St. Bridget, Beckermet

This parish forms a narrow strip, extending from the coast eight miles inland, with a breadth of not more than one and a half miles, and is comprised within the ward and petty sessional division of Allerdale-above-Derwent; the deanery and county council electoral division of Gosforth; and the poor law union, rural, and county court districts of Whitehaven. It is bounded on the S.E. by the river Calder, which separates it from the parish of Ponsonby; on the W. by the Irish Sea; on the N. by the parishes of Haile and St. John's; and on the E. by the mountains of Copeland Forest. The ratable area of the parish is estimated at 5,063 acres, which are assessed at £5,635. The population in 1801 was 490; in 1851, 664; in 1881, 661; at the present time it is about 680. The inhabitants are chiefly engaged in agriculture, but freestone is quarried to a small extent. The soil on its western side is light and fertile, but towards the east it is cold and sterile. In this part of the parish are Cald Fell and Wasdale Fells, which afford pasturage to large flocks of sheep. Beckermet and Calder Bridge are the largest villages in the parish, which also contains the hamlets of Sellafield, Prior Scale, Yotten Fews, and Scalderskew. The principal landowners are Thomas Rymer, Esq., J.P., of Calder Abbey; Messrs. Lindow, Hartley, J.K. Bourne (Warwickshire), and Henry Walker, Sellafield.

The Manor of Great Beckermet, so called to distinguish it from that of Little Beckermet, in the adjoining parish of St. John's, has never been severed from the barony of Egremont, and is consequently held by the lord of Egremont, Lord Leconfield. One estate, known as the Calder Lordship, is held under the Earldom of Lonsdale.

CALDER BRIDGE is a pleasant village, four miles S. of Egremont, on the high road where the river Calder is crossed by a bridge, and hence its name. The village of Beckermet is partly in this parish and partly in that of St. John, two miles and a half south of Egremont.

The Church, dedicated to St. Bride or St. Bridget, is situated in the village of Calder Bridge. It was erected in 1842, at the sole expense of the late Thomas Irwin, Esq., of Calder Abbey, and is a neat cruciform structure, with a square tower surmounted by four pinnacles. The communion table is of beautifully carved oak, and both the interior and exterior present a chaste and elegant appearance. The windows are of the narrow lancet kind, and are in harmony with the Gothic style of the edifice. The old church, which the present one superseded, stands about half a mile S.W. of the village of Beckermet, and is still used for interments and occasional service. It bears evident traces of antiquity, and was probably erected about 600 years ago. It was appropriated to Calder Abbey before the year 1262, and, until the Dissolution, both this parish and those of St. John and Arlecdon were ministered by the monks of that monastery. Robbed of their revenues by the insatiate Henry, and their possessions given to the Flemings, of Rydal, the two parishes of St. Bridget and St. John were so impoverished, that from the Reformation until 1842, they were only able conjointly to support one curate, who officiated at each church alternately. John Fleming, Esq., gave the church of St. Bridget to Sir Jordan Crossland, Knight, on his marriage with his daughter, whose co-heiresses sold it to Richard Patrickson, Esq. It subsequently passed to the families of Todd and Gaitskell, and in 1840 was purchased by Thomas Irwin, Esq., of Calder Abbey, through whose widow it became the property of the Senhouse family, from whom it was purchased in 1895 by Thomas Rymer, Esq., the present patron. The value of the living is stated to be £180, and is in the hands of the Rev. John Raby, M.A.

In the churchyard of the old edifice is an interesting relic of bygone days. It is the shaft of an ancient cross, probably fabricated during the Anglo-Saxon period of our history. It now consists of a cylindrical column, bevelled to square near the top, and on one of the facets is an inscription in Runic characters. It appears to be written in verse, but authorities are not agreed as to its import. According to the Rev. D.H. Haigh, it commemorates Tuda, Bishop of Northumbria, who perished in that terrible pestilence which ravaged the whole island in the year 664. The presence of this cross with its accompanying inscription, affords a strong proof, he conceives, of the identity of Beckermet with the ancient monastery of Pægnaloech, where, according to the Venerable Bede, Bishop Tuda was buried. If this surmise be correct, we must accord to Beckermet a very respectable antiquity.

Canon Knowles, in a paper read before the members of the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archæological Society, suggests that this and the neighbouring parish of St. John's were the sites of two religious establishments - at the latter a small monastery, and at St. Bridget's, almost within sight, a small nunnery; a near approach to the double foundation presided over by St. Hilda at Whitby.

The School, built by T. Rymer, Esq., in 1894, is in the village of Calder Bridge.

CALDER ABBEY. - This Abbey was founded in the year 1134, by Ranulph de Meschines, for monks of the Cistercian order, and, as was usual with that fraternity, dedicated to the Blessed Virgin. It was a filiation from the Abbey of Furness, and West in his History of that House, gives the following account of its foundation:- "Gerald," he tells us, "with twelve companion monks was despatched to found the Abbey of Calder in Coupland, which, as has been observed, they had by gift of William, nephew to David of Scotland, and here they remained four years, when, David making an inroad into Cumberland, plundered the newly founded Abbey, and Gerald and his companions returned to the mother monastery in Furness. This happened about the third year of King Stephen. The Abbot of Furness refused to receive Gerald and his companions, reproaching them with cowardice for abandoning the monastery, and alleging it was rather the love of that ease and plenty which they expected in Furness, than the devastation of the Scottish arm, that forced them from Calder. Some writers say that the Abbot of Furness insisted that Gerald should divest himself of his authority, and absolved the monks from their obedience to him as a condition of their receiving any relief, or being again admitted into their old monastery. This, Gerald and his companions refused to do, and turning their faces from Furness, they, with the remains of their broken fortune, which consisted of little more than some clothes, and a few books, with one cart and eight oxen, taking Providence for their guide, went in search of better hospitality. The result of their next day's resolution was to address themselves to Thurstan, Archbishop of York, and beg his advice and relief. The reception they met with from him answered their wishes; the Archbishop graciously received them, and charitably entertained them some time, then recommending them to Gundreda d' Aubigny, who sent them to Robert d'Alneto, her brother, a hermit at Hode, where she supplied them with necessaries for some time." In the meantime another colony from Furness had been sent to occupy Calder under the rule of Hardred. Gerald died at York, and was succeeded in his office of abbot by Roger. The little community found a generous benefactor in Roger de Mowbray, who, at the instance of his mother, gave some land near the river Rye, where they erected Byland Abbey. The Abbot of Furness again put forth his authority and claimed jurisdiction over Byland as a filiation from Calder. The claim was submitted to the arbitration of a jury of abbots under Aldred, of Reival, and judgement was given in favour of the independence of Byland.

The Abbey of Calder received many valuable grants from various benefactors; amongst others there were the churches of St. John the Baptist, Beckermet; and St. Michael, Arlecdon; besides land in several localities, a moiety of the vill of Dereham and the advowson of the church there. Its principal benefactors were John de Fleming, Knt., Ciceley, Countess of Albemarle, William de Esseby, and the Huddleston family.

We may here pause to inquire into the mode of life pursued by the monks of Calder. As the same discipline was practised in every house of the Order, we will quote the words of Cardinal Vitri, who visited the monastery of Clairvaux in the 13th century, and was much edified by what he saw:- "The monks used neither furs nor linen, and never ate any flesh except in times of dangerous sickness; they abstained even from eggs, butter, milk, and cheese, unless upon extraordinary occasions, and when given to them in alms. They had belonging to them certain religious lay brethren, whose office was to cultivate their lands, and to attend to their secular affairs; these lived at their Granges, or farms, and were treated in like manner with the monks, but were never indulged with the use of wine. The monks who attended the choir slept in their habits upon straw; they rose at midnight, and spent the rest of the night in singing the Divine Office. After prime and first mass, having accused themselves of their faults in public chapter, the rest of the day was spent in labour, reading, and a variety of spiritual exercises, with uninterrupted silence." On certain occasions a little relaxation was allowed from this rigorous silence, and at these times, usually some festival, a portion of time was allowed for conversation in the locutorium or parlour; on these occasions, too, they were permitted to walk abroad, but were not allowed to receive or pay visits. As time wore on, the fire which animated the first neophytes of the Order began to burn with diminished fervency; the rigid and austere rule of St. Benedict was less adhered to, and breaches of monastic discipline became frequent. Many of the prescribed austerities were, therefore, mitigated by order of Pope Sixtus IV, in 1485. But the Monks of Calder were not long to enjoy the advantages of this Papal indulgence. Troublous times for the church and the cowled inmates of the monasteries were fast approaching. Henry VIII, the monster, whose boast was that he never spared woman in his lust, nor man in his anger, had squandered the immense wealth left by his father, and the revenues and possessions accumulated by the religious orders, offered a ready means of replenishing his exhausted coffers. He had severed his connection with Rome, and, though antagonistic to the doctrines of Luther, which was rapidly spreading throughout Germany, he assumed supreme authority over the Church of these realms. In the monks he found the strongest opponents of the Royal supremacy; the secular clergy were, to a great extent, subservient and servile, but in the cloisters his assumption met with a determined opposition.

The storm at length burst, and the fiat of dissolution went forth. A general visitation of monasteries was appointed, to inquire into the conduct of the monks; but the blow fell first upon those houses whose incomes did not exceed £200 a year. Among these was Calder Abbey, the revenues of which, according to Dugdale, were valued at £50 9s. 3d., or, according to Speed, at £64 3s. 9d. The suppression took place about the year 1536, and two years later the King granted to Dr. Lee (one of the commissioners for visiting monasteries) and his heirs "the demesne and site of the abbey or manor of Calder, and the church, steeple, and churchyard thereof, and all messuages, lands, tenements, houses, buildings, barns, dovecotes, gardens, orchards, waters, ponds, mills, ground, and soil, as well within as nigh unto the site and precinct of the said monastery; as also all lands, tenements, meadows, pastures, woods, &c., at Calder, containing in the whole 217 acres, of the clear yearly value of £13 10s. 4d., to hold of the King in capite, by the tenth part of a knight's fee, and the rent of £27 0s. 1d, in the name of tenths, to be paid into the Court of Augmentations." Ferdinando, Dr. Lee's grandson, sold this property to Sir Richard Fletcher, Knight, of Hutton, who gave it in marriage with his daughter Bridget, to Mr. John Patrickson, of Castlehow. His son sold it to Mr. John Tiffin, of Cockermouth, by whom it was given to his grandson, John Senhouse, Esq. By the marriage of Mary, daughter of Joseph Tiffin Senhouse, Esq., with Thomas Irwin, Esq., the estate passed to that gentleman, but at the death of his widow reverted to the Senhouse family in the person of Miss Sarah Senhouse, at whose death it was received by Mr. Samuel Minton (afterwards the Rev. Samuel Minton-Senhouse), from whom it was purchased by Thomas Rymer, Esq.

The Ruins of the Abbey are situated on the north bank of the Calder, in a secluded valley, about a mile from the high road. It is beautifully sheltered by majestic trees, which rise from the skirts of the level meadows to the tops of the hills which bound the sweet vale of the Calder. As Hutchinson says "the solemn ruins seem to stand mourning in their sacred solitude, concealing woe in the secluded valley, and bending to the adversity of ages, like the image of Melancholy, looking down desponding on the tomb of interred honours and wasted ornaments." The conventual church formed a cross, having north and south transepts, with a tower at the intersection, a great part of which still remains, and the weather mouldings of the roofs show that they were high pitched. It rests upon light clustered arches, with capitals ornamented with a roll, from which spring beautifully pointed arches, which form the cupola.

"There's beauty in the old monastic pile,
When purple twilight, like a nun, appears
Bending o'er ruin'd arch and wasted aisle -
Majestic glories of departed years -
Whilst dark above the victor ivy rears
Its sacrilegious banner * * *
*     *      *

Yet, amidst dust and darkness, and decline,
A beauty mantles still the edifice divine."

In an arched recess, on the south side of the choir, was the sedilia, where the officiating priest sat during the chanting of the "Gloria in excelsis Deo " and some other parts of the Mass. The east end of the choir is entirely gone, and if it extended no farther than the walls now standing, must have been very small. Some years ago excavations were made in the basement of the Abbey, and the foundations of the north and south walls were discovered and traced to the east end. The upper chambers show a range of windows, eight to the west and seven to the east; and on the ground floor are the remnants of three arches, which belong to a small cloister. A little to the north-east of the ruins may be seen the remains of the monastic bakery. On an alabaster slab, near the south transept, is the following inscription, in Lombardic capitals:- "Hic jacet dominus Robertus de Wilughby, Abbas de Caldra, eujus animæ propicietur Deus." (Here lies Robert de Willoughby, Lord Abbot of Calder, on whose soul may God have mercy). On the north transept are three effigies of knights in male armour, in surcoats, &c. One is supposed to be to the memory of Sir John le Fleming, who was a benefactor to the abbey.

The situation of the monastery is well suited for a life of retirement from the bustle and business of the world. "Soothed by the unseen river's gentle murmur," the monks might here indulge in meditation and study, undisturbed by all, until Dr. Lee cast his eye upon the pile, and obtained a grant of it from the eighth Harry.

"Alas for man's frail work !   What mighty wrecks
Of grandeur past are here !  Say, ruined wall -
Ye ivy-clad and mould'ring arches - say,
Where are your ancient inmates ?  They are gone !
In the lone cells, where erst the voice of prayer
Was hourly breathed, the night wind whistles chill;
And now, where once the solemn hymn and chant
Were echoed through the dim and stately aisles,
The wild bird builds her nest, and, warbling there,
Trills her sweet lay, unmindful of the Past."

"How often has this consecrated edifice resounded with the vocal chant and the pealing organ, and echoed the solemn strains of the 'Te Deum,' the 'Jubilate Deo,' and other parts of the Church service !  At other times the hush of midnight has been made more impressive by funeral obsequies, when the 'De Profundis' was chanted, and

'Through the glimmering aisle faint misereres died.'

"How much of all that men most value must have been sacrificed to raise this pile !  How much of thought, and science, and rare intellect concentrated on every part !  How many generations have dwelt beneath the shadow of this temple, upheld its worship, added to its splendour, and so engraven upon the very stones their witness to the truth of that invisible world, of which they are in every part the symbol and the type !"

The modern mansion of Calder Abbey, which occupies the site of the conventual buildings, is the seat of Thomas Rymer, Esq., the venerable ruins of this time-honoured pile have been preserved by the different owners of the estate, in excellent order, but it is to be lamented that the style of architecture of this stately residence is not suited to its locality. The walk from the abbey to the, church, along the banks of the Calder, is one of the prettiest in Cumberland.

The old school building has been converted into a Library and Recreation Room, with about 450 volumes. It is supplied with newspapers and periodicals.

Prior Scale is the name of a hamlet consisting of two farms and a few houses, about a mile above the abbey, opposite the mountain called Cald Fell, near to which rises the Haycocks, and a round knot designated Great Gowder Crag.

Sella Park, or Field, is a hamlet, near the sea, five miles S. of Egremont. It was formerly the property of the monks of Calder Abbey, who had here a deer park; but was granted, on the dissolution of chantries, to Sir Henry Curwen, of Workington, Knt., whose grandson, Darcy Curwen, Esq., built a dwelling here, now occupied by John Sergent, Esq. The estate is at present the property of William Stanley, Esq.

Sellafield Tarn is a small sheet of water between the Ehan and Calder.

Sellafield Railway Station, in this parish, is distant about 2½ miles from Calder Bridge.




Bulmer's History & Directory Of Cumberland, 1901

19 June 2015

© Steve Bulman