St Wilfrid’s crypt—reusing Rome—petrified—Corbridge—Bywell—two Anglo-Saxon parish churches—toilet seats to towers—River Tyne—shanty town—Ovingham and Ovington
ONLY TWO CRYPTS belonging to the first century of Anglo-Saxon Christianity survive in Britain. Both were constructed under the orders of St Wilfrid, an entrepreneurial, confrontational, love-him-or-hate-him, opinion-splitting Northumbrian champion of Roman orthodoxy in the generation before Bede. At Ripon, in the five or so years after 672, Wilfrid had a stone church built on lands originally gifted to the Ionan community on Lindisfarne, and from which he had had them expelled. Later, estates confiscated from schismatic62 British churches were added to his portfolio. The church and its magnificent crypt were rededicated in a ceremony full of pomp, gold, purple and triumphalism (and royal monikers signing over the freehold). Wilfrid’s other great foundation lay at Hexham, on lands which a Bernician queen, Æthelthryth, had been persuaded to give to the bishop on her abdication. The masons, glaziers and plasterers whom he had brought from Francia to undertake the Ripon project reassembled at Hexham (Old EnglishHagustaldesham – perhaps ‘Enclosure of the young warrior’) in the latter half of the 670s for an even more magnificent project, as his hagiographer Eddius Stephanus recalled:
My poor mind is quite at a loss for words to describe it—the great depth of the foundations, the crypts of beautifully dressed stone, the vast structure supported by columns of various styles and with numerous side-aisles, the walls of remarkable height and length, the many winding passages and spiral staircases…63
The crypt survives, improbably, beneath the later abbey. It was rediscovered in 1725 by workmen digging foundations, and later incorporated into the new nave. Twice a day, visitors are allowed to descend into its fuggy depths to test for themselves Eddius’s contention. One weekend I persuaded Sarah to join me in a short exploration. The steps are steep and narrow, the treads worn concave from the passage of pilgrims’ feet. It feels claustrophobic, like one of those old ghost rides at funfairs. It does not pass for magnificent compared with the other great works of giants that surround us: the gothic cathedrals of York or Canterbury that mark the medieval high point of Roman orthodoxy and wealth; the engineering shrines of Telford or Brunel; the football stadia, those mausolea of fortune and failure; the tunnels and pylons that funnel and transmit the forces that power the modern world. But to the Early Medieval pilgrim, whose limited experience of churches was for the most part the hewn-oak and thatched garden-shed variety of the Irish missionaries, here was a work of giants re-emerged from their slumber.
Wilfrid’s exercise in petrification—that is to say, his reintroduction of a solid, stone-built, permanent diocesan Roman church and his very evident, deliberate demotion of the ascetic, individual and schismatic (so far as he was concerned) Irish church to the midden of history—achieved the desired effect. It intimidated, awed, numbed the imagination of the visitor with its overt imitation of the catacombs of Rome and the mausoleum of St Peter. It also nested the experience of concentrated holiness: like the monasteries at Nendrum and Clonmacnois in Ireland and St Blane’s at Kingarth, it consisted of concentric rings leading from the external, profane world to the increasingly holy: sanctus, sanctior, sanctissimus.64 The altar and subterranean shrine was the most holy place, preserve of the anointed priest, and the passages and anteroom that afforded ill-lit, mysterious glimpses or half-touches of treasures; the sanctior where the favoured pilgrim might be relieved of their offerings. The architecture of the Wilfridan church distanced the ordinary, the secular, the low-born from the masonic privacy of a priestly elite. Wilfrid, a veteran of the ultimate pilgrimage to Rome, brought back with him marvellous relics of the early saints and martyrs to add potency to his grand projects, and began to foster the cult of the martyred King Oswald.
In the barrel-vaulted bowels of the earth at Hexham, even if the complete scheme of stairways and entrances has been obscured and truncated by later building, one senses that something more subtle underpinned Wilfrid’s desire to impose episcopal power on the Northumbrians. The stones used in the construction of the crypt were quarried from Roman sites across the river; and not just any sites. A recent survey by the archaeologist Paul Bidwell has shown that the apparently random distribution of odd fragments of wall-frieze or imperial inscription—a Roman altar, a Lewis-hole65 or diamond hatching—are themselves relics binding the present to a mythical, imperial past and to the worship not just of a god, but of a pantheon of native deities, the lost race of giants confused and fused with the legionaries of a lost age. The main building blocks came from the bridge at Corbridge, which must have been defunct in Wilfrid’s day. The fluted pilaster decorations can only have come from a very grand monument and this has been identified by excavation: a great tower mausoleum which stood just across the Cor Burn to the immediate west of the town at Shorden Brae. This may have commemorated an important victory by a Roman general in a war fought in the 180s. It must have ranked with the most magnificent monuments of the Empire. The absence of material in the crypt from the Roman town itself suggests that royal interests—that is to say, a royal township or villa regia—retained the rights to the town in Wilfrid’s day: he was able to acquire the site of the abbey from the former queen’s dower lands; but not materials from the king’s own estate.
The crypt is all that survives of Wilfrid’s church: the rest is a medieval and later compilation. But a truncated high cross commemorating Bishop Acca (c.660 –740) can be seen in the south transept, and in the abbey chancel a souvenir of Wilfrid’s pretensions survives in the Frith stool, a solid, carved sandstone episcopal throne decorated with interlace and skeuomorphic (see page 298) wooden moulding. It is not quite complete, and has been broken in half and cemented together—but its earthy solidity and fist-like presence, a bold statement of unashamed Anglian selfconfidence, ring loud across the ages.
Sarah and I had miles to cover: we left the abbey in brilliant sunshine and made our way through Hexham’s twisting medieval streets down to the river, looking occasionally back at its four-square tower punching through the skyline against the hills behind. The prominence on which it stands forms an unmistakeable triangle with Warden Hill, across the river to the north-west, and Corbridge to the north-east: three centres of power spanning the river and the centuries between the Iron Age and the age of the great Northern bishops. We crossed the Tyne and turned east towards Corbridge, past the dragon’s-breath plume of steam exhaled twenty-four hours a day from the Eggers chipboard factory. Partly retracing the route that Colm and I had taken some months before, we passed below the Roman town and entered the village from the bridge, built a thousand years after Wilfrid scavenged its predecessor. St Andrew’s church, at the centre of the village, was constructed largely using materials from the Roman town—it belongs originally to the latter half of the seventh century, with a later Saxon tower. Given its location, it is tempting to think that this was a royal monastic church, a minster, set up to complement, or perhaps compete with, Wilfrid’s basilica across the water.
If there was an eastward continuation of the Stanegate downstream from here, it has not yet been traced. We followed the main road as it rose away from the river onto higher ground above the flood plain and only by dodging down back lanes that zig-zagged to conform to post-medieval enclosures were we able to regain contact with the river where the valley narrows above Bywell. The ‘spring in the bend’, Bywell was once a thriving town known for its metalworking. Now there is a comfortable-looking estate (‘Keep out’ and ‘Private’ signs everywhere) with a castle, a couple of grand houses and little else barring two improbable parish churches standing within a hundred yards of each other. Both are pre-Conquest foundations. The reason for this apparent excess is that the boundary between two great baronies followed the line of the main street in the village which runs out at the bend in the river that gives Bywell part of its name. St Andrew’s is no longer a consecrated church; but it has been sympathetically conserved and counts among the finest churches on the Tyne. Many of its stones came from Corbridge, and there is a persistent, if unprovable theory, that two circular stone piercings high up in the tower are Roman toilet seats recycled from the scatologically profane to the sacred. It’s a nice thought. St Peter’s, across the lane, became a much grander affair in the Medieval period, and little remains of its Anglo-Saxon origin. But in the south wall there is still a small DIY sundial, a hole into which one may poke a stick and read off the hours on its chiselled dial. Bywell was a serene and lovely place to pause for lunch: snowdrops lit up the graveyard on the riverbanks (it is said that in the great flood of 1771 corpses were washed from their graves here) and the air is alive with birdsong and the rush of water.
Just below Bywell is an important crossing of the Tyne, the first since Corbridge. The next is at Ovingham, a mile and a quarter along the river. Before that, we indulged in a stroll through one of the locally famous—or notorious—shanty towns that decorate (some might say deface) the north side on this stretch of the river. Some time in the 1920s farmers in these parts allowed city dwellers to escape the wheezing air of the docks and mines and build weekend shacks, scores of them, originally in wood with shingle roofs. Many survived the Second World War, used as evacuation accommodation while the wharves and docks downstream were being bombed. Some are semi-permanent residences. For two years I lived in one when times were pretty precarious and I had nowhere more secure to inhabit. They are a marvellous evocation of liminal existence, absolutely reminiscent of the creek-bound barges of the Essex coastal lands and archaeologically suggestive of many Early Medieval settlements. Organic and constantly evolving, they are more or less reluctantly tolerated by the local authorities, loved by their residents and jealously defended against planners and the odd thief or vandal. These are real communities. Their eccentric décor, gnome-rich handkerchief gardens and bespoke corrugated repairs are fascinating in a way that no corporate or ecclesiastical architecture can match. They are tangibly human and humane, a celebration of the vernacular.
The small village of Ovingham—‘the farmstead of Ova’s people’—on the banks of the Tyne is matched by Ovington (the ‘tun’ or village of Ova’s people’s farmstead) just up the road on the high ground; but of the two only Ovingham boasts another fine pre-Conquest church very like that at Bywell and complete with ‘toilet-seat’ piercings. With Corbridge, and another possibly early church at Warden, that makes four in a row along the north bank: there is something special about this side of the river.