It’s hard to beat soaking up the atmosphere of an elegant historic house, or imagining life being restored to the grim ruins of a once-mighty castle. But there’s also a special kind of magic getting off the well-beaten tourist track to explore some less obvious aspect of our past, an attraction that isn’t widely advertised, or which even isn’t that easy to find. So let’s take a look at Ninekirks – or, more properly, St Ninian’s Church in, or near, Brougham, Cumbria.
Ninekirks is accessible only on foot, along a country track to a bend in the River Eamont, where the church nestles in the middle of a field inside a walled enclosure. It is a beautiful and evocative spot. The present church was built on the site of an earlier one in 1660 by the redoubtable Lady Anne Clifford and is a rare example of a 17th century country church. The completion date, 1660, is set into the plaster over the plain table altar; most of the fittings, including the oak box pews, date from this time. However, this was a medieval site, in its early days a Celtic monastic settlement, by tradition founded by St Ninian at the end of the 4th century. Before then, the Romans were here too, though their presence is hidden deeper in the shadows. A village grew from the monastery, but had been abandoned (or moved closer to modern Brougham) by the end of the 13th century. Now, Anne Clifford’s 17th century church is the only visible memorial to the people that once lived there.
The visit to Ninekirks began by needing to locate a small car park on the north side of the A66, just east of Penrith and more or less opposite Whinfell Park. The advice was that it is easy to miss, and it was – particularly with a 32-ton truck thundering up your rear (so to speak). One of life’s imponderable questions, along with why don’t sheep shrink in the rain, is why are there so many bad truck drivers? Anyway, second time round, the car successfully negotiated itself off the carriageway and down into a small secluded semi-tarmacked area. There was a promising sign pointing to ‘Historic Church’. I parked up, changed into my boots and set off along the side of a field, the last scent of summer heat wafting up from the vegetation. It struck me, not for the first time, how green north-west England can be. After awhile, the path curved away from the busy road and dipped to become something of a holloway. The hum of traffic gradually receded and the only sounds were the breeze blowing through the trees overhead and the occasional distant bleat of a lamb. No birdsong. With occasional glimpses of the flowing Eamont to the left, and a few gates to clamber over, after about a mile the path led to a bank, at the bottom of which stood a very elderly, wooden, five-bar gate, much worse for wear. The church beckoned across a sheep-strewn field from inside its old stone pen. As I got there, a sense of the sheer age of the place was almost overwhelming, despite my brain telling me that, actually, the church wasn’t that ancient. It was a very curious sensation, rarely felt. This might be one of those places which the tides of history have largely by-passed, washed only infrequently by the waves of exceptional events.
The path to the church was discernable, but hardly well-used. Suddenly, I felt quite lonely. To the right of the porch is a modern replica of a Celtic cross, commemorating two soldiers of the First World War, Johnston, Gh and Slee, J. The base of the cross is evidently much older – medieval, I found out later. In one corner of the churchyard is a ruined building – 18th century, I reckon. This turns out to be the remains of the stable for the parson’s horse and trap.
Inside the church, time seems to have stood still for 350 years: the only thing wanting is a congregation dressed for the second half of the 17th century. It is surely much as Anne Clifford left it once she’d signed the builders off. What she’d built on was probably a Norman church. There was certainly one on the site in 1393, when it was a chapel-of-ease for St Wilfred’s chapel in Brougham – also rebuilt by the industrious Lady Clifford, incidentally. In any event, by her time St Ninian’s had become dilapidated and derelict. She has left us a very simple oblong one-room church, which still has some relics of the older building. In front of the altar are impressive, and interesting, post-Reformation brasses of the de Brougham family. And, nearby, under a heavy wooden trap door, is a medieval grave slab which clearly shows a sword and is believed to commemorate father and son Odard and Gilbert de Burgham. This would set it in the 12th or early 13th century. Underneath the oak altar table is a pre-Reformation altar slab, which I think I read somewhere was dug up from the churchyard. The parish chest is probably medieval too. There is some intriguing Jacobean carving and I have never seen canopied box pews quite like these; they even have coat pegs in them, so the gentry have somewhere to hang their cloaks.
All the while I’m there, I’m thinking that not only is this unpretentious and rather agreeable little church on top of another much older one, but outside and round about are the buried remains of St Ninian’s pre-Conquest monastic site as well as the deserted medieval village of Brougham. Both sites have been identified from aerial photographs. The monastery lay to the east of the church and is believed to be early medieval Irish. In other words, it was a Celtic community at the very dawn of Christianity in Britain. A hoard of 23 Roman coins was uncovered during the digging of a grave in the churchyard in 1914 and these are said to have been left there between 276 and 286 AD – more than 100 years before Roman rule in Britain came to an end. It is not clear where the tradition of the monastery being founded by Ninian comes from. Ninian is reputed to have landed on the Isle of Whithorn, in Dumfries and Galloway, in 397AD where he established a mission to convert the pagan southern Picts. He is meant to have been a native Briton, but little is known about him – and none of it undisputed fact. Did he establish a community here before his better-known foray into Pictland, or was this a later off-shoot? We’ll probably never know. Just to add to the mystery, Historic England suggests that the church was once dedicated to St Wilfred. Oh – and, apparently, an 8th century ‘Hiberno-Saxon’ (Irish-Saxon) decorated gilt cup was found there in 1846, together with a number of skeletons (which shouldn’t surprise anyone). But it’s not clear what happened to the cup, or the bones.
There is a tradition that Ninian lived for awhile as a hermit in nearby caves; people like him did things like that in those days. Indeed, there is a ‘Giant’s Cave’ marked on the modern OS map, on the northern bank of the Eamont. I wondered about having a look at that when I was there, but time was short, it was on the opposite bank and I should probably have fallen in. It was only afterwards when researching this article that I learned that the local name for this cave, or caves, is Isis Parlis. It seems this may be a very old name indeed and nothing whatever to do with an Egyptian goddess, but ancient Celtic in origin, meaning something like ‘the fairies’ cups’. Good luck to anyone who wants to delve further, but I cannot resist re-telling one of the legends associated with Isis Parlis, which you will find on the amazing Old Cumbria Gazetteer website. It is told in a guidebook of 1787, ‘A Survey of the Lakes of Cumberland, Westmorland, and Lancashire’, written by a James Clarke:
“Dr Burn tells us, upon the authority of Mr Sandford’s manuscript history, that Sir Hugh Caesario had an hermitage in that neighbourhood called Sir Hugh’s Parlour: of this he, Mr Sandford, was informed by a Mr Page, Schoolmaster at Penrith from the year 1581 to 1591; and this intelligence Mr Page had from a stranger, who came so early as that period to visit the antiquities and curiosities of that country…
… an old tradition and song, which informs us that one Torquin, a man of gigantic stature, but addicted to all kinds of rapine and brutality, lived in a cave in this neighbourhood, on the banks of the river Emont. This den, which yet retains the name of the Giant’s Cave, is about two miles from Penrith, and is, on some account, (the foundation of which is now forgotten,) much resorted to on the third Sunday in May by the country people, who carry with them tea, liquors, &c. and there make merry. It consists of several caverns in the rocks, the road to which leads down a frightful precipice, quite to the water’s edge: this makes many decline the journey, but when down, the road is more tolerable. Many strange and incredible stories are told of this cave; one, which seems not so absurd as the rest, and to have had some real foundation is as follows:
Torquin, or Torquinas, (as some call him,) having stolen several virgins, conveyed them to this dismal mansion, where he kept them close prisoners. One of them, however, found means to escape along the side of the rock: in her road she was obliged to step over a hideous gap a yard and a half wide; a rugged, craggy rock over-hanging her head, so as scarcely to allow room to stand upright, and a perpendicular descent of 48 feet underneath: the sides of the rock are such as could afford no hold to her hand, and the boiling and rapidity of the impetuous torrent which roars beneath, are enough to confuse the calmest and most intrepid. Notwithstanding these horrors and difficulties, she preserved and effected her escape, and to this day the place has retained the name of the Maiden’s Step.
Tradition further says, that the ravages of this Torquin coming to the ears of King Arthur, he sent Sir Lancelot du Lake to bring him to Court: Torquin refusing, a battle ensued, in which Torquin fell, and was buried in Penrith church-yard, and these pillars erected at his head and feet [Giant’s Grave].
There is indeed a giant’s grave in the churchyard of St. Andrew’s, Penrith.
In any event, I’m putting Ninekirks on my list of places to revisit. Looking at the OS map, there’s an alternative path from the east, via 16th century Hornby Hall (whose adjoining fields I gather hosted a satellite RAF station during WW2). Deep in thought on the way back to the car, I crested a hillock to be confronted by what I believe was a roe doe. In truth, I’m not sure exactly what it was – but it was a little deer. Hard to tell which of us was more surprised, but I certainly wasn’t the one that chose to leap over a nearby fence.
Finally, we all want to know why it’s called Ninekirks, don’t we? The obvious possibility is that the name is derived from ‘Ninian’s Kirk (church). However, a more attractive explanation is that witches dancing round it made it fall down and, having done this eight times, they got bored.
Ninekirks is in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust and, though it is redundant, services are still occasionally held in it.