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.

Postscript

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?

Sources

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

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.

Sources

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

Visitors booklet – available within the church.

The Corpus of Anglo Saxon Stone Sculpture.

Durham Dales – Stanhope

Stanhope DU [Stanhopa 1183 BoB, -hop 1228 Ep]. ‘Stony HOH or ridge and HOP or valley.’

Graham and I drove up into the Wear Valley to Stanhope to have a look at the wonderful fossilised tree in the churchyard of St. Thomas’s church.

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The 320 million year old fossil was found by quarrymen at a sandstone quarry at Edmundbyers Cross in 1915. It was originally taken to Newcastle and was brought to Stanhope in the 1960s and placed in the churchyard.

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This is a superb relic of one of the trees that grew in the Carboniferous forest. It is a species known as Sigillaria, an early ancestor of modern club mosses. Today clubmosses are small mountain plants, only a few centimetres high, but in the tropical swamps of the Carboniferous Period they grew into 30-metre high giants!

tree

Another fossil tree recovered from the sandstone quarry can be seen in the Hancock Great Northern Museum in Newcastle.

While here we thought we’d take a look inside the church. This was a very different building to the previous church we had visited at Escomb. St. Thomas’s is a very well endowed church and reflects the fortunes that have been made from farming and mineral extraction in the district.

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The first thing you notice when you enter the church is the Victorian baptismal font. Beautifully carved in Frosterley marble with an extremely ornate cover complete with an over-engineered lifting mechanism.

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Frosterley Marble has been used on the chancel floor.

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Frosterley marble isn’t a true marble. Marble is a metamorphic rock, i.e. a rock that has been altered from its original state by temperature and pressure. Frosterley marble is merely a highly fossiliferous limestone, that when cut and polished forms a highly decorative stone.

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frosterley Laing i

Fossil – Laing Art Gallery Newcastle

This sculpture is a carved block of Frosterley Limestone inset with cast bronze interpretations of the fossils found within it. The fossil installation is displayed on an oak plinth among the Frosterley floor tiles and oak doors and display cabinets in the Marble Hall of the Laing Art Gallery. The sculpture is finished on one side to reflect the smoothness of the floor tiles and the central section shows and explains the unusual shapes seen in the tiles with carved and truncated fossils. The third section is a representation of a carboniferous sea floor with ‘living’ dibunophyllum bipartitum cast in bronze. The Department of Coelenterates at the Natural History Museum in London offered invaluable advice in establishing the most accurate representation of ‘dibunophyllum’. 

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This ancient stone coffin in the grounds of the church was carved from a single block of Frosterley marble.

The only true marble in the district is to be found in Upper Teesdale. A limestone which was subjected to heat and pressure from contact with the igneous rock that forms the Whin Sill. The resultant rock is known as Sugar Limestone. It is quite crumbly in nature and therefore pretty much useless as a decorative stone.

altar

It was nice to see this Roman altar displayed inside the church. A translation of the inscription is provided, it reads..

To Silvanus, the invincible, sacred

Caius Tetius Venturius Mecia

Prefect of the Sebosian Cavalry

On account of a boar of enormous

size taken which

many of his predecessors

were not able to destroy, erected (this

altar) willigly in discharge of a vow

The town of Stanhope is surrounded by quarries and the valley has a long history of  lead mining and smelting. Spoil heaps from the quarries encroach onto the margins of the town but I can find very little evidence in the church of the people who worked in the quarries and mines of Weardale. We left Stanhope and drove up the dale to visit the Rookhope Arch.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA The arch is all that remains of a two mile long horizontal chimney or flue. The flue carried the toxic gases and fumes from the lead smelt mill to the moortop. Mill workers were periodically sent into the flue to dig out the deposits. The average life span of a lead miner in 1860 was 45 years. Perhaps this ruin is a more fitting memorial to their lives than some mossy obelisk in a churchyard

Sources

The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Place-Names. 4th Edition. Eilert Ekwall. 1974

North Pennines AONB Geoparks Leaflet

Laing Art Gallery – Topografik

Durham Dales – Escomb

I took a trip into the Durham Dales with my friend Graham Vasey. County Durham is a bit of a mystery to me, growing up on the south bank of the Tees I’ve always viewed County Durham as a place of declining post-industrial townships, hastily built in the service of king coal and the ironmasters; Institute walls maintaining memories of pit explosions, collapsing shafts and pals whose bones fertilise foreign fields. Graham is slowly enlightening me and correcting my ignorance.

We arrived at Escomb to visit the beautiful seventh century Saxon church of St John, itself once a ruin, now saved and restored.

Boundary walls topped with raw slag and scoria brick paving speak of the district’s recent past

Keys at No.28

Stone

An austere beauty, each stone block tells a tale, many of them were carved by Roman hands

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Layers of time – the nearby Roman fort at Binchester became a convenient quarry for the Saxon masons; an intact Roman arch, its underside reveals traces of Medieval fresco

The altar cross recycled, below it a beautiful Frosterley Marble Grave slab

Two sundials, one the oldest in England

The key to the interpretation of the sculpture lies in Saxon mythology, to a period before the emergence of the cult of Valhalla and the Viking Gods. For just as the beast’s head has little resemblance to a stag, so too it bears little resemblance to a wolf. We are looking at a chaos monster… Nicholas Beddow 1991

sundial leflet

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The Devil’s door and Roman Lewis hole

Croft-on-Tees Pt.2

Carroll

FYH

What I tell you three times is true

Cheshire Cat

‘Well I’ve often seen a cat without a grin,’ thought Alice; ‘but a grin without a cat! It’s the most curious thing I ever saw in my life’

Aumbry

Marble

Dead Seas

Oh Death Begin at the beginning and go on…