Roman and Saxon stones in Yorkshire

ROMANS TRAVELLING ON the ancient Dere Street, a road constructed by the Romans, between York and Hadrian’s Wall crossed the river Ure near the present Yorkshire village of Aldborough, which archaeological research has revealed stands on the site of a large Roman town called ‘Isurium Brigantum’. Some of the Roman remains can be seen at the beautifully laid out English Heritage site in Aldborough. The parish church in Aldborough is built on the site of the forum of the former Roman town and contains a Roman sculpture, which might well depict the god Mercury. Excavations, which we viewed, being undertaken by archaeologists from Cambridge University are discovering that the Roman town was an important way station for supplying and servicing troops travelling to and from Hadrian’s Wall. The archaeologists, who kindly showed us around their dig,  asked us not to reveal what they have discovered because they have yet to be published in the appropriate way.

A carved Saxon stone incorporated into the masonry of a church wall at Kirby Hill, Yorkshire

After crossing the Ure at Aldborough, Dere Street, so named after the Romans had departed from Britain, travelled north to Catterick (Roman: ‘Cataractonium’). A few miles from Aldborough, the old road used by the Romans passed close to the Yorkshire village of Kirby Hill, whose parish church, All Saints, perches on the summit of a hill. It is possible that the church is sited where once there was a Celtic and/or Roman shrine. The church’s informative website (www.allsaintskirbyhill.org.uk/) reveals:

“… there are some large stones in the lower walling; one of these at the South West angle is clearly Roman and has a sunk panel, which once contained a 13 line inscription. Unfortunately, it is now very badly weathered. It was a posthumous dedication to either Antonins Pius or Caracalla, the first such recorded from Roman Britain.”

Unfortunately, when we visited this lovely church recently, we missed seeing this interesting souvenir of the Roman occupation of Britain. However, during our brief look inside the church we did see evidence of some of the invaders who arrived in Britain after the Romans had left.

The church contains some well-preserved carved fragments of Saxon crosses. High up on the south side of the church, we noticed that such a fragment had been incorporated in the stonework of its wall, just as the Roman stonework had been incorporated elsewhere in the structure of the church as already described.

The nave of All Saints was built both during the Saxon and Norman eras. Its structure includes some Saxon slabs as well as those placed after the Norman invasion in 1066. A north aisle was added in about 1160 and is separated from the older part of the church by semi-circular masonry arcades supported by sturdy stone pillars topped with capitals dating back to Norman times.

The church, which we only visited because we followed a roadside direction sign with the words “Ancient Church”, contains many other interesting features, which we did not have time to examine as we were in a bit of a hurry to reach an appointment on time. When we told a lady, who was telling us about the church, that we were rather pressed for time, she said to us, smiling:

“That’s a pity. You’re speaking with the wrong person. You can’t expect someone from Yorkshire to be brief.”

A country church with a thatched roof

SNAPE MALTINGS ON Suffolk’s River Alde is a famous venue for music (mainly) and the other arts. It is the home of the Aldeburgh Festival, started in 1948 by the composer Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) and his partner, the singer Peter Pears (1910-1986). We have yet to attend a concert there, but we have eaten a fine lunch in its beautifully designed River View eatery. From the Maltings, you can enjoy views across the water meadows and if you look carefully enough, you can spot the tower of the Church of St Botolph in the tiny village of Iken across the river.

St Botolph, who died in about 680, is believed to have brought Christianity to Iken in about 654. He is the patron saint of boundaries, and, because of this, also of trade and travel. The present church dedicated to him is curious because its nave has a thatched roof. It was preceded by a minster built by Botolph but destroyed by the Danes in the 9th century. In 870, a Saxon timber church was constructed. This has also gone. It was replaced by a stone edifice, the beginning of what we can see today.

The Norman flint-rubble nave of the current church was built between about 1070 and 1110. The western tower, also with flint and other masonry was constructed soon after Robert Geldeny and William Baldwyn bequeathed money for its construction in 1450 and 1456 respectively. During the Reformation in the 16th century, various changes were made to the church’s interior to conform with the restrained liturgical requirements of the Reformed Church. This would have included whitewashing over colourful frescoes and destruction of stained glass and other decorative features.  By the 19th century, the church was becoming somewhat dilapidated. Between 1850 and 1860, restoration works were undertaken. A new chancel was constructed in the style of the early 14th century on the foundations of the original mediaeval chancel. It was designed by John Whichcord (1790-1860) of Maidstone in Kent.

In 1942, during WW2, the whole of the population of Iken was evacuated so that the area could be used for battle training. The church was also closed. It reopened in 1947 after the villagers returned to Iken. During the 1950s, they did much work to improve the condition of their church. In 1968, sparks from timber being burnt nearby set fire to the thatched roof of the church. The nave was badly damaged, but the chancel survived. Today, visitors to the church would not be able to imagine that it had suffered such a conflagration, so well has it been repaired.

Inside the church, several things attracted my attention. The most fascinating is the Saxon cross shaft in the northwest corner of the nave. Covered with bas-relief Celtic-style carvings this 4 ½ foot fragment of a stone cross (possibly, originally 9 feet in length) was created either in the 9th or 10th century. Near to this, there is a lovely octagonal stone font, which is 15th century. It is covered with superb carvings, some of which depict the emblems of the four Evangelists. These are separated from each other by angels. The wooden altar reredos, a panel behind the altar, was carved by Harry Brown of Ipswich and dedicated in 1959. It bears a bas-relief of The Last Supper, which Mr Brown based on the famous painting of that occasion by Leonardo da Vinci. I have mentioned a few of the items within the church that I found interesting but there is plenty more to see, all listed in an informative booklet on sale in the church.

From the boundary of the graveyard surrounding this lovely church, you can catch glimpses of the River Alde, which flows nearby. Visitors to Snape Maltings should spare some time to visit the church at Iken. It is so nearby yet feels so far away.