John Piper made me do it – Romanesque North Yorkshire

Some time ago a John Piper image had led me to visit the Church of St. Michael at Barton-le-street. The village is located on the B1257, the ‘le-street’ element of the village name indicates that it is on the course of a Roman road, in this case the Roman road from Malton to Hovingham.

I had previously visited the church during the winter, the weather was terrible and the church was locked. I was completely overwhelmed by the carvings in the porch and knew that I would have to return in the summer when the church was open.

The church was rebuilt in 1871 by Perkins & Sons of Leeds. Nikolaus Pevsner describes it as a sumptuous small Norman church rebuilt without and restraint. Rita Wood remarks that many small Romanesque churches draw gasps of amazement for the amount of carving encrusting them, but there seems to be even more carving than usual here, of high quality and great interest.

The arcaded corbel tables and string course from the original church have been moved into the porch and body of the church. Everywhere you look there are beautiful carvings including Victorian carvings in the Romanesque style.

But a Norman pulpit takes some stomaching – Nikolaus Pevsner

The Victorian corbel table on the exterior of the church contains some beautiful carvings. It makes you wonder whether the carved faces are of some of the people involved in the restoration.

I don’t really have the expertise to accurately describe what is going on in this incredible church. If you are in the area I’d definitely recommend a visit. If you want to know more about the church it’s worth taking a look at Dav Smith’s paper, St Michael and All Angels, Barton-le-Street: an Important Scheme of Romanesque Sculpture which can be found here


John Piper’s Photographs of Yorkshire

The Buildings of England. Yorkshire: York & the East Riding. Nikolaus Pevsner & David Neave. 1997

Romanesque Yorkshire. Rita Wood. Yorkshire Archaeological Society Occasional Paper No.9. 2012

John Piper made me do it – Romanesque East Yorkshire Pt.1

I’ve been thinking quite a lot about Romanesque stone carvings recently so decided to take a trip into East Yorkshire to seek out a couple of sites. My previous brief explorations of Romanesque East Yorkshire were inspired by a series of images taken by John Piper so once again I allowed Piper to be my guide. Scrolling through the Tate’s collection of his photographs I found an image of a font in the church at Langtoft. A combination of the image, and the Scandinavian sounding name of the village, gave me a destination.

A diversion into Prehistory

Driving into the Wolds I passed through the village of Duggleby. I stopped briefly to say hello to the Great Barrow of Duggleby Howe, formerly known as Odin’s Howe.
Dating from the Neolithic, the Great Barrow sits at the centre of a concentric ditched enclosure with an external diameter of 370m making it one of the largest Neolithic monuments in Britain. The enclosure, discovered in 1979, is only visible as a cropmark.

Back to the Romanesque

Moving on to Langtoft I arrived at the lovely church located on the outskirts of the village and was greeted by one of my favourite signs ‘Church Open’.

The church is very nice, Nikolaus Pevsner tells us that the tower is early C13 and that the church was thoroughly restored in 1900-3

To be honest I wasn’t here to admire the church, I was here to see this gem, a drum shaped baptismal font.

The font came from the nearby deserted Medieval village of Cottam. All that remains of Cottam are a series of cropmarks and a ruined brick-built church.

Pevsner describes the carvings on the font as primeval, I like that. Rita Wood describes this panel as a complex threefold tree (probably a Tree of Life, the heavenly reward)…In this tree, two parts rooted in heaven, entwined with one standing on earth. The tree of life or world tree is an archetype which occurs in almost all major belief systems. It generally represents a link between different realms, a cosmic axis.

This scene depicts the fall of man, Eve is tempting Adam with forbidden fruit while the serpent looks on.

This carving represents the crucifixion of Saint Andrew on his X-shaped cross.

Rita Wood tells us that this is a carving of a combination of a bird and a snake. I think it could just as easily be a Wyvern. The combination of a rooster and a snake is known as a Cockatrice. The Cockatrice is mentioned in the bible, it is said to have the ability to kill with just one look, the only animal immune to its glare is a weasel.

This carving depicts the martyrdom of Saint Lawrence. Lawrence was martyred by placing him upon a large iron grid set over hot coals. Whilst undergoing this horrible procedure Lawrence is reputed to have said to his torturer, “you can turn me over now, this side is done”. For this the catholic church made him the patron saint of cooks and comedians.

The final carving depicts St. Margaret of Antioch bursting out of the gut of a dragon. Margaret survived being swallowed by the beast because she was wearing a crucifix. The cross irritated the beast’s gut causing it to split and expel the saint. Margaret was finally killed by beheading.

I took a walk around the outside of the church. During the restoration of the church, most of the original stonework was redressed I was however able to find a few bits of graffiti including one possible Marian mark. The overlapping Vs of the mark are thought to represent the Virgin Mary.


John Piper’s photographs of Yorkshire

Duggleby Howe aerial view via Google Earth

Map Image

The Archaeology of Yorkshire. An assessment at the beginning of the 21st century. Yorkshire Archaeological Society Occasional Paper No.3. 2003

The Buildings of England. Yorkshire: York & the East Riding. Nikolaus Pevsner & David Neave. 1997

Romanesque Yorkshire. Rita Wood. Yorkshire Archaeological Society Occasional Paper No.9. 2012

On The Great North Road

The Willowbridge Service Station has recently been sold and is probably due for demolition, the land has planning permission to build two large houses. The garage was built in the 1930’s to service travellers on the Great North Road. It was built in the Art Deco style and was originally flat-roofed.

One inch map 1947

The route of the Great North Road/A1 used to run through Darlington town centre via Barton and Stapleton. In the mid 60’s the A1 was rerouted to bypass Darlington resulting in the section of road from Scotch Corner to Darlington being downgraded to a rural road.

Some lovely old images of Willowbridge can be found in this Northern Echo article

Helmsley & Hawnby…not quite Damascus

Nikolaus Pevsner describes All Saints Church, Helmsley as ‘big and self confident, in the C13 style’.

It is always a good sign when the church entrance looks like this.

Stepping into the church is a joy, there are beautiful, bright, colourful murals everywhere.

The Victorian restorers of the church not only retained elements of the earlier church, they also added to them. The beakheads and outer order of the chancel arch are modern as are many other ‘romanesque’ features both within and on the exterior of the church, Rita Wood calls them ‘Heavy handed Victorian additions’, I quite like them.

The capital on the left side of the chancel arch has three heads carved on it, one creature emitting foliage and two small human heads, one wearing a pointy cap. The capital on the right side of the arch has a tiny head carved between the angle of the volutes.

This 10th century Hogback is a bit knocked about, the motif on the top is quite a rare design to find on a Hogback, it is known as a Key Pattern.

There are two chapels within the church, the south chapel is dedicated to Columba and has an altar made of what looks like Swaledale Fossil Limestone and may have come from the quarries at Barton. The North Chapel is dedicated to Aelred and has an altar made with Frosterley Marble from Weardale.

This striking painting is in the north chapel, it’s by Gabriel Max and is called St. Veronica’s Handkerchief. When I first saw the painting, the image was of Christ with his eyes closed, when I looked again his eyes were open. I found this rather disturbing, I was raised in a strict catholic household but have been an atheist, with the odd lapse into heathendom, for the past 45yrs. Was this to be my moment of conversion? was the shepherd calling me back to the fold?…then I read the notice beside the painting … ‘was painted in the middle of the 19th century, it is a form of art with a little trick, where the eyes of christ can be seen either open or closed‘…I laughed, relieved but also feeling slightly unnerved by the experience.

On reflection, I quite like the painting, it was inspired by a miraculous handkerchief that contained a perfect image of the face of Christ. As usual with these sort of Medieval relics, there were three in existence, all claiming to be the original. I suppose most religions have to rely on some form of smoke and mirrors when it comes to dealing with the supernatural.

All Saints is a wonderful church and well worth a visit if you are in the area. The history of the district is written all over its walls often in bold bright mural form. Architecturally it has embraced and built upon its past and is currently undergoing further exterior renovations. The church is open for visitors from 9-5 daily.


Driving home I remembered that in her book, Romanesque Yorkshire, Rita Wood compared the tiny carving of a man in a pointy cap to a carving in the church at Hawnby. Hawnby wasn’t too far from Helmsley so I decided to seek it out.

The Church at Hawnby, All Saints, can be found to the west of the village on the Kepwick road. The little church sits in an overgrown churchyard down by the River Rye, the setting is beautiful. The church is picturesque but architecturally fairly unremarkable, Pevsner describes it as ‘basically Norman‘. I found the carving located just inside the church door, it is lovely. Rita Wood thinks that it probably came from the chancel arch, who knows?


The Buildings of England. Yorkshire, The North Riding. Nikolaus Pevsner. Penguin Books. 1973

Romanesque Yorkshire. Rita Wood. Yorkshire Archaeological Society. Occasional Paper No.9. 2012

Yorkshire A Gazetteer of Anglo-Saxon & Viking Sites. Guy Points. Rihtspell Publishing. 2007

Orm’s Church

I, Orm the son of Gamal,
Found these fractured stones
Starting out of the fragrant thicket.
The river bed was dry.
The rooftrees naked and bleached,
Nettles in the nave and aisleways
On the altar an owl’s cast
And a feather from a wild dove’s wing.
There was peace in the valley:
Far into the eastern sea
The foe had gone, leaving death and ruin
And a longing for a priest’s solace.
Fast the feather lay
Like a sulky jewel in my head
Till I knew it had fallen in a holy place
Therefore I raised these grey stones up again

Herbert Read

Tucked away in the secluded valley of the Hodge Beck is the ancient church of St Gregory. It is thought that there may have been a church on this site as early as the eighth century. A number of early crosses have can be seen built into the walls with further loose remnants held within the church including a quern

Above the south doorway is a sundial that reads, Orm Gamal’s son bought St. Gregory’s Minster when it was all broken down and fallen and he let it be made anew from the ground to Christ and St. Gregory, in Edward’s days, the king, and in Tosti’s days, the Earl. This is day’s Sun marker at every tide. And Haworth me wrought and Brand, priests. The sundial dates to just before the Norman Conquest, we know this because Tosti refers to Earl Tostig, Tostig Godwinson, the Earl of Northumbria from 1055-1065.

The church was restored in 1907 by Temple Moore, of the greatest Victorian church architects. A few elements from the early church can still be seen including the beautiful, tall, narrow Saxon south door, which was once an entrance but now leads into the tower, and a wonderful waterleaf capital.

Just across the valley from the church is the site of the famous Kirkdale Hyena Cave, a place of some significance in the history of the study of geology and evolutionary science. More of that another time.

Map – National Library of Scotland

Jellinge to the Jacobean

St. Andrew’s church at Haughton-le-Skerne is the oldest in Darlington and probably stands on the site of a previous Saxon Church. The church is essentially Norman and has a collection of early medieval carved stones.

I walked up to the porch, it was locked, my heart sank, I walked around to the west door, a big smile, not only an open door but a beautiful plain Norman arch and tympanum.

On entering the church things just got better, I was given a very warm welcome into the church by two lovely attendants who were sat in the baptistry on either side of this handsome font. The original font has gone but the beautiful Frosterly Marble base survives. We had a chat about this and that and I was shown around the church then left to wander.

In the nave there are a number of early medieval stones that have been built into the walls. The stones were found during the 1895 restoration. One of the carvings (bottom picture) stands out as being exceptionally good.

This piece establishes that the best carving from this site occurs with the most purely Scandinavian ornament. The ribbon animal panel on A is closely linked in style with Sockburn 8 and should date from an early stage after the introduction of the Jellinge-type style. It is possible that this piece was carved elsewhere, since it is the only piece from the site in this stone.

Another simple arch and plain tympanum leads into the porch and more remnants of carved stones including some knotwork and fragments of cross slabs. A blackbird has made its nest on a shelf, she watches me but does not move.

Back in the nave, the amount of 17th century woodwork is quite overwhelming. I’m told that this style is known as ‘Cosin woodwork’ named after Bishop Cosin of Durham. This style is unique to County Durham and is now quite rare. Nikolaus Pevsner dates the woodwork to the 1630’s and writes that ‘the church gives a very complete picture of that date.’

The chancel arch is Norman, its single-step simplicity reflects the entrance and porch arches. Below the arch on the left of the picture is a squint or ‘hagioscope’ designed as a viewing point between the nave and the chancel. Below the arch on the right side is a niche with the remains of an original pre-reformation fresco painting. This niche may have housed a statue of the Virgin Mary.

Displayed on a shelf in the south transept are a number of sheets of lead. These were removed from the tower roof. All date to the eighteenth century, three are outlines of shoes, one is a hand and another is an etching of a fully-rigged ship. All of the sheets are initialled, presumably by the craftsmen who repaired the roof at various times.

I would encourage you to visit this beautiful church. This Grade one listed church is warm and welcoming and proudly displays its rich history and heritage. The church is open for visitors every Wednesday 10am-4pm June til November.


The Buildings of England. County Durham. Nikolas Pevsner. 1953. Penguin Books.

Visitors booklet – available within the church.

The Corpus of Anglo Saxon Stone Sculpture.