Visiting St Bartholomew's Church
We look forward very much to welcoming you to St Bartholomew's Church in Newbiggin by the Sea.
St Bartholomew's is an iconic and very ancient building serving the community here for many hundreds of years and will continue to do so for many hundreds of years yet to come.
We hope that this short guide to the building helps to give you a taste of this wonderful and peaceful place in its unique location next to the ever changing North Sea.
The information in this section can be found in a short booklet that is for sale in the church along with a beautiful guide produced especially for children and a DVD produced by John Grundy and Peter Ryder talking about the history of this place.
Enjoy your visit.
An artistic impression by Peter Ryder of how
St Bartholomew’s might have looked in the 13th C at the time of its fullest development: the nave lengthened to six bays, west tower and transepts added and a new chancel (with a slightly larger north vestry)
A short guide to St. Bartholomew’s Church, Newbiggin-by-the-Sea
The Church of St. Bartholomew’s, situated on a low rocky promontory at the end of the long sweep of Newbiggin Bay, commands fine views. It is a prominent feature in the town as well as on the North East coastline, a beacon to inhabitants, visitors and seafarers alike. It is the oldest building in the town and provides a key link to the medieval settlement of Newbiggin-by-the-Sea.
Although St. Bartholomew’s Church has undergone many changes over the centuries, we hope that this brief guide will help you understand some of the many interesting features of the church.
There is a tradition that there was a chapel on this site, built by the monks of Lindisfarne as part of their mission to Northumbria. There are no remains of a Saxon church but the dramatic headland site was of the type favoured by Celtic missionaries, as at Tynemouth for instance. If there had been a church here, it is likely that it would have been re-established at Woodhorn during Halfdan’s reign of terror of 875.
The earliest written reference to a church standing on its present site is in the English Episcopal Acta of Bishop of Durham Hugh le Puiset (1153-1195), where in 1174 the 'capella...de Newebigginge' is mentioned as being a chapel of 'Wdehorn', part of the cell of Tynemouth, which was granted to the monastery of St Albans by Robert de Mowbray, Earl of Northumberland.
The main expansion of the church took place in the 13th and 14th centuries, giving it a long nave
with aisles, transepts, a chancel (at the time was one of the largest outside Newcastle), and a small
tower with a spire, one of the only two mediaeval spires surviving in the county. So in the 14th century Newbiggin possessed a sizeable church suited to its status as a developing sea port.
The ensuing sustained period of the Anglo-Scottish wars is likely to have resulted in the loss of the
aisles and transepts and the remodelling of the western tower as a defensible retreat. The tower
had its arch reduced to a small doorway, a vault inserted, and the west door and window blocked.
A considerable number of Northumberland churches lost aisles and transepts in the medieval
period, presumably as a result of war damage.
The earliest post-medieval description recorded was by Archdeacon Sharp in 1723: ‘It hath
formerly been a large church, consisting of three aisles, but now nothing remains but the body
of the middle aisle, the arches between the pillars on both sides being walled up, and the
outward walls or boundaries of the building on both sides quite taken away. The walls of the
old chancel, which hath been a spacious one, are yet standing without roof, and built out of the present chapel, the arch between the body and the chancel being walled up’. The church
continued to fall in to disrepair and in 1839 still had no roof over the chancel.
From 1840 onwards significant restoration work was undertaken, culminating in 1914 with
a new aisle on the north side (an aisle was also planned for the south side), the extension to the church being required due to the rapidly increasing population following the sinking of the Newbiggin colliery in 1908.
Extensive restoration work was required in the 1920s after a sea mine exploded on 19th March 1921. The mine
had been washed ashore and was being deactivated when it exploded resulting in damage that made the church almost unusable.
More restoration work has taken place throughout the 20th and early 21st century to ensure that the church survives as a working church and continues to be a landmark on the Northumberland coast.
We start this tour at the western end of the church, and with your back to
the organ you are standing at the western end of the nave.
The most prominent features of the nave are the six arches, or arcades,
which line either side of the aisle. Each of the arches is supported by an
octagonal pillar, or pier. The eastern four arches on each side are mid
13th Century and the western two date to c1300.
The North Aisle
On entering the north aisle, we are entering the most recent part of the church.
A need for space resulted in the construction of the north aisle in 1914, replacing the early nineteenth century gallery which had been lit by dormer windows, visible on this early 20th
This gallery had been removed before the north aisle was built, and blocked windows that
originally provided light to the gallery can be seen above the second arch from the west end.
The most striking feature of the north aisle is the collection of medieval grave slabs that
have been incorporated into the north wall. These grave slabs, or cross slabs, would have
originally been placed over graves. Many date to the late twelfth or early thirteenth century.
They represent one of the best collections of these monuments in Northumberland, and of
particular interest are the two fine examples at the eastern end of the north aisle which have
ornate crosses as well as keys and shears, the usual emblems of a woman. Some were
re-used in the nineteenth century, with inscriptions being added.
The War Memorial
At the eastern end of the north aisle we reach the war memorial which commemorates the people of Newbiggin who were killed in the First and Second World Wars. Above the two framed rolls of honour, listing the names of the men who were killed, hangs the carving of the Risen Christ by J. R. Murray McCheyne, M.A.D.A., F.R.B.S., who was Senior Lecturer and Master of Sculpture at the University of Newcastle. The figure of Christ is carved from Austrian straight grained oak and the cross on which He is attached is of English oak.
On leaving the north aisle we turn left and enter the eastern end of the church, the chancel. For many years this part of the church lay derelict and the nave formed the main body of the church with the altar located before the steps near the lectern and pulpit.
The chancel was re-roofed in the mid-nineteenth century and further restoration work was undertaken in the late nineteenth century which included enlarging the chancel arch. The earlier small arch was removed and reused in the north wall providing an opening to the first organ chamber and vestry.
Altar and east window
Much of the chancel is probably fourteenth century in date, and at the eastern end is the large altar, behind which stands the eastern window. Although this was restored in 2007, much of the inner frame dates to the medieval period, while the twentieth century window it holds was created by the stained glass designer Stanley Murray Scott. The central light contains the image of Christ, who is flanked by four Archangels. Other symbols include the emblems of the Evangelists, along with the shields representing the sees of Durham and Newcastle along with that for the province of York. Finally, in the bottom left of the window we see a shield containing the three knives, the symbol of
St Bartholomew, to whom the church is dedicated.
As we walk back into the nave from the chancel, a blocked door can be seen in the south wall near the chancel arch. This door is not visible on the outside of the church, providing some idea of the level of restoration that has taken place to the outer fabric of the church. For many years the first window in the south wall of the nave, as you enter from the chancel, was also blocked. It was opened and dedicated as a memorial window on the 9th December 2007. One local tradition is that the window was used during the medieval period by lepers, allowing them to watch the service. The small ledge may have been used to pass the host to the lepers on the outside before they made their way back to the hospital from where Spital, at the western end of Newbiggin, takes its name. Another, perhaps more likely, use for the window was that it was used to carry a lantern to shed light on the church yard.
Back to the nave
As you walk back through the nave to the western end of the church, look again at the nave arcades; the hoodmoulds of the arches end in carved heads, whilst the capital of the second pier from the east is unique with the foliage carving that appears on it. Re-used carved stones of twelfth century date can be seen in the north wall above the arches.
Now leave the church and enter the porch which forms the entrance to St. Bartholomew’s. A number of medieval cross slabs have been incorporated into this structure, with designs including the cross and the fleur-de-lys, and most have been dated to the twelfth century.
Two heavily eroded heads flank the doorway.
St. Bartholomew’s burial ground has been used for centuries, and many interesting headstones survive within the graveyard. These include the Grade II listed headstone of Captain John Lipton who died when his ship, the ‘George and Mary,’ was wrecked near to the north of Newbiggin at Cresswell in April 1799.
A second Grade II listed headstone commemorates another seafarer, a pilot named Redford, who was killed with three other pilots in January 1805.
Turning back to the church we walk to the western end of the building and the distinctive tower which makes
St. Bartholomew’s a major landmark on the coastline. Much of this tower dates to the beginning of the fourteenth century, although it has, like other parts of the church, undergone changes and a number of cross slabs have been incorporated into the structure.
Soon after construction the tower arch was blocked and a vault inserted, with a staircase was to the room above that had a machicolation or defensive chute above it. The tower thus became a defensible structure, perhaps offering protection for the priest and the townsfolk during the tumultuous border wars.
We hope you have enjoyed your visit to St. Bartholomew’s and the basic information this guide has provided relating to the church and its history and development.
Our grateful thanks to:
Jonathan Shipley, Ph.D., Philippa Sinclair, M.Theol., Mr Peter Ryder, Mr Ray Urwin (images) and all those who have supported the publication of this short guide
Click on the map to open up a larger view
The church as it was in 1839
Click on the image to go to the page about cross slabs
Before the building of the North Aisle at the turn of the last century