Northumberland has a rich Christian heritage stretching back over 1,300 years – here the Lindisfarne Gospels were made, here St Cuthbert and St Aidan trod the hills and founded communities, here so many historic churches still stand strong with stories in their stones, craftsmanship and windows. Many are open daily and visitors are welcome - so do try the door and take a look inside!
Here are a few suggestions to whet your appetite for exploring...
Following in the footsteps of Cuthbert from Holy Island, you could take a walk to St Cuthbert’s Cave, then travel on to visit the rather grand St Cuthbert’s Church, Norham, which has local heritage displays. Pick up (or download) a copy of the Footsteps of the Saints trail for more ideas in this area. Keen walkers can follow the 62 mile St Cuthbert’s Way – worth doing even a short section of this to enjoy the deep tranquility of Northumberland’s countryside.
Further west in deeply rural Redesdale there are more mediaeval St Cuthbert’s Churches in Bellingham, Corsenside and Elsdon - each with its own special charm, and a local churches leaflet offers many more to explore.
Before Cuthbert, Aidan had already established the monastery on Lindisfarne, also a monastic community at Bamburgh. St Aidan’s Church, Bamburgh is worth a visit for its atmospheric interior, dramatic windows and heritage interest as well as its memorials to Victorian heroine Grace Darling. Archaeologists are still working around Bamburgh Castle to uncover secrets of this ‘golden age’.
The Anglo-Saxon site of Ad Gefrin (roadside monument) lies within the shadow of the once sacred hilltop of Yeavering Bell. Over a period of 36 days in AD 627, Bishop Paulinus baptized the local community in the River Glen. The nearby Church of St Gregory the Great, Kirknewton is noted for its mediaeval features, including an ancient stone carving of the Adoration of the Magi, apparently wearing kilts! Victorian women’s rights pioneer Josephine Butler (1828-1906) is also buried here. This is part of the Glendale Churches Heritage Trail, available from Wooler TIC, and Hillfort Heritage Trail cards are also available locally.
It was probably the Romans who first brought Christianity into the region – evidence of this has been found at Vindolanda. Roman stones were re-used in the building of many churches in this area - there’s a complete Roman arch inside St Andrew's Church, Corbridge and more Roman evidence at Hexham Abbey. St Wilfred established a Saxon Church in Hexham in the 7th Century – there’s much to see here, including the Bishops seat (or Frith-stool) and the Saxon crypt.
Oswald, saint and king, set up a cross and prayed before triumphing at the Battle of Heavenfield (near Chollerford). Here the tiny St Oswald’s Church, high on the ridge followed by Hadrian’s Wall, is the starting point for the 97 mile St Oswald’s Way. This leads back to Holy Island via Warkworth on the coast. St Lawrence’s Church, Warkworth is a splendid mediaeval church with Saxon foundations and a remarkable vaulted chancel. There’s a pleasant riverside walk from here towards Warkworth Hermitage (EH) nearby.
Inland from here, St Michael’s Church, Alnwick is one of the architectural gems of Northumberland, with many features of historical interest, and Alnwick’s Inspired Heritage is a town trail covering Catholic, Methodist and other churches you can pick up locally (or download).
St Paul’s Church, Branxton stands on the edge of Flodden Battlefield (1513), and offers information as well as a tranquil place of contemplation. The church is one of 12 sites in ‘Flodden 1513’, Britain’s first cross-border ecomuseum.
There are many more delightful historic churches open to visit across Northumberland, including Berwick, Bywell Chillingham, Edlingham, Rothbury, Brinkburn Priory (English Heritage), Morpeth, Ovingham, and Blanchland, to name just a few...
Andrew Duff, September 2012