I’m not religious, and . . .

. . . I no longer hold any religious beliefs. I shed those almost six decades ago.

But Steph and I do enjoy exploring many of the fine—awesome even—churches, abbeys, and priories that were constructed centuries ago by Christian communities to reflect ‘the glory of their omnipotent God’.

On the map below I have marked those we have visited over the years. Each icon is accompanied by several photos, and links to websites, my own blog posts and/or photo albums, where you will find much more information.

Ruins have a blue marker; churches that are still open have a purple one. Cathedrals are marked dark red for those we’ve actually been inside, whereas those viewed from a distance are marked yellow. One 16th century religious curiosity, Rushton Triangular Lodge, has a black icon.

There are also three pagan sites on the map that pre-date Christianity by centuries if not millennia, shown with green icons.

Most of the monasteries and priories were founded by the Cistercians, the Benedictines, and Augustinians among others in the immediate centuries following the Norman invasion of England in 1066.

During the Dissolution of the Monasteries enacted by Henry VIII between 1536 and 1541 many of these communities were disbanded and their assets claimed by the Crown or handed willy-nilly to allies of the King. We only see their ruins today, some more intact than others, but all leaving an impression of what they must have looked like in their heyday.

Fortunately many of the great cathedrals still stand proudly. It never ceases to amaze me—inspire even—just what it took to build these impressive edifices, up to a thousand years ago. Take late 12th century Wells Cathedral, for example.

Some are more recent. For example, St Paul’s (below) in London was designed by Sir Christopher Wren in the late 17th century after the Great Fire of September 1666 had destroyed the original church. It survived the London Blitz during World War II.

In Liverpool, there are two 20th century cathedrals: Anglican and Catholic. The former took 74 years to complete between 1904 and 1978. The latter, a very modern design, opened in 1967 after six years. Another recent cathedral is Coventry (designed by Sir Basil Spence), which opened in 1962 and stands beside the bombed-out ruins of the original cathedral.

Since we became members of the National Trust and English Heritage in 2011, we have visited many of the ruined abbeys and priories under their care. Here in the northeast of England where we now live, there are many ruined abbeys and priories, as well as several early Anglo-Saxon chapels still in use. After all, the ancient Kingdom of Northumbria was a cradle of Christianity in these islands.

Since there is so much more information in the map links, let me just focus on one ruined abbey and two churches that have particularly caught my attention.

Standing beneath a steep slope in a secluded valley of the River Rye in the North York Moors, Rievaulx Abbey is surely one of the best. It is managed today by English Heritage.

It was the first Cistercian abbey founded in this country in 1132 by twelve monks from Clairvaux Abbey in northeast France. It was closed during the Dissolution in 1538.

What an impressive building, made even more so by its location. From Rievaulx Terrace above, you can get a bird’s-eye view of the whole site.

In the heart of the Gloucestershire countryside in the village of Kempley, the little Church of St Mary’s is an absolute jewel. Built in the late 12th century, it has some of the most exquisite Romanesque fresco paintings. It really is remarkable that they have survived all these centuries given the vandalism that occured during Henry VIII’s reign and afterwards. We visited in May 2015, and I had intended to return one day, but now that we are based in the northeast, that seems less likely. Nevertheless, this small church has left me a lasting impression. It is certainly worth a detour if you are ever in the vicinity.

Lastly, I have chosen St. Michael and All Angels Church, Great Witley, surely Britain’s finest baroque church. It stands next to the burnt out ruins of Witley Court in Worcestershire.

Completed in 1735, it was originally quite plain inside. However, in 1747, it underwent a remarkable transformation when the owner of Witley Court, the 2nd Baron Foley acquired furnishings, paintings, and stained glass windows from Cannons House that was demolished by the 2nd Duke of Chandos and its contents sold. You can read more about the church’s history here.

Well, those are my three choices. Take a look at the map and see if you agree. They are all special in so many ways. And I always come away with my spirits uplifted, but without religious experience per se.


Riding the Metro to the sixteenth century and beyond

I love train journeys. Long or short. It makes no difference. I’d travel everywhere by train if it were possible, convenient, and affordable.

And a couple of days ago, after seven months here in the northeast of England (on the outskirts of Newcastle upon Tyne in North Tyneside), Steph and I took our first ride on the region’s Metro. Destination: Tynemouth, just six stations and 12 minutes from our nearest station, Northumberland Park.

We had delayed taking the Metro until Covid-19 travel restrictions had been eased, infection rates had started to decline steeply, and both of us had been vaccinated. It’s now been almost three weeks since we both received our second vaccine doses: Pfizer for me, AstraZeneca for Steph.

Earlier last week we upgraded our concessionary travel passes (CTP) to Gold Cards. With our CTP, we have unlimited free travel on buses nationwide, one of the benefits of being a senior citizen. For an extra £12 fee, we purchased unlimited travel on the Metro that we can use everyday, but only after 09:30 on weekdays. Here’s my CTP. Somehow my image was squashed; the original I submitted with my online application was fine.

The Tyne & Wear Metro (a publicly-owned transport system) serves five metropolitan boroughs: Newcastle upon Tyne and North Tyneside on the north bank of the River Tyne, and Gateshead, South Tyneside, and Sunderland, on the south side, which together make up the former Tyne & Wear metropolitan county. The first stretches of the network opened in 1980, and today comprises the Green and Yellow Lines. In all there are 60 stations along almost 50 miles of track.

Parts of the network utilize former 19th century railway lines, one of the oldest parts being the former Newcastle and North Shields Railway. In recent decades, new Metro lines have been added or extended, taking the network as far west as Newcastle Airport. The system has overhead electrification throughout. The rolling stock is, however, showing its age, and breakdowns are not infrequent. The Metro is currently undergoing a major upgrade and new rolling stock are expected to be introduced over the next couple of years.

Train to Tynemouth approaching Northumberland Park station.

Train departing Northumberland Park towards Shiremoor, the next station down the line, and on to Tynemouth, eventually leading back into Newcastle city center.

Several of the stations are the original ones built for the former rail companies. Monkseaton, Whitley Bay, and Tynemouth are particularly outstanding: beautiful red brick buildings, with glass roofs to the platform edges. Tynemouth is a striking example, and has lost none of its Victorian charm.

Northumberland Park is one of the newest stations, opened in 2005 to serve the recent housing developments nearby on reclaimed mining land, and the Cobalt Business Park just a mile or so to the south (largely vacant at the moment due to office closures during the pandemic).In this video, we are approaching Tynemouth station.

So, why did we head to Tynemouth as our first Metro destination? We’ve been there several times before when visiting Philippa and family over the years.

This time, however, we had a particular Tynemouth destination in sight: Tynemouth Priory and Castle, owned and operated by English Heritage.

This was a Benedictine priory, which the same fate as countless others under the Dissolution of the Monasteries during the reign of Henry VIII between 1539.

The priory (and its fortifications) were built on the headland of Pen Bal Crag, that juts out into the North Sea opposite the end of Tynemouth Front Street.

From the grounds of the priory and castle there are excellent views of St Edward’s Bay to Sharpness Point to the north, and overlooking Short Sands beach.

To the south, the coast stretches past South Shields, overlooking the north and south piers of the entrance to the River Tyne.

While we were having our picnic lunch overlooking the Tyne, a large transporter ship entered the river, making its way west upriver to dock of the port of Newcastle. This was once a very busy port, exporting coal worldwide. And it was a major ship-building location, sadly now disappeared. Although it was a bright sunny day with little breeze, I was surprised at how rough the sea was outside the north pier. As we approached the cliff edge we could hear the booming of the waves as they crashed against the pier. On the other hand, I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised. For the past few days we’ve had brisk northeasterly winds, with a long fetch down the North Sea from the Arctic.

Just inland from the mouth of the River Tyne, is a huge statue (facing south) of Vice Admiral Lord Cuthbert Collingwood (a Newcastle native) who was second-in-command to Lord Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.

Humans have occupied Pen Bal Crag for at least two millennia, with remains of Iron Age roundhouses discovered on the site. The earliest priory itself dates from the 7th century, but the ruins standing today date from the 13th century. There is a nice summary of Tynemouth Priory’s history on the English Heritage website.

Today the ruins are a stark reminder of how majestic Tyneside Priory must have been in its heyday. Standing on this peninsula, looking out to sea, the priory reminds me of Whitby Abbey (another site carefully managed by English Heritage on the North Yorkshire coast).

The entrance to the priory passes through the gatehouse of the castle, and opens up on to a broad grassy area, overlooking the coast, and encompassing the ruins, a cemetery of mainly 18th and 19th century graves, many incredibly weathered sandstone, and an abandoned coastguard station. There are also World War One and Two naval gun fortifications facing out to sea.

A couple of things struck me as we walked around the ruins. Again, how the monks chose such inspiring locations to build their monasteries. And second, what a beautiful sandstone they used for Tynemouth Priory and its castle fortifications. It glowed a deep golden brown in the strong May sunshine.

After the Dissolution, the site was occupied for centuries by the military and, as I mentioned earlier, artillery installations from two world wars dominate the cliffs overlooking the entrance to the River Tyne.

There has also been one further addition—a bit of a blot on the landscape—especially as it has been abandoned for 20 years. In 1980, a new coastguard station was constructed alongside the priory ruins. Following a restructuring of the coastguard service in 2001, the station was closed and stands there today, a white elephant staring out to sea. Rather incongruous, given the serenity of the priory ruins close by.

Our visit to Tynemouth Priory was certainly one of our most convenient English Heritage or National Trust visits. Having enjoyed our picnic, we made our way back to the station for the short journey home. We’d walked almost four miles, and enjoyed the sea breezes. No wonder I felt tired after we arrived home. It didn’t take long before I dozed off in my armchair.