Beamish, County Durham – Church and Chapel

Beamish, “the living museum of the North” – website – is a place where I first went in the 1970s. I remember taking Julie soon after we were married, and we went with the kids on various occasions. We visited Beamish with friends May half term last year (and some of the photos come from that visit), and you get a ticket that is valid for a year. That year is almost up, so we took advantage of a free day to visit a free museum.


We walked down to the Engine Shed. Last year Steam Elephant was out and we had a ride. This time Puffing Billy, built in Wylam, was waiting. They are wonderful replicas – you really feel you are back in the early 1820s.

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Last time we came to Beamish St Helen’s church from Eston near Middlesbrough was being rebuilt. You can read about it on the museum’s website, and read the blog. The original church was built in 1100 and had its first recorded priest in 1545. The Nave was completely rebuilt in 1822 leaving only the original chancel and tower. It served as a parish church until 1884 when a larger church was built nearby. In 1889 it became a cemetery chapel. In the early 1920s it became a parish church again, then back to a cemetery chapel in 1962. The last funeral was held in 1985 and the church became derelict. Although a Grade II listed building it fell into decay, and fire destroyed the roof in 1992. Over the next few years the stone was nicked, the lead of the stained glass window was nicked, the font was nicked, the medieval cross … In 1998 they took what was left of the church down and moved it to Beamish – numbering the stones. Rebuilding started in 2011 – here it is last year.

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The church was officially opened by Right Revd. Paul Butler, Bishop of Durham, in November 2015. Celebrations included the church’s former congregation and members of the Eston community. I don’t know if the original church was accessible for the disabled, but it is now.


One guide was chatting away to a couple in the vestry, and I climbed to the gallery and chatted to a young lady who was sweeping and tidying the place. She told me a little about the history of the church, and told me that sweeping while wearing a corset was hard work. After talking to her about her corset I didn’t feel I could ask for her photo.



The box pews keep everyone in place, and are labelled for the owners – I don’t know where these came from.

DSC01799The pulpit is dated 1695, and there is a wonderful lectern up by the altar.


I liked the chandeliers and the stoves – the blog has a lovely piece about the stove being lit to warm the church through before it was plastered. I would like a little more information as to where all these things came from, but it isn’t information I can easily find.


All the windows had to be re-glazed, a chap called Barry Swinburne did that work, and he worked on the older windows in the chancel. The East Window has C15 tracery and has been glazed with leaded glass in a diamond patten. The second window, at the south east end of the Chancel, was probably inserted in Tudor times. There is no record of what this window looked like, other than that it was a stained glass window which depicted the image of St Helen. This is the window they have produced. Can you spot the tribute to the Reverend Peck, the church’s resident owl?


The original font was also lost. This is a Norman basin, donated by a couple from Staffordshire who were using it as a planter in their garden. The stem has been created from reclaimed Georgian corbels – how often have we seen fonts made up of different lumps of stone from different periods.



The church is lovely and has a nice atmosphere. Although the Bishop opened it, it is not a consecrated building under the jurisdiction of the Church of England. It is an interesting question as to whether it can be more than a museum piece. I am very glad Beamish saved it, but wonder whether over the next few decades there will be lots of others that need saving too.


Next to the church they are rebuilding a Hearse House, but I can’t remember where it has come from. There’s a lot of derelict hearse houses too.


We walked down to the Colliery Village, the area we didn’t visit last year. Well behaved school parties, and all was good. We went into the Methodist Chapel. The vestry especially took me back to my youth.

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In the chapel they have placed a lovely old projector and put a big screen up behind the pulpit. We used to have film shows at Barton Baptist Chapel – Fact and Faith films, I remember a line “I’m gonna fill my lungs with helium gas”. I can’t help thinking the projector and screen has rather taken over.


It is an interesting question as to how you tell the story of the role of faith (Church and Chapel) in the lives of NE communities.

We got the accessible bus (which runs every 20 minutes) back up to the main town – the staff could not have been more helpful.


The bakery was wonderful (as was the bread), and we wandered round the shops.


My artist, John Wilson Carmichael, lived here (4 Ravensworth Terrace, now the dentist’s).


Perhaps the builders of Hexham’s new bus station could come up with something as good as this.


Last time I walked down and explored the station and signal box. Please note the NE Railway benches. The loco present last year was Portbury, on loan from the Bristol Industrial Museum. Paul, our Cathedral Forum secretary in Bury St Edmunds, had been curator of that museum and we spent a wonderful weekend driving her on their quayside railway a few years ago.

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Beamish was the vision of Frank Atkinson – and it is wonderful that he is commemorated in St Helen’s church. Thank you.




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