Sunday, 31 January 2016

In Haydon Old Church: an ancient simplicity and holiness

This afternoon we wrapped up warmly here in our village of Haydon Bridge and went up to the Old Church for a service to mark Candlemas. 

Let me explain. As you'd expect from its name, Haydon Bridge sits snugly in the valley astride the South Tyne River which, with its fine eighteenth century bridge, give this pleasant place much of its character. (If you've read this blog before, you'll know that the river can be capricious: the village was badly hit by the floods caused by Storm Desmond in December, said to be the worst since 1771 when the old bridge was swept away.) 

However, the medieval village of Haydon was not down here, but on the ridge that rises north of the river and culminates in the long serrated line of the dolerite Whin Sill that carries Hadrian's Wall. Here, it is thought, the monks of Lindisfarne came in Saxon times bearing the body of St Cuthbert on their long journey around the north before they finally found their home in Durham. As in many other places, a little church was built here to commemorate Cuthbert and in time, a village gathered round it. 

Over the centuries, the village gradually migrated downhill and established itself in a more sheltered location around a strategic crossing point of the Tyne. A new church was built at the end of the eighteenth century near the bridge, also dedicated to St Cuthbert. The nave of the Old Church was demolished in order to provide building stone for it. But the medieval chancel was spared, and this survives on the hill in its stone-walled churchyard protected on every side by trees from the fierce upland winds. It stands entirely alone now, for the ancient village has disappeared and all that is left of it are scattered farmsteads and an ivy-clad signpost where the road divides, pointing the way to 'Haydon'. You hardly realise you have arrived at the tiny church, so hidden is it from view. From the gate, an avenue through a dense thicket of yews leads into the churchyard, a secret garden where, you sense, human feet rarely tread these days. Down on the busy A69 that now bypasses the village, who would guess that the clump of trees up there on the hill conceals this secret corner of Northumberland? Inside, there are Early English lancet windows above the altar, some nice Victorian stained glass, and memorial tablets to village worthies. And there is a fine Roman altar that at some time past was colonised from Hadrian's Wall and returned to usefulness again as a Christian font. 

I've painted a picture of a place of solitude, all that is left to show that a human community once lived up here. But that's not to say that it's deserted. Haydonians have always loved this old church and taken care to look after it. And this ancient place of worship is not redundant. Far from it. It feels inhabited, lived in. A service is held here on the last Sunday of every month: usually Prayer Book evensong (with hymns), but also special services to mark the seasons of the Christian year. After Christmas we celebrated Epiphany here. Today it was Candlemas. There is no electricity, no generator, so winter services are held entirely by candlelight. You dress accordingly and expect the worship to be bracing. Afterwards, mugs of hot tea are poured from thermos flasks with home-made cakes and biscuits to enjoy. The candlelight creates a lovely sense of intimate homeliness, what you might call foyer. In summer the light pours in through the south door, and there are wine and nibbles in the churchyard. People aren't in a hurry to leave. That's just as it should be when a community gathers for worship.

It would have been so easy for this little church to have been left to decay, silent and forgotten, subsiding over the centuries into its hillside, one more memory of the days when people lived and worked and worshipped here. It's to the great credit of the Vicar and PCC that they have seen the potential the Old Church has for spirituality and outreach. For it is part of the Christian heritage of Northumberland, set in one of those North Eastern 'landscapes of faith' I wrote about a few years ago in my book of that name. Our Christian heritage is more and more valued nowadays by people who wouldn't at all describe themselves as 'religious'. It's good that this parish values its cherished historic asset that will bring enrichment to those who seek it out.

But I'm thinking of a lot more than this. I believe Haydon Old Church is one of those 'thin places' that increasingly draws pilgrims in search of spiritual meaning and sense of direction. It responds to Larkin's 'hunger to be more serious.' It isn't famous like Cuthbert's Holy Island, or mighty Durham Cathedral, or the Saxon church at Escomb, or Bede's historic churches at Wearmouth and Jarrow, or Wilfred's marvellous crypt half a dozen miles downstream at Hexham Abbey. But what it shares with all these sites is its profoundly numinous quality. Here you feel you are on holy ground. In its loneliness and simplicity, it takes you on a journey both beyond yourself, and at the same time more deeply into yourself, so that you begin to see reality in new ways, and glimpse God. 

And here's where it has the potential to offer so much to our spiritually impoverished century. Holding services regularly is important, but it's just the beginning. A church like this holds so many possibilities for welcoming visitors to this lovely part of Northumberland, for heritage and arts activities, and above all, for promoting reflectiveness and spirituality through pilgrimages and opportunities for guided prayer and meditation. These are stones that speak of history, of the varying fortunes of a village community over a thousand years and more. This by itself is endlessly fascinating to anyone with a sense of place. But more important even than this, they speak of faith: the faith of those who first planted Christianity in this Northumbrian soil; the faith of those who watered it and kept it alive across the centuries; the faith of their successors today who like them live by hope in the Word made Flesh, Christ crucified and risen.

St Cuthbert is at the heart of one of the Christian North's defining stories. Haydon Old Church is part of it. I think Cuthbert would welcome the way the parish is embracing this undiscovered treasure and thinking imaginatively about how it could continue to enrich the life and mission of the church here in the Tyne Valley. 


  1. Having recently moved away from this area, I am very sorry we never found this church.

  2. A treasure indeed. I know what you mean about thin places. Another isolated church with the same qualities is the shrine church at Pennant Melangell in North Wales.

  3. Having never visited there, I can still agree with the sentiments expressed. There are places that feel Holy, just by being there. In my last parish, three of the five churches were small, rural churches with history dating back to before the Normans - and they just silently through the worn paths and flagstones, worn down by the passage of generation up generation of the faithful, the monuments, windows and rediscovered wall paintings after centuries of white wash shout about God's action in the lives of those who lived and worked the land in those places over the centuries. Nowadays, off course, many local families can no longer afford to live in the villages of their ancesters, as incomers can afford to pay high prices for rural peace and quiet and convert former farm cottages into desirable residences by knocking them together. It's sad to see people being forced out of the places where their families have lived for generations by people coming in from outside.

    Not all incomers are bad. Many settle in and become part of the community and do good things, but many others are transient, commuters, who contribute little to the life and health of the villages.