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Report 2043: Northumberland in the Snow in January

By Eleanor from UK, Winter 2013

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Page 5 of 10: Bamburgh - St Aidan and Grace Darling

photo by MAW

St Aidan's Church

First on the list today was Bamburgh, a pleasant small village of stone houses built round a triangular green. Towering above on an outcrop of the whin sill is Bamburgh Castle. This is one of the iconic images of Northumberland and features in all the tourist literature.

The castle has a long history and was a fortified Anglo-Saxon site in the 7thC. The present castle dates from Norman times with keep, chapel, living quarters and enclosure for a garrison. It was restored and altered in the 18thC and bought by the First Lord Armstrong, the Tyneside industrialist, in 1894 who spent more than a million pounds restoring it to its present condition. Part of it was intended as a convalescent home for workers in his factories. Members of the Armstrong family still own it and much of it is let as private apartments. Areas open to the public, including the Great Kitchen, the King’s Hall, the Captain’s Lodging and part of the keep, including the Armoury. As it is only open at weekends in January, we will have to visit another time.

St Aidan’s church is a long low building with a squat tower. There has been a church on this site since the 7thC when St Aidan arrived as Bishop of Lindisfarne. The original church was built of wood and burnt down many times during Viking raids. He died here in 651 and a small memorial stone at the northwest corner of the chancel marks the spot. The first stone church, built in 1100, was rebuilt in the 13thC as a monastery church for the Augustinians. This explains the very long chancel as it was needed to accommodate all the canons during services.

A large graveyard, which contains the splendid memorial tomb of Grace Darling, surrounded by iron railings and a tall canopy, designed to be large enough for boats at sea to see it, surrounds the church. The story of Grace Darling is still strong in Bamburgh and even in January there was a steady stream of visitors to look at her memorial.

Inside the church is the original statue from the Grace Darling memorial which was moved here as it was beginning to weather badly. Next to it is the St Oswald Chapel, originally the Chantry chapel for saying prayers for the soul of Thomas de Bamburgh. This now has the Grace Darling memorial window as well as a window ‘In Honour of Women' featuring women saints and reformers.

The splendid stone reredos, which takes up most of the east wall, dominates the Chancel. Carved in 1895 and celebrates the Saints of Northumbria, with the size of the carvings giving a hierarchy of importance. At the top, the figures of St Oswald and St Aidan dwarf the rest who include St Hilda, Abbess of Whitby, who hosted the Synod of Whitby, which confirmed the supremacy of Rome over the Celtic church. Below, St Cuthbert and the Venerable Bede are the largest.

Mention Bamburgh to most people and they will say ‘Grace Darling’, the tragic heroine responsible for the heroic rescue of the SS Forfarshire in 1838. The RNLI have an excellent small museum in memory of her. Open throughout the year, entry is free although donations to support the work of RNLI are always welcome. It also has a well stocked shop.

Pride of place is the coble used in the rescue. It wasn’t very big and completely exposed to the elements and so very different from modern state of the art lifeboats. There is a short video about Grace Darling and the rescue as well as personal and family artifacts. It makes a poignant story.

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