A brief History of Alnmouth Church

Taken from a booklet published to celebrate Centenary Year, 1976

The Old Harbour

In the Beginning

At the mouth of the River Aln, which provided a natural sheltered anchorage for the craft of both fishermen and seaborne travellers, it is probable that there once existed a community who would have been among the earliest in the district to receive the Christian Message. It would have been brought to them by the missionaries of Iona who had been sent for by Oswald, King of Northumberland, in about the year 634 to help him to persuade his people to accept this new religion and forsake their old pagan customs.

These people no doubt would soon have constructed a church, rude and unsubstantial though it may have been, within the immediate vicinity of their settlement, but whatever we now say or think, that must remain a matter of pure speculation. All the same with the example of the monastic community on Holy Island to guide them, it is easy to imagine they would have chosen a site for their church such as that afforded by what we now know as Church Hill. If this was not exactly like Holy Island it was the next best thing to hand.

So it is a reasonable supposition that it was on Church Hill that the first church was built and we can now move from the basis of pure speculation to one of probability. For in the year 684 a synod was held for the purpose of electing a new bishop for the diocese of Hexham. The Venerable Bede tells us that it was held at a place known as Adtwifyrdi or Twyford, the place where there are two fords, at the mouth of a river "Alne" on the border between the dioceses of Hexham and Lindisfarne.

Everything points to this place having been situated at or somewhere near where the village of Alnmouth now stands. For such a meeting, a fairly substantial building would have been necessary and perhaps Cuthbert, the future Saint, who was an unwilling candidate for the exalted post of bishop, might have been more readily persuaded to leave the hermitage in which he was then living on Farne Island to attend a meeting in a church in a situation not too unlike Lindisfarne, where he had previously lived.

In this turbulent part of the country, a place like Twyford, one can safely surmise, would be the constant target of raiders from over the seas and of Scots from across the border (if such a word can be applied to the wide no-man's land which it more truly was). So it is not hard to imagine the destruction, partial or otherwise, of Twyford at some time.

But with the advent of the Normans, the country did gradually settle down, and we can pass from conjecture and probability to historically firm ground. There is no doubt at all that the Normans created a "new town" in a remote corner of the parish of Lesbury and that this new town was called Alnmouth. Such is the geography of the area, moreover, that it is hard to think that this Alnmouth, where it stands today, could have been built other than on the ruins of former Twyford.

With the creation of the new town went also the rebuilding of the old church or the building of a new one, and there can be little doubt that, either way, it would have been on the same site as the old church. This new building was dedicated to St. Waleric, although during the Middle Ages it became known as Wooden Chapel - from the name of the township in the parish of Lesbury within whose bounds it strictly-speaking stood. This local name became further corrupted to Woden's Chapel, but there was no connection between this name and any pagan cult earlier.

We are able to get a fair idea of what the church of St. Waleric was like from the few surviving sketches of the roofless ruins as they were in 1771. It is clear that the edifice was large and impressive. It consisted of a nave with two aisles, a chancel, and large north and south transepts. It was built between 1170 and 1190, with the chancel apparently having been extended in the 13th century.

Architecturally as a whole, the building was clearly a fine one, with a number of features of particular interest.  For instance, the piers which supported the nave and aisle arches at their junction with the transepts were in the form of heavy clusters of eight members which rose as high as the springing of the aisle arches. The outer positions of the capitals of these piers carried the aisle arches, while the inner halves, towards the nave, carried groups of clustered shafts which, rising as high again as the piers, supported in their turn the main central arch. (The details are recorded in "A History of Northumberland", edited by Edward Bateson).

St. Waleric's stood on a part of Church Hill which has long since disappeared, and it is easy now for us, with the benefit of hindsight, to wonder why the Norman builders chose to place their church on sand in such a vulnerable position. On the other hand, and in fairness to those builders of old, perhaps we should be wondering how it was that this site stood firm for five or six hundred years before being quite suddenly subjected to catastrophic erosion by both sea and river.

The building was sited at the north end of what was a considerably larger version of the Church Hill we see today. The Aln flowed to the west of the church, then meandered round the south side of the hill, making a complete "S" bend before entering the sea. For reasons which cannot be explained except perhaps in geological terms and except by noting how similar processes of erosion and deposition have taken place in a number of other places in the British Isles the river, after following for unknown centuries a steady if winding course, began to eat away the west side of Church Hill. The nave was the first part to fall, but at the same time the sea had begun to attack from the north-east and the next to fall were parts of the chancel and north transept. Then followed the rest of the chancel and the whole of the east walls of both transepts. The last section to fall into the clutches of the sea was the remaining western half of the transepts, the portion of the church which, we are told, was blown down in the great storm of Christmas, 1806. With it went the greater part of the ancient burial ground, situated mainly to the south of the church building, with the remains of all its defenceless tenants.

Although the forces of nature wrought most of the havoc, man himself had a hand in this unhappy business. The record of a bishop's visitation in 1662 mentions "... an office against John Carr, gent., Ralph Carr, gent., and Edmund Shippeard, of the parish of Lesbury, for takeing away Alemouth church lead, the bells and stone from the same ..." and against Mary Moore "... for takeing down all the lead of the Chancell, with other ornaments of the church." This particular lady seems to have been running a well-established and flourishing scrap-merchant's business, since she was surely the Maria Moore who, three years before, had been presented to the visiting bishop for precisely the same felony perpetrated on the parish church in Lesbury.

What does seem clear from this study of the past is that the people's apparent neglect of their church, if not their spoilation of it, becomes more excusable when you bear in mind that the available engineering techniques of the day would anyway have been quite inadequate to protect the sandy soil of Church Hill from erosion by water from three sides once the process had got under way.

What of the people of Alnmouth themselves while all this was going on?

In 1750, an eminent Non-conformist, after a visit to the village, reported it to be a place full of wicked people, and a veritable den of iniquity. Nothing seems to have been said to refute this.

For many years, Alnmouth has been a busy port, a prey to all the usual imported evils and temptations. The people of the place had seen their church despoiled of a major part of its wealth and revenues at the Dissolution of the monasteries and later they had witnessed its misfortune at the hands of the extreme Puritans. They saw that their church was as a house built on sand, with consequences about which they had been taught. Surely they can be forgiven if, still in a credulous age, they interpreted all that came to pass as fulfilment of the teaching of the Bible. They could but watch what they took to be the hand of God taking their church from them.

There was among them no leadership of the calibre and learning which only the church could provide, and there is little doubt that they were neglected by the parent church in Lesbury. Perhaps that was because they were some distance away and separated by a river. Whatever the reasons, poor relations they became in every sense.

Not surprisingly, the life of the community fell apart. But as with Sodom when the Lord told Abraham of his intention to destroy the place because of wickednesses of the people, so in Alnmouth were there still good and righteous folk to be found. Peradventure as many as fifty - or forty-five - or thirty - or twenty or even ten. However many there were, the good and righteous saved the day and mercifully different from Sodom, continued the good work. They pulled themselves up again by their own boot-straps.

Extracts from a report of the consecration of the Alnmouth Church in the Alnwick Mercury, of November 11, 1876.

The new building, which is dedicated to St. John the Baptist, is erected on a plot of ground on the east side of the main street. It is built in the Early English style of Gothic architecture, of simple yet effective design and is an excellent specimen of an ecclesiastical building for a small village.

The church consists of a nave and apsidal chancel with vestry attached. At the west end is a tower with spire and the main entrances are formed in the tower. The nave windows are arranged in single and double lights and the chancel windows are all single lights and are well moulded and carved.

The church is built of sandstone in snecked rubble work with ashlar dressing, and the roofs are open-timbered resting on moulded and carved corbels. The seats, which are open, are made of pitch pine. The chancel, which is the special gift of the Duke of Northumberland, at a cost of 1,200, has a reredos of fine magnesium limestone, carried round the walls within the Communion railings, and above the Communion table is a super-altar of very chaste design executed in alabaster.

The church willl accommodate nearly 200 persons, but it is feared by many that during the summer time, when the village is crowded with visitors, it will be found to be almost too small.

The cost of erecting the church is about 2,600, which has been raised by subscription. The Duke of Northumberland gave the site, which is worth nearly 400, and His Grace also provides a stipend of 150 a year.

The church was consecrated on Tuesday, 7th November, by the Bishop of Durham. There was a large congregation, among those present being the Duke of Northumberland.

The church re-born

Pasted to the inside front cover of the earliest volume of church accounts is a list headed simply: "Belonging to Alnmouth Church." It reads: "One long duster, one mop, one zink pail, one black-lead brush, one dust pan." It was written out and signed by the churchwarden Andrew Robson. Elsewhere in the records are to be found other inventories of items belonging to the chapel of Alnmouth.

Looking round the church today, one cannot but remark that out of little acorns big oak trees do grow.

The records that have been preserved start in early 1859 with a volume of accounts, and there is a companion volume containing notes on meetings held for both routine and special purposes. The first entry in the latter concerns a most important meeting under the chairmanship of the Rev. Edward Lawrence Marrett, Vicar of Lesbury. It was a meeting "... of the inhabitants of Alnmouth ... held in the New Chapel (Church of England) on Monday, the 14th day of March ... to appoint Chapel Wardens, to elect a person to Clean the Church, Ring the Bell and other duties, to fix the Salary for the same, and other Business relative to the said Chapel."

With that meeting begins the story of the re-born church in Alnmouth.

As we have seen, the ancient church of St. Waleric had been lost, leaving the Anglicans of the village without a local place of worship for many years.

It was clearly no longer a question of repairing and maintaining an ancient structure but of providing a new church on a new site. After the river changed course in 1806, access to the old site was one thing, but protecting the sandy hill from further encroachment by the sea was quite another.

Qualities of initiative, courage and leadership which had apparently been lacking re-surfaced in the mid-19th century, and it was in 1859 that Algernon, fourth Duke of Northumberland, took the first step to fill the gap by providing a temporary chapel to serve until such time as a permanent chapel or church could be built.

This then was the "said chapel". It was created by the conversion to a new use of one of Alnmouth's most important granaries which has served as a corn exchange. It was situated at the seaward end of Northumberland Street and is now known as Hindmarsh Hall. (Alnmouth was full of granaries).

At that first meeting there were set up the basic arrangements for running the chapelry as an individual and distinct part of the parish of Lesbury. (Floor coverings for the chapel were obtained from the "Gaol Manufactory" in Morpeth.)

At that date, of course, the Parochial Church Councils as we know them did not exist, the initiative in all parish affairs resting with the Vicar or his Curate and a few local layfolk of substance and influence. Meetings for the routine running of the chapel's affairs were held annually, at Easter, under the chairmanship of the Vicar of Lesbury or the curate, who had apparently been appointed full-time for service at Alnmouth. These routine and frankly rather dull meetings continued for just over eight years until on July 14th, 1867, a special meeting was called. This was the next most important meeting in the annals of the parish-to-be.

Resolutions were carried out unanimously that the establishment of a separate parish for Alnmouth was desirable, that a church should be built for Alnmouth, and the village burial ground should be restored. At a later meeting of this committee the wish was expressed that the Duke of Northumberland should become the Patron of the proposed new living of Alnmouth.

To begin with, the committee confined itself to action on the restoration of the old burial ground on Church Hill, and from the start the Duke provided help. He agreed to enclose the land and to build nearby a cottage for the sexton's use.

In the meantime, the committee pursued the matter of a proposed oratory at the cemetery for burial services, and a number of meetings were held. The cost of several rather ambitious schemes proved a stumbling block, though, until compromise was reached and a simple building was erected in 1869-70 by the grandfather of one of Alnmouth's present- day parishioners. The cost of the chapel, met out of funds subscribed by the public, totaled 177 6s. 3d. Although the remains of the oratory still stand, the sexton's house long since disappeared.

By November, 1871, 504 10s. had been promised towards the cost of the church, which had been estimated at 1,500. It was decided to raise the sum needed by public subscriptions both within and from outside the chapelry bounds. Faith and optimism were unbounded, so that by June, 1873, subscribers to the church fund had contributed about 1000. The Duke presented a site for the church, agreed to erect the chancel at his own expense, and also offered to convey " ... the present parsonage house for the benefit of the living."

By this time, the people of Alnmouth had so much begun to feel they were home and dry so far as finance was concerned that detailed plans and estimates for the building were called for. Progress was rapid - far more rapid than is conceivable these days. On September 24th, 1873, only three months after the decision to go ahead, plans for the new church were laid before a meeting of the building committee. There and then it was decided to invite tenders by advertising in the Press for the whole work, such tenders to be in the architect's hands on or before October 13th.

Outstanding financial problems did not apparently stem the course of events, and, although the foundation stone of the new church was laid in the summer of 1874, on August 11th, 1875, the building committee still found itself short of 387 2s. 6d. needed to meet the total contract sum of 1,350, without any contingency allowance for extras. But faith and persistence brought their reward: the new church, dedicated to St. John the Baptist, was consecrated by the Bishop of Durham of November 7th, 1876. Shortly afterwards, the building committee reported receipts and expenditure as having balanced out at 1,400 15s. 5d. So Alnmouth again had a church of its very own - though it still formed part of Lesbury. The living-off as a separate parish came on February 7th, 1877.

At first sight, the fact that only four years after its completion, the church had to be enlarged might suggest inadequate "market research" at design stage. Perhaps things had been too rushed. In fact, the addition of the south transept in 1880 was carried out to accommodate the growing number of pupils at Seabank School, for their church attendance and their religious instruction.

Although the provision of a burial ground of their own for the people of Alnmouth seemed to have been made satisfactorily way back in 1870 when the oratory was built, the sea had continued to take its toll from the sandy Church Hill. Partly because of that, and partly because Lesbury churchyard was by then overcrowded, a meeting of Alnmouth parishioners on April 21st, 1879, considered "... the advisability of a burial ground for Alnmouth ..."

The role of Church Hill and its oratory from 1870, when the place was put to rights, up to the date when Alnmouth became a parish on its own is something of a mystery. Up to that date, Alnmouth people had continued to be buried in Lesbury, as the Lesbury church records show, and, as one would expect, no separate register for any Church Hill burials was kept.

That's one point. There is also the question of what happened about interments at Alnmouth from 1877 up to the time when the present cemetery began to be used. For certain no Alnmouth folk were buried in Lesbury after 1877-78, and it was not until the annual church meeting in Alnmouth, held on April 6th, 1885, that it was agreed to ask the Duke to give a piece of land for a burial ground. A plot of ground was conveyed in 1889.

The St. John the Baptist register of burials had its first entry dated March, 1890, which accords with the conveyance of the ground having been in the previous year. But what the oratory on Church Hill was for when burials were taking place in Lesbury is not clear; neither is it clear where people were buried from 1878 to 1899. Presumably on Church Hill.

At the 1891 annual meeting the notion of economy in expenditure first reared its ugly head in the records. At that meeting it was agreed that, so as to save gas "... the pulpit light be disconnected from the others and these be turned down during the sermon ..." Thus, the cynic might add, making it easier for the congregation to doze during the long sermons which doubtless were then the vogue. (Alnmouth had its own gasworks, situated at the present-day boatyard half-way between the present Duchess Bridge and the bend in the river just before its entry into the sea.)

In the church building today, its stained-glass windows deserve special mention. The three apsidal windows are original and are examples of the early work of C. E. Kemp, a master in this art. They will, no doubt be a possession treasured more and more by future generations. but that should not detract from the worth of the other coloured windows in the nave and porch which from time to time have been installed as memorials, the latest in memory of the Rev. Tom Hindmarsh, Vicar of Alnmouth 1945-1972.

The decoration of the chancel roof, carried out in 1933, is worth particular note. The organ is as it was after it had been enlarged and rebuilt from its original form in 1911. The electric blowing apparatus was installed in 1930-31.

The church clock, with its five bells, was originally installed in 1878-79 together with the single tolling bell, which itself dated from 1833. All six bells were re-cast, re-tuned and re-hung in 1936.