Wirksworth, Derbyshire – St Mary the Virgin

Wirksworth is a nearby town, but it is not very Julie-friendly (too many slopes and cobbles). On Tuesday 21 May I caught the yellow bus there (the lovely TrentBarton Sixes that run up and down the A6) and had an explore.

St Mary the Virgin is in the middle of the village at SK287539. It is now part of a 10 church team – I still need to blog Alderwasley, Bonsall, Brassington, Idridgehay and Middleton – and there is a website at http://wirksworthteamministry.co.uk/. At last I have found a church website which welcomes tourists:

We care for the historic church buildings in the communities we serve, and aim to facilitate their use for purposes in keeping with their heritage as sacred spaces. Most of our churches are open each day, certainly in the summer, and for many people visiting and exploring, the “space” that a church can provide is an opportunity to connect with their spiritual “heart”. … If you are visiting the area as a tourist, then you are very welcome to call in. While you are in the Derbyshire Dales then you might like to explore some of the other churches in the area. Details of all of them can be found on the Derbyshire Churches link at the bottom of this page.

They have a decent guidebook, though it’s showing its age, a treasure trail for children, and a Spiritual Journey leaflet, which aims to get you to sit and pray. Well done! They also have an excellent noticeboard. The church was accessible through the north door, and there is a straightforward permanent ramp.

There was a huge amount to photo and enjoy in this church. The Romans mined lead in these hills, and the first illustration to use is the lead miner himself in the South Transept. Known as T’owd man he isn’t Roman, but he’s pretty old. He’s carrying his pick and his kibble (bucket), and was originally in Bonsall, before being moved here in the 1870s. There’s some other ancient stonework in this area.

The oldest piece of stonework is probably this stone lid in the North Aisle. It is dated between 700 and 900 AD, and is thought to be the lid of the tomb of Betti. In the mid-600s Wirksworth was part of the kingdom of Mercia under its pagan king Penda. We came across him as the enemy of Paulinus in Lincoln and murderer of Oswald. His son Peada married Elchfrida, daughter of King Oswui of Northumbria – and it was agreed she could continue to practise her Christian faith. In 653 she came south with four monks, Adda, Betti, Diuma and Cedd. Cedd ended up in Lastingham in Yorkshire (must visit there again), Diuma at Repton – http://www.northernvicar.co.uk/2017/03/04/repton-derbyshire-st-wystan/  – Adda doesn’t seem to appear on google, and Betti apparently founded the church here. It would be lovely to think this is Betti’s coffin lid. It was found two feet below the surface, with the carving downwards, when the pavement in front of the altar was being removed in 1820. It was over a stone-built vault containing a large human skeleton. These days they could have dated it, and probably worked out if it came from Up North.

At the top left you have Christ washing the disciples’ feet, and then the Crucifixion (note the lamb and the four symbols of the Evangelists). Apparently this lamb, as opposed to what the leaflet describes as ‘the lively Agnus Dei of later times’, was banned by the Council of Constantinople in 692 – does that help date the stone? The next scene is the Blessed Virgin Mary being borne out for burial, which apparently has the posh name of koimesis. St John leads carrying the sacred palm, the other apostles carry her body on a stretcher, and the High Priest who seized hold of the bier is being dragged underneath. The leaflet tells me this is the earliest known portrayal of this story in Western Art (and who am I to argue?). On the right of the top row we have the Presentation of Christ in the Temple (Luke 2). The Hand of God points down from above.

Apparently (according to the C5 Book of the Resurrection of Christ by Bartholomew the Apostle) Cain, Herod and Judas Iscariot are past redemption (and are seen burning in a brazier). Then we have the Ascension of Christ, the Annunciation, and Mission – Peter in a boat (signifying the church), Mary holding the Christ child, who is holding a scroll and pointing to Peter. The idea being that the word of God is transmitted to the Gentiles through Peter and the church – or you might think of Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise: “Have you got the scrolls?” “No, I always walk like this.”

These figures are in the North Transept, and this font is C13.

The church is huge. The work of the Early English period (1250-70) includes the bottom of the tower. The rest of the tower is later, from the Decorated period, then there’s various Perpendicular period, and then the Victorians did quite a lot of work. You can imagine what it would have been like before the Reformation, full of colour and incense.

Let’s start at the East end. We have altars, tiles, memorials and a wonderful chair.

There are various lovely monuments, and I’ve tried to work out which is which. I think this is the tomb chest of Anthony Lowe, who died in 1555. He was Lord of the Manor of Ashleyhay and Alderwasley, Gentleman of the Bed-chamber and Standard Bearer to Henry VII, Henry VIII, Edward VI and Mary. On the wall behind are the Royal Arms of Henry VIII.

In the North Choir Aisle we have two chest tombs. The left hand one is Ralph Gell who died in 1564. It is an alabaster tomb, and it shows Ralph with his first wife Godith Ashby and his second Emma Beresford. Note the long gown with square-cut sleeves, the circular caps of the women, and the dresses with bows. On the north side are three sons and five daughters, on the south five daughters and one son. Were all 14 his? The right hand one is his son Anthony who died in 1583. He was a lawyer in the Inner Temple in London, and founded the Free School and the Almhouses in Wirksworth.

On the north wall of the Sanctuary is a tablet to John Lowe of Alderwasley, who died in 1690. I can’t read the name on my second photo, and I can’t find out more about those commemorated in the brasses.

There are long memorials from both World Wars. You can imagine how many men marched away from this little town, and never came back.

There is a lot of Victorian glass – some by George Gilbert Scott, others by the School of Edward Burne Jones. Just enjoy the pictures – it includes Jesus raising Jairus’ daughter, the Resurrection, a window with Nativity and Resurrection, and the Good Shepherd.

There are two modern Te Deum windows, early 1960s. The sun was in the wrong place, and the small images are rather nice. I like swallows on telegraph wires, and how many bicycles are there on stained glass windows?

The final three photos give an idea of the size of this church. It was rather lovely to have it to ourselves. There is plenty to see, and I could have given you a lot more photos.


I walked down to the station – the Ecclesbourne Valley Railway – had an ice cream and sat in the sun – then decided I would catch the dmu down to Duffield rather than the bus. First class comfort, and a seat in the cab. A chance to chat to the driver, and to Scott from my congregation who is in training. A delay in getting the bus south from Duffield due to the influx of school kids, so someone else had to sing Evensong at Derby Cathedral.

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