Screen Shots

And so ignorant myopia of my teenage self is corrected – the elements of Hexham Abbey which were of no interest to me then but which entranced me on my recent visit to the church. I wasn’t alone either, for on my arrival one of the women running the gift shop asked if I was there to meet the photography group, and no sooner had I entered that I came upon a group wielding what seemed to be the largest number of tripods I’d ever encountered in one place! Led by a local professional they soon disappeared, presumably to scout the exterior, giving me the freedom to explore and frame my shots without external influence.

My recent visit to Manchester Cathedral converted me to the art of the carpenter, and it was the wooden elements in Hexham that really captivated me (and later the other photographers).  Like Manchester the choir is separated from the nave by a wooden screen which I assumed to be a rood screen but apparently is some different; a pulpitum, which not only kept the canons apart from the hoi-polloi but proved a barrier against draughts too!  So many English churches, that were colourfully decorated in medieval times fell victim to the Reformation or to the later Victorian restoration movement.  Hexham gives some hint of what might have been, though the artwork was restored in the 20th century, and the structure has seen a number of alterations in its lifetime such as the removal of the wooden staircases used by readers and preachers, now replaced by the metal spiral.

Elsewhere there are other wooden treats; an older screen featuring pained panels depicting the “Dance of Death”, a towering font cover, even the doors that greet your arrival.  It’s not all wood that impresses of course, but Hexham seems to be a real treasury of the material.

Older than all of these are the triptych of panels in the tiny wooden chapel known as the Ogle Chantry, erected to pray for the soul of Northumbrian nobleman Sir Robert Ogle in the early 1400’s.

For the photographers present that day (what is the collective noun for us?) there seemed to be one feature that proved more attractive than any other.  The panelled pulpit.





Memory and Misnomer

When I was a boy I sang in a church choir to a fairly high standard, and as part of that I attended residential training courses during the school holidays each summer, usually in Corbridge. We’d practice all day, and then walk half a mile to the church of St Andrew (a treasure in itself with Saxon and Roman elements) to sing evensong. Did we make that trip in full robes? I can’t remember but it would have been quite a sight if we did!

Sundays were different though. A short bus ride to Newcastle to sing for the morning communion, and then to Hexham in the evening to sing in the “Abbey”.

It’s a beautiful church, though to a teenage boy it’s the unusual features that stand out.  Consequently the medieval screens had faded from memory, as had the remnants of older constructions incorporated into the walls and floor that were a complete surprise to me when I recently revisited.  (You’ll have to wait for my next post to see the screen.)  The Roman tomb stone stayed with me (the Roman army were always a schoolboy favourite) as did two features that I’d never seen in any other cathedral.

The first was a stone staircase leading up to a gallery overlooking the south transept.  This flight of 35 steps is known as The Night Stair and dates back to the 13th century when it was used to allow the monks direct access to the church from their dormitories on the first floor of an adjoining building.  I’m pretty sure we didn’t use those steps in my singing days but again I could be wrong, though the likelihood of 30-40 teenage boys making it down steps worn by 800 years of traffic without disaster seems slim!

The other feature which I considered unique to the building (though now know otherwise) was described as “The Bishop’s Throne” and is a stone seat fixed in the floor of the choir.  Nowadays the item is referred to as a “Frith Stool”, though it seems neither throne-like or stool-like.  It seems likely that it was made at Wilfrid’s request when he founded the original abbey as he would have seen similar items on his travels in Merovingian Gaul in the 7th century, so in this respect it was possessed by a Bishop.  As his church was made from Roman stone transported from the nearby Roman fort at Corbridge, it is probably that his “throne” originated here too, though it was carved and decorated by the Anglo-Saxons.

Anglo Saxon cappuccino
Anglo Saxon cappuccino

When the Normans arrived and reconsecrated the site, they treated the stone chair with great respect and installed it in their priory where they referred to it as a Frith Stool, effectively a seat where one could claim sanctuary and the church’s protection, similar to famous Sanctuary Knocker at the door of Durham Cathedral.

The Victorian’s were less careful with the seat, and in their expansion of the church in the 19th century it was broken into pieces and roughly patched up.  When the new nave was complete the whole building was re-floored in the early 20th century at which point some remains from the original 7th century building were discovered.  The “stool” was then cemented into the floor at was assumed to the its original position based on the assumed layout of the Saxon church.  Those remains are now believed to be part of a separate structure to the original church, meaning that the siting of the chair is incorrect.  Thankfully the present church officials have no intention of subjecting this ancient stonework to any further risks.

Q. When is an Abbey not an Abbey?

No, not a return to Finchale, but a continuation of my Hexham visit.  Hexham Abbey is the town’s crown jewel, though technically it’s a misnomer.  An Abbey was a monastery with an Abbot or Abbess at its head, whereas when the monks were led by a Prior then the term Priory should be used.  Of the two, a priory is seen as slightly inferior, though I don’t know why.

To add to the confusion, there is an Abbey there, but the Priory is on top of it.  Let me explain.

Back in the 7th Century there was no England as we now know it, instead the area was comprised of a number of smaller Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.  Northumbria was one of these, and as I have suggested in previous posts was arguably the cultural capital of Europe at this point thanks to the Northumbrian saints Cuthbert and Bede.

Let’s introduce another saint into the equation.


Audrey/Etheldreda/Æthelthryth (according to how simplified you want her name) was a princess in the kingdom of East Anglia who in a piece of political manoeuvring was married to the Northumbrian King.  (We don’t need to go into his details at this point)  Whilst queen she granted Wilfrid, Bishop of York, land to build an Abbey in Hexham in 674.  (On the king’s death Æthelthryth retired to Ely, though the monasteries she founded there were destroyed by vikings before the construction of the present cathedral).  That Benedictine Abbey was razed to the ground (yes, those vikings again) two hundred years later, but of course “to the ground” leaves the subterranean untouched.  The crypt remains preserved and can be accessed down a flight of steep stone steps from the nave of the present church.

Here are a number of small chambers, all constructed from stone “borrowed” from Roman sites nearby, including one with an inscription in which reference to Emperor Geta has been “redacted”, an act carried out under orders from his brother Caracalla who had murdered him.

But I digress.  Enter the Normans who build an Augustinian Priory on this site in the 12th century, and much of the present church dates back to that period, though as you can see there is a fairly visible join where the present nave was built at the turn of the 20th Century.

If you have read any of my previous posts about monastic buildings you’ll know what became of the monastery during the rein of Henry VIII, however a stroll around the perimeter of the building still reveals a number of features from that complex, as well as some more recent, but nonetheless historic tombstone designs.

But still I’m teasing you, because the best of the Priory known as an Abbey is within those walls.

Keeping You Waiting

Before I reach the “big reveal” about Hexham, I thought I might string you along with a couple of posts about other places in town, places that will take us a little further back in history than the Georgian and Victorian buildings that dominated my previous post.  Two of these are pretty obvious targets so let’s begin with the third.

Like me, most visitors will park in the very confusing Wentworth car park next to the town’s leisure centre where if you park in a bay painted with a red outline you must display a disk which will allow you a limited amount of free parking.  Find a blue bay, and the same disk allows you to park for a little longer.  Get there early enough and you may find a white bay and be able to park disk and payment free without limit!  Whatever your colour preference if you then start up Wentworth Place you’ll pass a whitewashed building on your right.  Its bright decor might fool you into overlooking its antiquity, but this is the 17th century Old Grammar School, though there may be earlier masonry reused in its construction.

A few years ago it was rumoured to be becoming a hotel, but that doesn’t seem to have taken place and it was marketed as a private dwelling more recently.

Near to the school building is a place where you wouldn’t have wished to dwell.  Built in 1330 this plain rectangular block is an imposing sight even if not very visually stimulating.  The Archbishop of York ordered its construction and it is the Old Gaol.  It now houses some reconstructions of medieval prison life, though the original interior is largely lost because the interior was converted into offices in the 19th century… for use by lawyers!

Naturally you wouldn’t want to keep the residents of this structure too close so it is positioned outside the old town walls which incorporated our next building, sitting astride one of the main gateways into the town.  This is Moot Hall, a term from Anglo-Saxon referring to a place where elders would meet to make decisions; an early council.  Though there was an earlier hall here that was built at a similar time to the prison, the current structure is though to date from around the early 15th century.

Through the gateway beneath the hall you enter the town’s market square, where a covered 18th Century market building called The Shambles awaits.  This being market day however it was barely visible, though the shot below reveals a little of it as well as our ultimate objective.

For now though, let’s just enjoy another angle on the Grammar School.

Hexham Old Grammar School (17th C)

It’s been a while…

since I last spent much time in Hexham, so time that I corrected that omission. Other than a fleeting visit to a hotel there to take part in a knockout quiz some time in the 90’s I hadn’t been since my teenage years.

And so for the uninitiated let me give you a flavour of Hexham. It is a town with a long history, some unusual place names, winding streets and alleys, an architectural gem and was for many years the seat of that political rarity, a Liberal MP (Alan Beith). It’s a Northumbrian market town and fairly affluent, and like Berwick, was a regular participant in the wars between England and Scotland.

Perhaps it’s unsurprising that the town has a long military history evidenced by the commemoration of contrasting conflicts as experienced by Roman invader, a casualty of the Boer War, and the Northumberland Fusiliers.

It’s not the martial that brought me here though, it was the buildings, and lets begin with one of those strange place names; Priestpopple.  On this road are old hotels, imposing banks, a poet’s birthplace, and the remnants of more prosaic enterprises, each with a historic story to tell no doubt.

One of the banks in particular caught my eye.  The affluence of the banking industry was once displayed not in the size of the bonuses they awarded their senior figures, but in the buildings where they plied their trade.  Buildings that personified stability and status, but which had become white elephants by the end of the 20th century as the nature of banking changed.  Barclays and Lloyds still maintain such structures on Priestpopple, but it is the HSBC building that takes the prize for me.  A triangular “island”   built in the late 19th century it displays a style which would not have been out of place 300 years earlier.  Much of the Renaissance decoration seems to have been designed to frame signage which is no longer there, but at one end a red sandstone frieze is unmistakeable evidence that this is a bank, for amongst the reclining putti the decoration incorporates coinage designs of its day.

Elsewhere in the town there are plenty of other examples of buildings that evoke earlier times some of which will feature in future posts here, but of them all my favourite had to be The Grapes (check out the ornate gable), and because I was driving I didn’t even venture in!