A few months ago Alison White, now Bishop Alison of Hull, suggested I went to see Peter Sinclair, Vicar of Newbiggin by the Sea as a Spiritual Director. We have become good friends, and – as the day we met (Tuesday 25 August) was a gorgeous day – decided to have a walk down to have a look at his church. It stands on the promontory, parking next door, grid reference NZ317880.
This website has not been updated since 2012, but this one looks a little more current. On the front, in front of the church, is Newbiggin Maritime Centre – website – which looks worth a visit. There is an art trail, and a selection of shops and cafes, but the beach was empty. The town was an important maritime centre by the C14, called upon to aid Edward III in his campaign against the Scots, and by the Middle Ages was the third most important port for the export of grain (after London and Hull). Tourism was important by Victorian times, although the railway was not opened until 1872. It closed in 1964. Details and pictures are here. A pit opened in 1908 and closed in 1967. More recently £10 million has been spent bringing in sand, and a lot of effort has been put into regeneration and tourism. The work continues – it still feels a town that has some way to go.
The church website is up to date. It also tells us that the church is open Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday afternoons in the summer. (I did suggest to Peter the Vicar that it might be an idea if the opening times were posted by the church door). They have a nice new path, wheelchair accessible, up to the church, nice new gates and I like the little lights. Inside they have some excellent guidebooks – including one for children, and a short guide for me. They also have some excellent pull-up display panels – very well done.
The tower dates to the beginning of the C14. Soon after construction the interior was made more defensive – perhaps it offered protection for the priest and people when the Scots arrived. There is a tradition that there was a Saxon church on this site, and the dramatic headland site is of the type favoured by Celtic missionaries. The earliest written record is from 1195 and records that in 1174 the “capella … de Newebigginge” is granted to the monastery of St Albans – I wonder if anyone from St Albans travelled north to see what they had got!
In the C13 and C14 the church was expanded giving it a long nave with aisles, transepts, chancel and tower. Later border wars meant that aisles and transepts were lost. In 1723 Archdeacon Sharp noted “It hath formerly been a large church, consisting of three aisles, but now nothing remains but the body of the middle aisle, the arches between the pillars on both sides being walled up, and the outward walls or boundaries of the building on both sides quite taken away. The walls on the old chancel, which hath been a spacious one, are yet standing without roof, and built out of the present chapel, the arch between the body and the chancel being walled up.” The church continued to fall into disrepair.
Significant restoration work started in 1840, and a new north aisle was added in 1914 as the population of the town increased. On 19 March 1921 a sea mine, which had been washed ashore and was being deactivated, exploded. This resulted in damage that made the church almost unusable, so restoration continued. That makes it sound simple, but can you imagine how it must have been for those who had got through a War, worked on their church – and then had to start all over again. More work has been done into the C21.
Walking around the church there are lots of medieval cross slabs, many dating to the late C12 or early C13. Some were reused in the C19 with inscriptions being added. There are also lots of lovely faces – the children’s guide has nine of them for you to find, and suggests you might like to find the scissors and keys on a cross slab for a lady, a sword for a nobleman or a knight, a chalice for a priest.
At the back is a railed off area (which I failed to photo) – though you can see above that the railings go in the middle of a cross slab. Peter has plans to make this into a separate room with proper kitchen etc., which would be good. They have several lovely model boats, in preparation for the St Bartholomew Fayre weekend over the bank holiday – again, not photographed as the sun was shining in behind them. There are various things on in the town. The church used to have a big flower festival, but more recently has had to come up with a new idea – hence a festival of the sea. Boats, nets, and lots of nautical things – says the man whose idea of nautical is a sick bag on the Isle of Man ferry.
The War Memorial chapel at the eastern end of the north aisle commemorates the people of the town who died in both World Wars. There are two framed rolls of honour, and above them is a carving of the Risen Christ by J.R. Murray McCheyne, M.A.D.A., F.R.B.S. who was Senior Lecturer and Master of Sculpture at the University of Newcastle. That is a sign of a past age – can you imagine any University lecturer today having the title of “Master of Sculpture”? There is information about him at this website – I would like to go and see the Roman head which he sculpted, now in the wall of Wallsend library. The figure of Christ is carved from Austrian (sorry, the original version of this post said “Australian” … not much difference!) straight grained oak and the cross from English oak.
The pulpit is interesting, with the figures of Northern saints – but nothing in the guidebook to tell me who designed and made it. Peter is wondering if they can be better lit. The bottom picture is the stag head linked with St Aidan – he is supposed to have saved a stag from a pack of hounds by making it invisible. I am currently reading “Oswald: return of the King” by Edoardo Albert, the second of his trilogy “The Northumbrian Thrones”. It is a very enjoyable book – with a lot about the relationship between Aidan and Oswald. Highly recommended. More details at the author’s website.
The chancel, dating from the C19, leads to the altar – and the church wouldn’t look right with a nave altar. But now there is no choir, there is a gap – and the woodwork in the chancel is not as well fitted as elsewhere. Peter and I discussed what could be done – always good to have “a cunning plan”.
The east window is lovely – much of the inner frame dates to the medieval period, while the C20 window it holds was designed by Stanley Murray Scott. I put his name in google and was directed to the website of St Bartholomew’s church Newbiggin … – this is the window page. The central light contains the image of Christ, flanked by the four Archangels. You can also see the emblems of the Evangelists, and coal and fish (remembering the history of this seaside town). The shield with three knives is the symbol of St Batholomew.
There must be a PhD in clergy and their history – imagine serving the same parish for 42 years, that is six times as long as I’ve been at Ponteland. I wonder who the happy trinity of clergy are? I bet they were a bundle of laughs.
Outside is an interesting collection of headstones – including this one to Pilot Redford, who was killed with three other pilots in January 1805. We forgot how dangerous the sea can be. This church has stood as a beacon on the shore through so many centuries – imagine the changes that it has seen; shipping, mining and tourism.
On the main street stands the Church Centre. I failed to photo the outside, but they use one of the halls inside for services. They also have refreshments every Saturday, with books, jumble and lots of other things on sale. Many special events – the church and the centre playing a very large role in the town. Opposite the centre, across a side road, is an old pub which is shortly to be demolished. A new library is planned to be built here, which will lead to challenges for the Centre (both physically and in the work they do). I hope, and believe, they have the energy to do it.
There are other things worth recording in this town. The most famous thing is probably “Couple” by Sean Henry, the UK’s first permanent offshore sculpture, erected in 2007. “The tapered pier is an important element of the work, elevating the figures above the horizon from most viewpoints while creating windows onto the sea and sky between the supporting legs. It grounds the work to the earth, allowing the figures a moment in time that highlights the coupling of land and sea that is occurring in Newbiggin Bay. The two figures look out – as we all often do when at the coast – at the ever changing seascape. They mark man’s presence at the edge of the land and beyond it.” I did not swim out to it to photo the people; very sensibly they reproduced them on the beach.
The lifeboat station dates back to 1851, and was originally provided by the Duke of Northumberland after a fishing disaster in which ten men lost their lives. It is the oldest operational station in the UK, and houses a B Class Atlantic 85 named Richard Wake Burdon. Lots of information here. If you want to know about telegraph cables read this fascinating website.
It had been a good morning. We walked past the ice cream parlour – please note, walked past – must come back when I’m not trying to lose weight.