelling. The reredos itself is made up of 19 compartments containing a series of richly coloured paintings; each compartment has a traceried canopy and parts of some of the paintings are in relief. On the shelf at the bottom are six large candlesticks, four of which were dedicated in 1930; made in Milan they are copies of some 300-year old candlesticks situated where St. Peter’s Chair stands in Rome.
The design of the windows was closely supervised by Bodley, with the stained glass being done by Burlison & Grylls, a partnership set up in 1868 with the encouragement of Bodley himself and Thomas Garner. By the 1890s Burlison & Grylls was one of the most highly regarded stained glass firms in the country; thousands of their windows appeared in churches throughout Britain, with their most spectacular being the large rose window installed in 1902 in Poet’s Corner at Westminster Abbey.
Bodley’s opinion was that much of the stained glass of his period was spoiled by having too great a variety of colours so for St. Augustine’s he chose colour schemes to provide each window with just one dominant colour. The windows themselves are set high in the church walls, with their bases some 16 feet above floor level, and being so high it was impossible to get good clear shots of them; apparently the only way to fully appreciate the detail in each window is through binoculars.
Tucked in the south west corner of the nave and near the south porch door is a very small single window depicting the entrance of St. Augustine into Canterbury, and with the addition of a votive candle stand in 1996 this corner has become the Shrine of St. Augustine. Most of Bodley’s original furnishings and adornments remain largely unchanged and any alterations or additions which have been made over the years are very few.