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10. Visit to St Bees Head and St Bees Priory Church

 

English Lake District, Cumbria (ex Cumberland), England

 

 Lake District Index

March 2010

A sculpture by Josefina de Vasconcellos  in the Sleeping Child Garden of St Bees Priory Church.

PLEASE LEAVE A DONATION TO HELP WITH THE UPKEEP OF THIS HISTORIC CHURCH

 

The red sandstone Priory Church of St Bees - view from the south-west. St Bees has been an important centre for Christianity for over 1000 years. The settlement seems to have grown up around an early Christian church from ~900 AD associated, by legend, with a holy Irish girl called Bega arriving by chance fleeing from Ireland. Scandinavian settlers called the place Kirkeby Beghoc, which means 'Village near Bega's Church' which served much of West Cumberland. Around 1120 William le Meschin, Lord of Egremont, founded a house for Benedictine monks at St Bees for a Prior and monks, though the priory was never large or wealthy.

 

The magnificently carved west door of St Bees Priory is the oldest part of the church (~1160) and was the main entrance to the monk's church. It has three orders of columns, characteristic Norman zigzag ornamentation on the arches punctuated with 'beakheads' of grotesque birds or beasts.

The church itself is of two principal architectural styles - Norman of ~1150 and Early English ~1200 plus of course some modifications and restorations from the 16th century onwards.

 

The highly weathered decoration of the stone capitals of the pillars supporting the zig-zag carved arches of the west door.

 

Left: Opposite the west door is circular "Dragon Stone" which may have been a door lintel from a Norman building (from ~1100), but the style is of an Anglo-Saxon ('Scandinavian') style of the 10th or early 11th century.?

Right: The west end of the church.

 

View from the north-west and the early Norman windows in the north transept.

 

Looking down the nave to the crossing-chancel and the iron screen. The ironwork screen was designed by Butterfield and erected in 1886 in memory of Henry Fox.
 

 

Looking across to the south aisle. There are six bays and aisle arches in the nave and the piers (pillars-columns) are alternately round and octagonal in design. They date from after 1200 and are architecturally plain 'Early English' and pointed in style.

 

Looking across to the north aisle. Above the six bays of the nave a set of clerestory windows of late Perpendicular in style, but possibly date from repairs in 1611?

 

Looking up into the crossing tower of four great 'Early English' arches under the tower.

 

The altar in the small chancel which is effectively the first bay of the original monks' chancel, the rest lying on the other side of the east wall erected in 1539.

 

The round and octagonal piers supporting the nave arches.

 

There are two sculptures in the St. Bega Chapel (north transept) are by Josefina de Vasconcellos. They represent the figures of St Mary holding the child Jesus and St Bega (to whom the church is dedicated) were erected in 1955.

 

Carvings on the capitals of the nave piers and some of the fine Victorian stained glass windows.

 

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A selection of late 12th century and 13th century medieval grave slabs with cross markings and one has a distinct image of a bowman holding the bow and arrow in an action pose!

 

On the right a stone effigy of a 'Lady' 14th century? She wears a widows veil and a long sleeved dress.

 

St Bees School, founded in 1583 by Archbishop Grindal in 1583. The earliest building (original schoolhouse on the left of the left picture) dates from 1587, the rest in the pictures is mainly the work of Thomas Nelson 1842-1844.

 

The seawall and beach at St Bees - the start of Alfred Wainwright's famous Coast to coast walk.

 

After the visit to St Bees Priory, a brief walk towards St Bees Head for some fresh sea air! This path is part of the Cumbria coastal Way.

 

St Bees Head actually consists of two headlands of rocky sandstone cliffs on either side of the pebbled beach of Fleswick Bay (centre) and St Bees Lighthouse can just be seen in the upper right of the picture.

I'm most indebted to the information in the St Bees Priory Church pamphlet and Pevsner's Buildings of England "Cumberland and Westmorland"

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