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Heysham (pronounced ‘hee-shum’, not ‘hay-sham’) sits on Lancashire’s coast at the southern end of Morecambe Bay. I knew of Heysham as a ferry port, offering services to the Isle of Man and Ireland, as well as home to the highly attractive nuclear power station and, frankly, had no burning desire to visit either. But in fact the core of the old village of Heysham is a peach and, beyond it, on a sandstone headland just above the parish church of St Peter’s Heysham, stands the ancient ruin of St Patrick’s Chapel, as well as some very curious graves.
This is the site of a rare early Christian chapel. It is odd to think of our ancestors worshipping in this windswept spot, oh such a very long time ago. The place is undeniably evocative, notwithstanding the aesthetic blemish of the power station looming to the south. Power stations and car ferries are real newcomers. But it is relatively easy to shut these things out, even to dismiss the numerous dog-walkers, and try to imagine what it must have been like before civilisation arrived. For some reason, I had an almost overpowering vision of a Viking longship pulled up on the sand of Half Moon Bay, below the chapel. It lay at a slight angle, oars shipped, sail neatly furled, the painted dragon prow staring and grinning lopsidedly. Men were gathering driftwood for a fire on the beach; others explored, stretching, scratching, laughing and calling to one another. Somebody sang. Guards, several wearing chain-mail, stood watchfully on the low cliffs. A time-memory, perhaps, somehow recorded and played back; or just my over-active imagination.
Curiously enough, in 2019 a sculpture by Anna Gillespie called, simply, ‘Ship’ has appeared on the scrubby grassland overlooking the beach. It’s somewhat smaller and less seaworthy than the one I saw, but attractive and a nice nod to local heritage, I think.
The Norse raiders and Irish pirates that once plied the sea routes in these parts would probably not have been friends to any Christians. St Patrick was, they say, captured and taken from Britain to Ireland by pirates. There is a local tradition that he established a chapel on the headland at Heysham sometime in the 5th century, after being shipwrecked nearby. If he did, it would probably have been built in wood. Our sandstone ruins are later than that – 8th or 9th century – roughly 27’ long x 9’ wide and with a fine, decorated, Anglo-Saxon doorway. Beneath them are the buried remains of an earlier, even smaller, chapel which was rendered, inside and out, with decorated plasterwork – it sounds as though it was an elaborate, important, place. Early Christian chapels, usually simple, one-roomed, buildings, could be associated with a particular person, or saint, and often became places of pilgrimage or veneration. Is that what happened here?
Just outside the chapel to the west is a group of six rock-cut graves, by which I mean they are actually hewn out of the bedrock. Four are shaped to take bodies, two are rectangular. They are on an east-west orientation, so likely to be Christian, and have sockets cut into the rock at the heads, possibly to take wooden head crosses. They were once protected, at least partly, by a wall. These days, they are mostly filled with sea and rain water. So far as I am aware, Heysham’s Stone Graves are unique in Britain. They were carved before the Norman Conquest and possibly date from 10th century.
There are two more rock-cut graves south east of the chapel, though these are not quite on an east-west alignment. Pre-Christian, or poor workmanship? Someone went to a lot of trouble to fashion Heysham’s rock graves. Some have assumed that they were actually burial places, possibly for high-status corpses. But, they are all are far too narrow, and shallow, for average sized bodies to be interred in them in a normal manner and it is thought likely that they contained disarticulated bones, rather than complete people or skeletons. It has further been speculated that they were a type reliquary, holding the remains of saints.
Incidentally, Heysham’s Stone Graves feature on the cover of The Best of Black Sabbath, a double CD unofficial compilation released in 2000. Put that in your pub quiz!
The remains of about 80 burials, men, women and children, have been found in three cemeteries adjacent to the chapel, mainly to the south. Some bodies had stone-lined tombs, some may have had coffins, some were placed in crevices in the bed-rock. The central and larger of the three cemeteries once had a wall round it. One particularly interesting burial was of a woman, wrapped in a fine shroud; in her grave was a bone comb of an Anglo-Scandinavian type from around the 10th century. One grave contained a large stone-carved bird’s head, which has been dated to the late 7th/early 8th centuries. There were ten burials in the chapel itself and more outside, these dating from 10th – 12th centuries.
Who were the people laid to rest close by St Patrick’s? Locals? Travellers or pilgrims, perhaps? In any event, it seems to have been a relatively busy place, a millennium or so ago. It declined, apparently, from the 12th century onward because – it is speculated – people were making greater use of the neighbouring parish church of St Peter’s. This occupies its own charming spot, overlooking Morecambe Bay, and you can imagine that a window seat might make even the most boring sermon tolerable. Indeed, St Peter’s Heysham possesses particular features of its own, not least a hogback stone – a distinctive form of Anglo-Scandinavian burial marker. But what puzzles me is that the church is said to date from 7th century – probably contemporary with, or perhaps earlier than, St Patrick’s Chapel. So why did the good people of Heysham need so much spiritual support, spread across two adjacent sites? What was going on? Whilst the church was evidently for the benefit of the parish, perhaps the chapel had more limited, private, use. Rival worshippers? Or was Heysham some kind of religious centre in pre-Conquest Britain?
Maybe, if the rock graves of Heysham held the remains of saints they were the chapel’s raison d’être, and a focus of pilgrimage.