Visit Hidden Britain

The Christian Heritage Trail - a guided exploration of the area

Evidence for mankind’s ‘spiritual journeying’ from the earliest times lies relatively undisturbed across the beautiful Furness Peninsular. There is a stone circle on Birkrigg Common, burial mounds, earth works, standing stones, sacred wells alongside significant remains of Neolithic, Bronze Age and Roman habitation. Much more awaits the interested wanderer whether it be by foot, bike or car, and of course, revealing spectacular scenery and panoramic views in all directions.

The ‘christianising’ of pagan religious sites and the growth and development of Christianity can be evidenced in and through Low Furness’ ecclesiastical and religious buildings, some of which are still active places of worship, prayer and Christian pilgrimage.

St Mary and St Michael Church, Great UrswickRecent archeological discoveries show that the epicentre for the growth and spread of Christianity could have been the church of St. Mary and St. Michael Great Urswick, a former monastic site built upon a substantial Roman site and associated with the early Celtic Saints. Rightly regarded as the ‘mother church’ of Furness.

View of Urswick Tarn with the church and village behindIt is not difficult to imagine how remote Furness was from the rest of the mainland Britain. One of the oldest and most hazardous routes was across the sands of Morecambe Bay, a route well known to early travellers, used by the Romans and by pilgrims and other ’religious folk’ moving between monastic communities. The bold ’pilgrim’ can still cross ’over Sands’ from Cartmel with a professional guide and can come via Chapel Island to reach the base of Low Furness at Conishead Bank near to Conishead Priory which is now a major Buddist teaching centre.

Conishead Priory  Chapel Island  

This follows the route called the Cistecian Way which then brings us past the hill fort above Urswick and then drops down into Urswick and its Tarn, continues along the spine of Low Furness to the majestic ruins of the former hugely influential Cistercian Abbey called Furness Abbey.

Aldingham ChurchFurness AbbeyLet’s pick up our route again from Gleaston Mill (stopping for refreshments and a local history lesson) and head out towards the coast road to find the particularly beautiful setting for St.Cuthbert’s Church at Aldingham. The first recorded incumbent of St.Cuthbert’s was Daniel Le Fleming of The Mote, about 1180, son of Michael Le Fleming to whom we were introduced at Urswick He ceded much of Low Furness and its people to Furness Abbey in return for other lands at Bardsea. This was a religious site well before the current church was erected in about 1130; it is likely that the monks from Lindisfarne brought the bones of St.Cuthbert here in about 880AD to avoid their capture by the Danish invaders. They continued on their long and winding journey back to Chester- le-Street by 882 having been seven years ‘on the road‘ around the North of England. A standing cross was probably erected here to commemorate this resting place. (A well-worn portion of a Saxon cross is built into the east wall of the chancel).

Piel Island

Turning along the Coast Road to Rampside ’village’ and Roa Island is well rewarded with a short ferry ride across to Piel Island with its 14th Century castle which was used as a fortified warehouse by the monks of Furness Abbey.

Roa IslandRampside ChurchIf we continue along the Coast Road towards Barrow we reach St. Michael’s church, formerly a chapel of ease linked with Furness Abbey and is now a parish church serving Rampside and area. Viking remains have been found here. Many of its graves indicate its links with the sea.

The political and ecclesiastical turbulence of the 16th and 17th centuries is all well documented in Low Furness. Dissenting groups flourished in worship. A significant increase in Anglican churches built by particular benefactors is noticed.

St Matthew's Church DendronSt Matthew's Church DendronSuch was the position of St. Matthew’s, the heart of rural Furness. Its chief ‘claim to fame’ is as a place where the young George Romney went to school for a while.

Swarthmoor Hall became a centre for Quakerism, the home of the ’notorious’’ George Fox.

The growth of Methodism and small ’mission churches’ in the villages are an illustration of a more vigorous period of Church history, but now provide a stark reminder of the 20th century church’s retreat from the countryside. Examples of these buildings can still be seen (albeit now as private houses) in Stainton, Gleaston, and other places. A small United Reformed Church continues to meet for worship in Urswick and has good links with the ’parish church’ there.

Holy Trinity, BardseaBy contrast , the influences of the ’new Romans’, the Victorians, a period of vigorous church re-ordering and building developments, will have been clearly noted from the display at Aldingham Church and its neighbouring village church of Holy Trinity, Bardsea, which like Rampside and Dendron became a parish in its own right at the latter end of Victoria’s reign.Bardsea was formerly a part of the larger Parish of Urswick. Both are now a part of the Low Furness Group of Parishes.

We come ‘full circle’ back to Urswick to complete our Trail.

Interior of Urswick ChurchThroughout the 20th century, as in most of the affluent West, the established churches had been in steady decline. Many of the churches in Low Furness sustain small, faithful worshipping groups today. It has experienced the pain of ‘rural retreat’, a reduction in the number of farms, the loss of village schools, post offices, shops, etc, and a much reduced public transport service; ‘new century communities’ are being established which are very different from former times and the spiritual journey continues to seek a modern expression.

Great Urswick has once again become the focus for education, for community and for the development of a ‘new Celtic spirituality’ for today.