The Lake District’s churches are nothing like those found in other parts of the country. It has always had a small, static population, and as a result, the churches are usually tiny, with small graveyards providing the resting-place for generations of the same families. Our county’s cathedral is a long way to the north in the border city of Carlisle.
Many of our village churches look alike. Made from sandstone or chunks of slate, sometimes grey-rendered, they have a low, barn-like shape, small leaded windows and short bell towers. A surprising number of them claim to have been founded by early medieval saints, including St. Bega, St. Patrick, and St. Kentigern. There are a number of holiday cottages in the lake district which keep popping up where you can stay that are near to these churches., you just need to find them.
These simple churches rarely have the elaborate decoration seen in later churches in other parts of the country. The compensation lies in stunning, carved stone crosses and tombstones from the Viking and earlier eras. Testament to the strength of Christianity in this remote part of the country from a very early time, they still stand sentinel in churchyards across the county.
St. Kentigern was a 6th or 7th century monk, better known in Scotland as the St. Mungo of Glasgow Cathedral. Mungo is just a nickname, meaning ‘dearest friend’.
St. Kentigern’s, Crosthwaite, near Keswick, was founded by Kentigern in 553AD, and there has been a church on the site ever since. The current building is mostly sixteenth century, and is probably unique in retaining its full set of sixteen consecration crosses, where the bishop sprinkled holy water as the new church was consecrated. Canon Rawnsley, a vicar of Crosthwaite and founder of the National Trust, is buried here, as is Robert Southey, the poet.
St Kentigern’s, Caldbeck, is another church that claims to have been founded by the man himself in the 6th century. St. Mungo’s well, behind the church, is said to be the well where Kentigern baptised his first local recruits. The building is 12th century and later, and the churchyard has the graves of John Peel, the huntsman famed by song, and Mary Harrison, otherwise known as the Maid of Buttermere.
There are further St. Kentigern churches at Aspatria, Mungrisdale and Castle Sowerby.
St. Bega, or St. Bee, was also popular with early Christians in the Lakes. Tradition – if not history – has it that she was a 5th or 6th century Irish princess who became a hermit in Cumbria. The Priory Church of St. Mary and St. Bega, at St. Bee’s, is a 12th century church which once formed part of a Benedictine priory.
The church has a fabulously decorated Norman west door and a display of medieval stone effigies, illustrating archers, swords, shears and a green man. The longevity of the site becomes clear in the graveyard, where there is a 9th century Cumbrian Celtic cross shaft with scrolled decoration and a 10th century Viking cross shaft. Opposite the church’s west door is an archway depicting a fight between St. Michael and a dragon. Cartmel Priory dominates this small village. Once part of a great Augustinian abbey founded in 1189, the church is the only part still standing. It has mixed Norman, Decorated and Perpendicular architecture, with fine renaissance screens, choir stalls and misericords.
Holme Cultram Abbey was founded for Cistercian monks in 1150, and, like Cartmel, retains the abbey church as the parish church. Sadly, this massive sandstone church suffered a huge fire in 2006. It is still under restoration, but the disaster has provided the opportunity for the West Cumbria Archaeological Society to excavate the grounds to identify the original cloisters and other features. Archaeological work continues this summer, thanks to a grant from the Heritage lottery sambad Fund.
Cumbria lays claim to the smallest church in Britain, although this is disputed. The candidate is St. Olaf’s, at Wasdale Head. It is truly tiny, even by the standard of the many small sandstone churches in the area. Its antiquity is suggested by the roof beams, which are said to come from Viking ships. St. Olaf’s is surrounded by a splendid stand of yew trees in an otherwise bare valley landscape.
St. Catherine’s, near Boot in Eskdale, is splendidly situated against the backdrop of Scafell Pike. It has had much renovation, but it is in the traditional Lakes’ barn style, with tiny windows and a low bell tower. Its octagonal font is certainly very early, depicting St. Catherine’s wheel and some marigold decorations suggesting a late Roman or early Christian origin. A nearby well has been dated to the 6th century, and it is believed to be the site of early baptisms.
St. Paul’s at Irton is another ancient site. There has been a church here since a cross was erected in the churchyard in the 9th century. The current Victorian building is Grade 1 listed, and has some remarkable William Morris windows.
St. Mary’s, Gosforth, is best known for the Norse cross in the graveyard. The cross is 14ft high, dates to around 940AD, and shows the crucifixion, stories from Norse myth, and Loki, a Norse devil. There are also two 10th century hogback tombstones in the church, shaped like Viking houses of the dead, complete with carved battle scenes.
St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, was once shipwrecked on Duddon Sands on the Cumbrian coast. From here, he made his way across the county, converting the people as he went. He baptised at St. Patrick’s Well, Patterdale, and both the village and local church were named after him. The current St. Patrick’s church, Patterdale is nineteenth century, and was designed by Anthony Salvin. There is an interesting altar here, dedicated to people who have lost their lives in air crashes on the fells.
There are many churches in the Lakes dedicated to St. Bridget or St. Bride, and, like St. Bega and St. Patrick, entire villages are named after her.
St. Bridget’s, Bridekirk was heavily restored in the Victorian era, but still has two Norman doorways. It has a splendid 12th century font depicting the stonemason at work, the baptism of Christ, Adam and Eve, and strange Norse beasts and runes.
St. Bridget’s Kirkbride is another early Christian site. The current building is mostly Saxon and Norman, with some stone seemingly sourced from the ruins of a nearby Roman camp.
St. Bridget’s in Beckermet is a little way out of the modern village (which now has another church, St. John’s, in the centre of the village). Another ancient site, St. Bridget’s has two pre-Norman cross shafts outside, carved with scrolls and runes.
St. Bridget’s in Brigham was originally part of a 13th century nunnery, but the Viking crosses inside the church suggest earlier foundation, like our other St. Bridget’s churches. The tower is early 13th century and the rest 14th century, with some splendid 14th century stained glass. St. Bridget’s is the site of the tomb of Fletcher Christian, the Bounty mutineer.
St. Andrew is also a popular saint in Cumbria. St. Andrew’s, Dacre, is a site mentioned by Bede himself. It has a Norse cross shaft, and another, believed to be even earlier in date, showing Adam and Eve and the sacrifice of Isaac. Some floor stones are 10th century, and show a battle between good and evil. Dacre church is best known for its ‘bears’ – four bear-like statues in the churchyard. They are certainly very old, but it’s not clear how old and they may not even be bears!
St. Andrew’s, Greystoke, is a 13th/14th-century church. Its huge bell tower looks very much like the peel tower of a castle, and that’s no coincidence. During the time of the Border Reivers, the villagers used the tower as a refuge. Some splendid medieval stained glass here had a narrow escape from Cromwellian raiders in the seventeenth century. On hearing of their advance, the locals removed the glass and buried it. Two centuries later, it was unearthed and re-installed in the church. St. Andrew’s has two interesting sculptures. One, of the Madonna and Child, was carved with a penknife by German prisoners of war. The other, of the crucifixion, is by the modern sculptor, Josefina de Vasconcellos.
St. Andrew’s, Penrith, is a departure from Cumbria’s many medieval churches. Although the tower dates to the 13th century, the main part was designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor, a pupil of Christopher Wren, in 1720. Its internal decoration is stunning and surprising, with matt black pillars edged with gold, and strong highlights in Georgian blues and maroons. St. Andrew’s churchyard is well known for its so-called, ‘Giant’s Grave’. Some sources believe is to be the grave of the 10th century Cumbrian king, Owen Caesarius; the four side pieces are certainly Viking hogback stones. There are also two Norse crosses, one 14ft high.
Kirkby Stephen Church, which is not dedicated to St. Stephen, as many sources suggest, is known as ‘the cathedral of the Dales’ owing to its large size. It has some Saxon and Norman stones, but is best known for its ‘Loki stone’, an 8th century carving of a chained Norse devil.
St. Michael’s and All Angels, Muncaster, in the grounds of Muncaster Castle, is another departure from the norm. It’s Grade 1 listed, with 12th century parts and a north transept designed by Anthony Salvin. It has a rare ‘Doom’ window showing St. Michael and Christ at the Last Judgement and side windows depicting the archangels, Michael, Raphael, Uriel and Gabriel. St. Michael’s also has a Viking cross shaft depicting Norse myths.
Holy Trinity church, Grange-in-Borrowdale, surprises in that it is not as old as it looks. Built only in the nineteenth century, Holy Trinity has striking zigzag decoration imitating the Norman ‘dogtooth’ style, both inside and out.