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.
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.
The church at Kirklevington has been in existence since the early medieval period. The chancel is Medieval, the rest of the church was rebuilt during the nineteenth century. Many ancients stones were found during the rebuilding of the church and have been incorporated into the fabric of the church.
Inside the porch is the entrance arch to the church. The two orders are a bit of a hodge-podge of weathered stones. There are spirals carved onto the capitals and one has a carving of intertwined serpents which is quite hard to make out.
The Chancel Arch is much more satisfying. The left hand capital is beautifully carved with a man’s head, stars and spirals. Beside the capital is the carving of a lion. The capital on the right side is carved with a headless bird, beside it is a rather damaged carving that has been interpreted as an ox. There is a lovely booklet available at the church which informs us that these carving represent the four evangelists, Mark (lion), Mathew (the head), John (the bird), Luke (the ox).
There are quite a few Cross Slabs within the church. Cross slabs are difficult to date as they were used from the eleventh to the seventeenth century.
There are a number of stones embedded in the external walls including six chevroned stones which may have once formed part of an arch. I’m guessing these were left over from the rebuilding of the doorway arch.
This beautiful door handle is a nod to the ancient origins of the church.
A number of ancient carved stones were discovered during the rebuilding of the church. Many of the ancient cross fragments have been removed from the church and are currently being stored at the Preston Hall Museum, a few are on display. The stone below is part of a cross shaft and is probably my favourite local medieval stone. It is thought to depict the Norse god Odin and his two ravens Huginn and Muninn (thought and mind). Odin’s ravens would fly out into the world and report what they saw to Odin.
Why is Odin depicted on a christian cross?
The early medieval period was a time of transition from the Pagan religions of northern Europe to Christianity. Nothing was straightforward, Pagan kings would succeed Christian Kings and the Christian church itself was split between two traditions, the celtic church and the church of Rome.
It may seem odd to us to see pagan imagery on a Christian cross shaft but the people of the early medieval period would have recognised and understood this imagery. Odin would have been a familiar figure to not only the people of Scandinavian descent but also to people who’s ancestors had travelled to our area from northern Europe.
Odin was known in the Anglo Saxon world as Woden, perhaps Woden was also worshipped in our islands prior to the arrival of the Anglo Saxons. During the Roman occupation of Britain, the majority of the Roman army was comprised of Auxiliaries. These units were manned by soldiers from territories that had fallen to Roman conquest. The majority of the Auxiliaries in our islands were composed of men from northern Europe, lands where Woden was a primary deity.
The Roman tradition was not to suppress the local belief in the gods of the lands they were conquering, they would associate local gods with Roman gods who possessed similar attributes, Woden/Odin was associated with the god Mercury because of his role on guiding the dead to the afterlife. The Roman historian Tacitus wrote that the Northern European tribes worshipped Mercury. Wednesday (Wodin’s Day) is known in Latin as Mercurii dies (‘Day of Mercury’).
This carving has been interpreted as portraying the god Mercury, is in the church at Aldborough, the church is said to have been built on the site of a Roman shrine.
It’s an interesting aside to look at Odin and Jesus. Given the evidence, it is fairly safe to assume that Odin may have originated in an older, shamanic-based belief system, if we detach ourselves from our christian assumptions we may also see similar shamanic elements in the life of Jesus.
In becoming a shaman there is generally a requirement for a ritual death and rebirth. Odin achieved this by hanging himself on a tree, Jesus was hung on a cross and then descended into the underworld before being reborn. Whilst on the tree, Odin pierced himself with his spear, whilst Jesus was on the cross he too was pierced with a spear.
Shamans are generally wanderers who undertake spirit journeys, Odin famously wandered in search of enlightenment, Jesus wandered with his small group of followers throughout his later life, the bible records his forty day solo journey into the Sinai desert without food or water. Both Jesus and Odin possessed the ability to speak to and raise the dead, Odin using his magic, Jesus by miraculous means, magic by a different name?
Perhaps the people of the past saw these similarities too. The early Christian church was very different to the church of today, the early Christian world was a place of mystics, demons, miracles, monks and local saints, many of who may have previously followed a pagan tradition.
Odin is thought to have hung himself on Yggdrasil, the world tree. The Pagans of northern Europe also had a world tree, Irminsul. These trees may have had their origins in the shamanic tradition where they symbolised the shaman’s journey between realms. Perhaps the cross represented the same idea to the early christians, an axis between the realms of heaven, earth and the underworld.
Anglian & Anglo-Danish Sculpture in the North Riding of Yorkshire. W.G. Collingwood. YAJ Vol.19. 1907
Yorkshire A Gazetteer of Anglo-Saxon & Viking Sites. G Points. 2007
Romanesque Yorkshire. Yorkshire Archaeological Society Occasional Paper No.9 Rita Wood. 2012
Archaeological Trail. St Martin’s Church. Kirklevington. A pamphlet available from the church.
Yggdrasil Image – Oluf Bagge, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Thanks to Gary & Kate for arranging access to their lovely church.
The Romanesque arch, weather-beaten but recognisable.
The ghost of a Beakhead
The Norman font, uncomplicated with a cable pattern below the rim.
A protection mark? A saltire scratched into the underside of the arch resembles similar motifs carved into the witch posts of the moorland villages.
An Anglo-Saxon crosshead.
Regarding the grooves on the porch wall behind the cross head. These grooves are found on many of the walls of old churches throughout Europe. Tradition has it that they were caused by medieval archers sharpening their arrow heads prior to Sunday archery practice. In some parts of the country these stones are referred to as ‘Arrow Stones’. This seems like a highly unlikely explanation, the nature of the grooves would probably only serve to blunt a blade rather than sharpen it
Another possible, and more likely explanation for the grooves, is that they were caused by people collecting grit and dust from the church for use in folk medicines and ritual preparations. Any part of the fabric of a consecrated building, including water from the roof, was thought to have curative powers for both people and their livestock. The practice of collecting materials from a church, to use as a cure for all manner of ills, has been documented across Europe.
There is an old house on Marske High Street that has similar grooves on its external walls. I was told that it was once a schoolhouse and the grooves were caused by pupils sharpening their slate pencils on the building walls. An alternative explanation is that perhaps these stones were recycled from a previous building such as St. Germain’s Church or the medieval manor house that once existed on the outskirts of the town.
This cross shaft is thought to be Anglo-Danish. There is also the remains of an Anglo-Danish Hogback grave cover in the porch but it is is very eroded and barely recognisable.
Asmundrelac 1086 Domesday Book
‘Asmund’s clearing’…A hybrid formation with a Norse inflexion of the of the first element suggests very intimate association of the Norse and Anglian speech.
The Place-Names of the North Riding of Yorkshire by A.H. Smith 1928
I called in to St Oswald’s Church at Lythe today. I’ve been here many times and never tire of visiting this lovely church. The church is a welcoming space, left open for visitors and has built a lovely display of it’s Anglo-Scandinavian collection of carved stones.
This is a marked difference to a number of our local churches which would prefer to keep their doors locked apart from an hour or two on occasional Sundays.
Church attendance across the mainstream christian denominations in the UK is generally in decline and in our area we see many churches locked for the majority of the time. Faith Survey 2020
Not being a christian myself I don’t feel it is appropriate for me to explore the reasons why church attendances are falling, but as someone who takes an interest in local history and the cultural life of the area I feel that local communities are being denied access to these spaces for little or no reason.
Our local churches are not only places of worship, they are also the custodians of local history, their architecture and memorials are physical records of the history and culture of our towns and villages. In my opinion, the exclusion of the greater community from accessing local churches will only accelerate a sense of detachment and lack of ownership of these beautiful spaces.
I’d also like to mention parochial houses being left empty. At a time when access to affordable housing is an issue in so many of our communities, the various church authorities seem to have no issues with allowing good quality houses to lie empty.
I started the day with a walk around Penrith in search of coffee and hogbacks.
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A monument in St Andrews churchyard known the the Giant’s Grave. Legend has it that it is the grave of a knight called Ewain Cæsarius, the four hogbacks are said to represent four wild boars that he killed in the forest of Inglewood. In reality the monument is comprised of four hogback stones and two ancient crosses. All of which have seen better days.
A Hogback is an Anglo- Scandinavian grave marker dating to between the 10th and 12th centuries. They are generally found in locations that were settled by the Danes.
I was keen to get moving so didn’t take the time to have a look around St Andrews church. I later learned that it was designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor, I will have to return.
The village is steeped in history, located on a Roman road and river crossing point, the route later became a major drove road between England and Scotland. The road was also a main route for invaders, marauders, reivers and moss troopers.
The local church founded in the 9th century is a wonderful illustration of the history of this part of the north of England. The church is dedicated to Saint Cuthbert as this was one of the resting places for his body when monks removed it from Lindesfarne following the 9th century Viking conquest of the kingdom of Northumbria.
A beautiful stained glass depicting Cuthbert with an Eider or ‘Cuddy’s Duck’ at his feet
The church tower looks out of proportion with the rest of the church, this is because it was built in the 13th century as a defensive tower, a sanctuary from the invading Scots. The stone walls of the tower are 6ft thick with thin window slits and a narrow iron entrance door. This style of building is known as a Pele.
Throughout the Middle Ages the North of England was a dangerous place. Following the Harrowing of the North by the Normans, Scottish raiding parties would regularly move down into England to steal cattle and goods and take slaves. The 12th century Chronicler Simeon of Durham wrote Scarce a little house in Scotland was to be found without English slaves of one or other sex.
Aside from the regular raids by brigands from the north, between 1060 and 1745 there were at least 10 formal invasions by Scottish armies into England.
The 17th century armour mounted on the church walls bears witness to the area’s turbulent past.
For me, the crowning glory of the church is the 11th Century Romanesque arch
A Medieval cross slab and a Roman altar can be found in the porch
These 3 large boulders of red sandstone in the graveyard are a bit of a puzzle. I cannot find any references to them.