Perhaps I was suffering from a degree of geographic confusion arising from the sea being to my west rather than my beloved east coast, though more likely it was the mental clouding arising from having been made redundant from my training job less than an hour previously, but in either event my usual sense of direction deserted me in Heysham and I walked as shown here.
Perhaps in some way though I was following a historic precedent.
According to some stories, a teenage boy was kidnapped by pirates from his home in Ravenglass, Cumbria at some point in the 5th century. He was sold into slavery in Ireland. After a few years he escaped and boarded a boat bound for France which was blown off course with the result that he came ashore back in England. If as some believe he landed in Heysham, then he was only 50km or so from his birthplace.
Buildings on the site I was visiting give credence to this being his landing spot, and the legends relating to the origins of a place in Cumbria called Aspatria support his return. The young man was St Patrick. (Or one of them as some scholars believe that tales of two different preachers have become conflated.)
Of course all of this took place in the period known pejoratively as “The Dark Ages” where we have few written records to draw upon. What supports this story is that this small settlement on Morecambe Bay has long religious significance.
Standing on a small headland are the remains of a tiny chapel (St Patrick’s Chapel) that dates back to the 8th century, though evidence suggests it had earlier wooden predecessors. It is too small to have been a place of worship and so preaching is likely to have taken place outside.
Why the building then? Perhaps it was there to house something of importance? Research has found lots of burials on the site including some within the chapel itself, but it is the graves outside that are most interesting. Among them are two examples (a group of 6 and a separate pair) of graves carved into the solid rock. Sockets at the end of each suggest that large markers were inserted at the head of these graves, so it’s thought that these were perhaps resting places for important individuals (or their bones at least). Like the reliquaries that still draw pilgrims to many catholic churches, this was probably a place to get close to the truly holy.
Of course if you’re attracting a lot of visitors sooner or later you want a real church, and just below the chapel sits an unmistakably Anglo-Saxon church. St Peter’s Heysham. Consecrated in 967 AD, it too follows earlier buildings, and it has changed and developed over the centuries as evidenced by the mismatched window and door styles, and the fact that it is no longer a tall narrow structure.
More interesting graves are in the churchyard, though the most interesting of all was denied to me. A viking style hogback grave marker was moved inside the church for its protection in 1977. As it was nearly dusk the church was securely locked, so I was unable to photograph this record of Norse pagan imagery found in an English christian churchyard, though there are images online.
Still in the dark about my navigational error I began to retrace my steps through the gorse, brambles and nettles along the cliff tops. At least I could be sure there would be no snakes!
Interesting video featuring Heysham in the 1970’s (about 6 mins in – though I enjoyed the whole clip)