Wednesday, 12 December 2007

Did St Patrick's feet walk in Heysham?

It is one of those bleak mornings on the Lancashire coast. It is raining and a cold wind blows off the Irish sea. The waves batter against the stone sea wall and threaten to immerse the churchyard and return the graves contained within to the sea.

The magnificent view from the only sea cliffs between North Wales and the Cumbria coast across Morecombe bay was painted by the artist JM Turner but today grey clouds obscure the magnificent Lake District peaks.

Ignoring the wind, I scramble up a set of slippery slate steps which lead up to the remains of an ancient church. All that is left is an archway which once opened out onto the South wing of a chapel.

Nearby are six strange shaped graves cut from the rock believed to date from the 10th Century.

A plaque is attached to the wall and as I open my notebook to scribble down its details, the wind blows it from my hand.

The inscription reads

“The ancient church of St Peter’s consecrated in 976.

I am in Heysham better known for its power station and ferries to Ireland.A mile north up the coast is the pretty village of Heysham, entrant in the Britain in Bloom competition and some say the birthplace of Christianity in Lancashire.

John Disney certainly thinks so anyway. Aged 74 he is convinced that the church marks the spot where St Patrick,the future patron saint of the Irish, landed after being shipwrecked on a journey from Ireland. He has devoted the last ten years of his life to his quest “to prove that St Patrick’s feet walked on Heysham’s shore.

Others don’t agree. Amongst them archaeologists from Lancaster University who believe the site belongs to a Celtic Norse tradition.For them the chapel and church were simply the christianizing of the Celtic population before the Norman Conquest

John whilst accepting that much of Patrick’s life “has a great deal of fiction attached to it”, believes that the wind swept church on the headland was built to mark the site where Patrick landed.

John can be found some days sitting in St Peter’s church which stands alongside the site of the ruined chapel. He trained as a guide over 10 years ago, explaining the mysteries of the site to visiting tourists .As I sit down to interview him, a couple visiting from Australia ask for a DVD of the chapel to take back with them.

John explains the interest in the site. During the 13th Century, pilgrims came to this site where Patrick landed and would journey to Cumbria in his footsteps .Before this century St Patrick’s Day was always a public holiday in Heysham and the area is littered with references to the patron saint of Ireland

The patron saint of Ireland was thought to have been born around 380AD to a Christian Romano-British family during the final years of the Roman occupation of Britain. Legend has it that he dreamt of Christianity but was chastised for not following his faith. Kidnapped by slave traders he was taken to the West coast of Ireland, where he remained for six years before managing to escape on a boat travelling back to Scotland.

Here Heysham enters the story. According to John, the ship was wrecked at a place known today as St Patrick’s steer. He thinks the evidence points to Heysham as the story describes a rocky inlet where trees are growing.1800 years ago; the waters off the coast were 14 feet deeper. At occasional low tides, the remains of stumps can be seen and this marks the place where they landed.

From Lancashire, Patrick made his way back to his parents in Scotland in an epic 28 day journey before he followed his convictions and travelled to Rome where the pope made him a bishop.

One final legend though remains in Heysham. Today in the village stands St Patrick’s well where the future saint asked a villager for water before starting out his journey. John tells me that the well in the village was put there in the 1900’s, the original well is close to Ingleton and is fed by the waters of the river Lune.He refuses to divulge its precise location.

In 1977, historians from Lancaster University began excavating at the site for clues about its past. There had been speculation that the one of the strange shaped graves had contained the remains of St Patrick. The problem was that the dating of the chapel can be put at 750 AD whereas Patrick died at least 300 years earlier.

The excavations found five burial areas near the chapel. They contained the bones of 85 people that were dated to 1000-1200 AD.

The researchers believe that pilgrims following in the steps of St Patrick, travelled from the Isle of Man in around 600 AD, converted the local landowner and set up a cross, leaving in their wake stories of the legend .The chapel itself was built by Angles around 750 AD and the site became a thriving community in this isolated corner of Lancashire. The rocky cliffs could well have been the site of an ancient manor house surrounded by huts of fisherman and farmers.

The link to St Patrick was revived with the arrival of the Celtic Norse people before the Norman Conquest and their connections to Ireland.

One of the most spectacular finds in the churchyard dating from this period is the Hog Stone. It now resides within the modern day church.

It is from this time that the chapel of St Peter alongside the site dates, and its construction used materials from the original site. Enter the church today and you can see evidence of the original workings in the West wall of the nave where a blocked up doorway still stands. Its height giving away its history.

John disagrees with the archaeological evidence. The graves he believes are not Viking in origin.” The fact that they face east was an accepted way of early Christian burial sites”

John believes his quest is close to ending. He remains convinced that only one piece of the jigsaw is eluding his final conclusion and that is the archaeological evidence that dates back to the 400’s.All the other evidence is in place.

Finally I notice that the church has a display on the effects of global warming. Mindful of the waves crashing against the wall of the churchyard, I ask John if he believes that the site will one day be under water.

“I don’t believe in that global warming rubbish. It’s just a natural cycle of events.”

I wished him well with his venture; he hopes to publish his theories next year. The rain was hammering down once again as I closed the door on the church. Looking back on the cliffs above, I wandered once gain was this really where St Patrick landed?