St Michael and All Angels, Alwinton

This unique church nestles in the hillside at the foot of the Cheviots. People have met and worshipped here since the 9th century and probably before that. Men and women have made their way here on foot or by horse from their farms across the valley and surrounding areas, to give praise and thanksgiving to God. The Coquet Valley is still a place where the raising of sheep is the dominant feature of life and this place has been part of that heritage down through the ages.

Nothing is known of the old Parish of Alwinton before the 13th century except that the original building on this site was a Norman Chapel, parts of which remain and dictate the orientation of the present church just North of East due to the geological structure of the hillside. The early Norman church had a nave of the usual double square plan and a very plain narrow arch leading to the chancel.

In the 12th century, the choir was rebuilt and lengthened and at the end of the same century, or early in the next, narrow north and  south  aisles were  added to  the nave  with  arcades of  three arches inserted in its side walls. In architectural terms, this was the Transitional Period, the change from Norman to the early Gothic style.   The  two  small  lancet  windows either side of the choir/chancel date from this period. Also in the 13th century a south chapel or aisle transept was added to the nave.

Thee  earliest  records  of  the  parish  show  the  patrons  as  theUmfravilles, Lords of Redesdale, who between 1181 and 1244 granted Kidland to Newminster monastery (near Morpeth) whereupon the Abbot agreed in 1233 to pay the “Rector of Alwinton”, Thomas Rule, 1/2 mark of silver, llb of pepper and llb of incense yearly at Michaelmas. This first mention of a priest here is celebrated by the two glass panels on the inner door as you enter the church. The Rector paid taxes to the Umfravilles until 1375 when they gave the Advowson (the right to appoint a priest to a benefice in particular a parish church) to Holystone nunnery. Since then both churches have been linked, but it was not until much later (approx 1742) that Alwinton became the mother church of the parish of “Alwinton with Holystone”.

This period created an anomaly. The granting of Kidland, the three square mile area known as Kidland Forest, (just north of Alwinton) to Newminster monastery, has  been altered only in recent years. This means that technically, until the alteration occurred, the area was not in Alwinton parish, and according to local tradition, the priest carried the title: “Lord of Kidland”.

The unique feature of this church  is  the height of the chancel floor which was raised in the early 14th century to provide a crypt for the Clennell family. A close look reveals that the second step from the top has chamfered ends allowing it to be lifted out. Once this has been done, the rest follow providing a formal  entrance to the burial chamber.  A door in  the north wall,  which was sealed in the 1960s, provided an external access.

The 15th & 16th centuries were a very bleak period in the history of the Alwinton church building. It became neglected and fell into a state of disrepair. A Curate, Alexander Menzies, who sought to improve the fabric of the church and uplift the services, records in 1627 that: “The walls of the church and chancel are ingreat decay. No glasse and noe doores for the church, but that it fell open”.

The first time the church is recorded as dedicated to “St. Michael and All Angels”, churches on hills were often dedicated to the Archangel, for being close to heaven (sic the church); St. Michael could be easily called upon to ward off the devil. On the other hand, the dedication may simply be because historically the priest was paid on that Feast Day (see above).

The inhabitants of Alwinton were instructed to repair the building, however the Earl of Suffolk, the owner of both Holystone  and  Alwinton churches  together  with their rectories, sold them to John Sanderson and Andrew Rutherford of Harbottle. They in turn conveyed them in thirds in 1639/40 to Roger Widdrington, George Thirwall and William Selby of Biddlestone, who was ordered to repair the Selby Porch but nothing was done until later when one of the Selbys rebuilt it in 1672 as an aisle-less family pew and burial place. Some time later the chancel was repaired, its western lancet window enlarged, the east gable rebuilt and a new Priest’s Door put in place. Priests had a separate door to gain entry to the chancel when celebrating the Mass, lest having prepared themselves, they should be contaminated through contact with people.

There was a lot of activity in church building, the church wardens and minister agreed to spend half of the whole parish rental on the repair of Holystone church and at the same time work started on the church at Alwinton. New glazing (the individually cut and set latticed clear windows are a feature of Northumberland churches) wainscotting and a new pulpit were added; the original was placed in Holystone.

The church was re-roofed and covered with stone slates. The south chapel was now allotted to Biddlestone (a title it still retains), and the north aisle continued to be the Barrow Porch and the two other bays became the Shilmoor and Clennell estate porches. A porch is an area where a specific family sat.

The roof was re-slated with slate from Eglingham and the parish took over the Barrow porch and Selby Crypt (Biddlestone Porch).

The Patronage changed from the Bishop of Durham to the Duke of Northumberland, and in 1892, the Lord Chancellor became joint Patron. Until the living was suspended in 1999, the patronage was shared on an alternate basis.

By this date the Clennell crypt had been allotted to the Selby family and it was after a visit here that year that the Archdeacon, The Venerable Singleton wrote affectionately, describing the ascent to the the church, though damp, was not in as bad a state of repair as he had been led to believe. This betrays the already existing plan by the then Rector, Aislabie Proctor, to pull the old church down.

Singleton opposed the scheme to pull down the church as firmly as his gentle nature would allow and the Revd Proctor was able to let a  Durham architect,  George Pickering,  loose on the building. The same architect had been used at Holystone in 1848. The nave  was  completely  pulled down except for the east end and lower part of the north wall. Likewise, the south, or Biddlestone Porch, was rebuilt and a vestry added to the chancel.

The only parts that remain of the original church are the foundations of the north aisle and the chancel arch, the steps and parts of the chancel.

The square flagstone with two metal rings covers the place where the remains of an unknown child were laid to rest at an unrecorded date.

On entering the church, you will have passed through an inner door with two glass panels and, as was mentioned earlier, they give the date (1233) when the first mention of a priest in the parish of Alwinton was recorded. These panels were donated by the local community through fund raising quiz nights in the Star Inn, Harbottle as part of the churches redecoration scheme in celebration of the Millennium 2000.

Fonts: There are two fonts. The plain rounded bowl font is from the Reormation and is used for baptisms, whilst the one from the late Victorian period is in the north isle.

All the stained glass at Alwinton was made by Wailes & Strang (1838-1860), Newcastle upon Tyne. With 100 employees, they were the second largest stain glass manufacturer in the country outside of London. William Wailes (1808-1881) who founded the company lived in Saltwell Towers, Gateshead and donated Saltwell Park to the town. He was trained by Augustus Pugen. The factory moved to Bath Lane, Newcastle in 1841, with the showroom in the Exchange Building – now occupied by J.G.Windows Ltd. He was joined by his son in law Strang in 1860. His grandson, William Wailes made the South Choir window of Lindisfarne Church, Holy Island in 1915.

The lower part of the north wall is described as ancient and may predate the Norman Conquest, and like the foundations of the chancel this is all that remains of the original church. The 13th century east wall contains a piscina from the same period, used to drain away holy water to prevent its reuse. This aisle contained the Shilmoor, Clennell, and Barrow porches, and the renaissance table tombs are those of the Clennell family.

The modern altar is dedicated to Marie Todd, a committed Christian who served Alwinton parish for many years and to the memory of her husband.

The present archway was built on the foundations of the Norman arch, which was pulled down during the rebuilding of the church in 1851.

The chancel contains the oldest remaining parts of the 11th century church being the foundations from the archway and up to half its length along the north wall, and the foundations for two thirds of the south wall, incorporating the lancet windows.

The east gable is 17th/18th century with a three light window inserted in 1852 made by Wailes & Strang of Newcastle upon Tyne.

The north wall has a lancet window, set low near its west end, which has been widened by cutting back from the outside.

The reconstructed south wall contains another 13th century piscina though this one differs from that in the north aisle by having a plain pointed fenestella.

Next comes a 19th century two light window with 14th century tracery at its head. This is followed by an 11th century or early 12th century window, whilst the windows on the west end of the chancel in the north and south walls, are 13th century. The ‘modern’ Priest’s door was added in the 17th century.

As was described earlier, the difference in height between the nave and the chancel was the result of raising the chancel floor in the 14th century to provide a family crypt for the Clennell family. This was sealed off in the 1960s and is no longer in use.

Once the Selby family’s private Lady Chapel was dedicated to the Virgin Mary, it was also their private burial chamber prior to them using the crypt below the chancel. In 1991, it was re-furbished by the parish to be used as a place to meet, particularly after worship.

A gravestone dated 1774 is to be found in the southwest corner.

The south aisle also contains the Fenwick-Clennell vault and a mural dated 1796.

Built into the gable end of the south porch: The coat of arms of Thomas Selby and Elizabeth Lumsden. A curiously shaped cross once stood on the lower-pitched 17th century gable.

East Gable: One of the quoins at the southeast corner has ‘Roman’ cross-hatching and may have been from a pre-conquest building.

The church bell: The first church bell, gifted by ‘Mr Tho. Selby of Bitelson and Mr Louk Clennell of Clennell’ in 1771 was badly cracked and on the 20 May 1990 Helen Richardson of Harbottle presented the parish with a new bell cast from the original metal by John Taylor of Loughborough. It is dedicated in memory of Bernard her husband who was the doctor here for many years.

The Parish of Alwinton with Holystone was merged with the parish of Rothbury in 2004 to form the new parish of Upper Coquetdale. Within the Lindisfarne Archdeaconry it is, at 180 square miles, one of the largest in the country and yet only has a population of around 4,500 people.

The Eucharist is celebrated every week, alternating between here and Holystone. The Family Service, for “tiny tots” to 11 year olds,   held  on  the  first  Sunday  of  every  month,  is   strongly supported by parents and members of the congregation. The themes for these services are agreed in liaison with the local primary schools, Harbottle’s being Church of England aided, and involvement in the services by the younger generation is generally encouraged.

We publish and distribute a community newsletter to every home in the parish which incorporates Church and school news together with items from various organisations in the valley.

On the ecumenical front, united services, house and bible study groups for the United Reformed, Roman Catholic, Christian Fellowship and ourselves have become a feature of Christian worship, involving the community from Rothbury to the head of the Coquet valley.

An established series of four Summer Evening Concerts a year is held in the church. They have proved very popular, catering as they do for a wide range of tastes including Northumbrian pipes, ceilidh, choral, orchestral, piano and chamber works.



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