Penrith is a lovely old market town with narrow alleys and some wonderful old buildings. Sadly, we would not have time to do the place justice over the weekend, but at least we had a glimpse as we walked to our next site, the Parish Church of St Andrew.
The church itself is an interesting one. It appears to be a Georgian edifice, having been largely rebuilt and remodelled in 1720, by Nicholas Hawksmoor, inspired by St Andrew’s in Holborn, London. The elegant interior seems almost out of place in a northern market town, and lacks the homely feel of churches that have retained their character and appearance of antiquity. But the church has stood on this spot since 1133 and, taking a moment to ‘feel beyond form’, you can indeed feel its age and the centuries of prayer its walls have held.
The building is perfectly cross shaped, but, unusually, the ‘crossing’ is at the far end from the altar. You may enter from any of the three short ‘arms’ of the cross, with the nave and altar forming the longest axis. Coming in from the cold between the incongruous pillars that flank the west door, we found two medieval grave slabs and a carved font… one of three in the church of various ages. The font is used in the rite of baptism, which could be seen as one of the keys to the ‘way home’ for those choosing to follow the path of Christianity. This particular font is carved with symbols and we asked Steve to explain the one representing the nature of the Trinity.
On either side of the entrance, stairs lead up into the tower whose height was extended in the fifteenth century. The stairs are flanked by the weathered effigies of a husband and wife in Tudor dress.
On our visit a few weeks earlier, we had found the nave decked with banners bearing the names of the Celtic saints… it seems that the Ionian form of worship still has a place in the heart of the northern church. This time, though, it was discretely decked for Christmas, with each window embrasure holding a small tree, dedicated to various sectors of the community… including a poignantly bare tree for those who cannot celebrate this Christmas.
Leaving everyone to explore, we asked them to think about what the idea of ‘home’ might mean to the congregation here, knowing that the embrasure of the East Window behind the altar holds a heavenly mural, painted in 1844 by local artist Jacob Thompson.
There is plenty to see inside the body of the church, including some beautiful stained glass by such renowned makers as Burlison and Grylls, Clayton and Bell and Hardman and Powell. These are all ‘modern’ windows, with the newest being installed to celebrate the Millennium.
The oldest windows, though, consist of mere fragments of medieval glass, salvaged from the depredations of time, storm and war. Most of the fragments are unidentifiable… just whispers on the wind of time. A few can be recognised… the hand of St Peter holding the Keys of Heaven… the angels of Revelation swinging their censers… a crowned and sceptred king who may well be Richard III.
Set into another modern window embellished with the white roses of the House of York are two fragments once thought to represent Richard and his queen, but they are now thought to be his grandparents. It is curious that Richard, the last Plantagenet king, should feature so much in Penrith, when the theme of the weekend was ‘finding the way home’. Richard was killed in battle at Bosworth Field in 1485 and his body, tied naked to a horse, was taken to Leicester and, eventually, buried at Greyfriars Church. That church was lost after the Dissolution, and Richard’s remains were thought lost too…until a team from Leicester University managed to locate them in 2013. There followed a long, and ultimately unavailing campaign that sought to bring the last monarch of the House of York back ‘home’ to Yorkshire.
There were monuments too to those who had fallen in more recent battles, that their names and deeds might, at least, be carried home, even though their remains are scattered across the battlefields of the world. And a tree in a window for those who have no home at all.
So many concepts of ‘home’ in one small church, so many layers of history; a story two thousand years old had seen nine hundred years of worship in this place. Did the story of this site, though, go back even further? Many old churches are built on far more ancient sites, where once a wooden chapel may have stood unrecorded, chapels which may have been built upon pre-Christian sites. Although there seemed to be no definitive mention of an earlier church here, there were certainly clues in the churchyard… and as the light began to fade, we headed outside to have a look…