West Cumbria: Pt 5 – St Bees

The final stop on our Cumbria road trip was the scenic village of St Bees, just a few miles further up the coast from Whitehaven. We pulled up near the station and set out to explore…

St Bees:

Status: Copeland District, Cumbria, Village, England

Date: 13/04/2014

Travel: Car

Eating & Sleeping: N/A

Attractions: St Bees Head, St Bees Priory, Beach, North Head, South Head, SS Izaro Anchor & Wreckage, Lighthouse etc

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One of the stand out features in St Bees is the impressive parish church, St Bees Priory. It is one of the oldest buildings in the area, dating back to somewhere between 1120 and 1135.

This beautiful old church was built as a Benedictine Priory, and dedicated by Archbishop Thurstan (1070 – 1140, the then Archbishop of York, who previously served King William II (1056 – 1100) and King Henry I (1068 – 1135) themselves).

The Priory was later dissolved in 1539 when King Henry VIII (1491 – 1546) set in motion the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The building was then used as the Parish Church, with repairs to the church being made in 1611, with others in the following centuries. Later, in 1816, the unused chancel was re-roofed and used by the St Bees Theological College, which closed in 1895 with the chancel becoming part of the new St Bees school.

Originally there was a large spire atop the tower (which was rebuilt in 1858), however this was taken down in 1953. After looking around a few local landmarks we paid a visit to the Priory, so I will tell you more about that in a minute.

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Our walk started near the train station, as we climbed up the footbridge over the tracks and got the previous fantastic view over to the Priory. Just past the station, is one of the two War Memorials in the village. It depicts St George (Patron Saint of England) stood over a Dragon.

The fine memorial was designed and built by J D Kenworthy, out of a large block of sandstone which was actually excavated in St Bees itself.  Kenworthy reportedly thought the original War Memorial (a stone cross) lacked any impact so designed this one. Today both are classed as official and maintained by the local council. Personally I think it’s a great tribute and the detail on St George (although slightly eroded by time) its fantastic.

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We started heading towards the Priory, and looking back you get a great view back into the main part of the village, which has lots of old houses spread all over. St Bees is a very old village, and has kept a lot of it’s rustic charm.

Just over the stone bridge the station is visible, which has regular trains to Barrow-in-Furness and the large city of Carlisle, via Whitehaven, Workington and Maryport. The line runs along the fabulous Cumbrian Coast, giving spectacular views along the route.

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Entering the Priory we were struck by the vast interior, and the incredible design work that went into building it. Towering columns line either side of the central aisle, and over to the right out of shot is a mini museum with a history of the Priory, as well as information about one of the most unusual finds in the village…

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In 1981, one of the most surprising discoveries of the time was made in St Bees. The St Bees Man is a perfectly preserved human body, discovered near the Priory by students from Leicester University. They were looking for old buildings used by the monks of the priory, but stumbled upon this. The body was very well preserved, having been buried in a lead coffin, and wrapped in a shroud doused in beeswax.

As the information boards say, the body had numerous injuries, including a broken rib which punctured his lung and killed him. It has been speculated that he may have been killed in battle. The picture of the body is grotesque yet fascinating at the same time, and the body is thought to date from at least the 14th century. Buried along with the man was the skeleton of a woman, although I am unsure who she was.

The actual body isn’t on display however, as he was respectfully reburied in late 1981 at the Priory.

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Leaving the calm, welcoming environment of the Priory, we crossed the road to the adjacent St Bees School, with it’s imposing ornate façade. This is the side entrance, looking out onto the vast grounds that surround it. What a great location for a school, looking out across the historic village, and within walking distance of St Bees Beach.

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We walked around to the front of the school, where a metal plaque just inside the gate gives some interesting history:

“This school was founded by Edmund Grindal, Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1583. The original school building is on the left and the other two wings were built c.1844. This area is known as the foundation quadrangle. The ancient motto above the door on the clock tower translates as “Enter so that you may make progress”.”

It’s an amazingly old building to go with the Priory, and I love the tower in the centre with the Clock part way up, which gives it an even grander air about it.

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Moving on from the inner village, we took the car down to the famous beach, known as St Bees Head. This is a large piece of headland, and the true head, the North Head, is the most westerly point of the North of England. It is also the only section of heritage coast between Wales and Scotland.

When we walked down to the beach, covered in large pebbles and sand, we found the above Anchor. The information board with it identifies it as being from the “SS Izaro”, a Spanish steam ship on it’s way to Maryport with a cargo of Iron Ore. It was wrecked on the South Head on May 25th 1907, and the weight of the ore inside caused the ship to break in half. There were no lives lost thankfully, and the anchor was salvaged in 2007, 100 years after the disaster. There are still parts of the wreckage out there today, consisting of the boilers and the keel and they are revealed at low tide.

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Looking towards the beach itself, I got a wide panoramic shot of this section of the beach. You can see the South Head over to the right. The North Head is much further round, and is also the site of the St Bees Lighthouse.

The view here is amazing, and the dip past the grass is the pebbled section of the beach, and it turns sandy after that. We could just make out the outline of the Isle of Man straight ahead (sadly not quite visible on the picture) so on a clear day you would get great views of the island. St Bees is famous for it’s coastline, and it looks almost directly at the Island.

St Bees is a great coastal location with some surprising history and even more surprising features out in the water.

Located nearly halfway between Carlisle and Barrow-in-Furness, the Cumbrian Coast Line calls here from either end, and the A595 main road from Carlisle down to Barrow runs around the village giving good road access.

There is a lot to discover in St Bees, so if you want to confront the mummified man from the 14th century, or taken in some spectacular sea views along the heritage coast, then come and visit St Bees. This was the end to our Cumbrian Coast road trip so we headed home, just skirting the Lake District on the way.

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