In search of Saxon and Viking heritage in Morecambe Bay

Uhtred in the BBCs Viking series, the Last Kingdom

Uhtred in the BBCs Viking series, the Last Kingdom - Credit: Alamy

As the BBC drama The Last Kingdom reaches its climax, author Karen Lloyd takes us on a tour of their old stamping ground, the stunning Morecambe Bay

A stunning view of the north end of Morecambe Bay with the Lake District peaks in the background ©

A stunning view of the north end of Morecambe Bay with the Lake District peaks in the background © David Lyons / Alamy Stock Photo - Credit: Alamy

These were short days when afternoons segued into evening before you knew it. The light had intensified early and looking out from the beach at Morecambe Bay, brimful with the tide, the mountains of Cumbria appeared like a lost snowbound kingdom, coloured a ghostly, veiled pink. The beach at Half Moon Bay was alive with dogs that ran into the sea or bothered other dogs as their owners chatted with one another, idly throwing sticks or balls. A man walked past me and, whilst looking at his dog, uttered ‘Nice day in’t it,’ and I answered yes, it really was.

Two different kinds of black and white on the sand: oystercatchers and lapwings dotting about, following the imprint of the waves as they rose and fell. The light over the bay clarified all the time so that across on the long reach of the Furness peninsula individual houses and farm buildings were visible. A single glint of sunlight was reflected back from a window in the hills. At Barrow the land slid seawards and the giant hangars where nuclear submarines evolve mirrored the scale of the two brooding nuclear power stations half a mile south from where I stood. In the middle of that great expanse of water one small sailboat caught and reflected the light on its bright white sails.

As I began to walk, one ferry was embarking for the Isle of Man or Ireland and another was heading back into Heysham Port. I followed a path that meandered past gorse bushes and the skeletal heads of cow parsley, dogwood stems plum-red against the grass. Coming towards the top of the headland, the sun caught the ruins of St Patrick’s Chapel. It seemed to glow, giving out a warm, ochre-red light. Through the Saxon arched doorway the sea of Morecambe Bay was a vivid blue. On the top of the ruins a pair of magpies fretted, casting out clattering cries like ill-tempered guardians. There were visitors, though very few; a woman sitting in the grass with her eyes closed and her face raised up to catch the slight warmth from the sun.

I looked down at the stone graves. Six tombs hewn out of the rock, sarcophagus-like, and lipped for a covering of stone or wood. They exude mystery, and enigma. There’s nothing else like them in the country. I wanted to be able to place them accurately in their own time, but any grave goods are long gone and it’s virtually impossible to locate them in a particular culture or to impose a date on them. It’s thought they pre-date the first chapel to be built on the site. The 7th to the 11th century was a time of huge flux and change at Heysham that witnessed a mixing of cultures and belief systems. I wondered if the proximity of the graves to the chapel might only confuse things, or conflate the idea that they both existed as integral parts of an organised and influential early Christian site.

The mysterious rock hewn graves at St Patricks Chapel

The mysterious rock hewn graves at St Patricks Chapel - Credit: Alamy

I wanted to understand something of their significance, but to do this I had to take away the present, the visitors and the housing estates with glowing red pantile roofs, the habitation on Furness across the bay and Piel Castle afloat on its island haven. The immense shipyard hangars at Barrow, the ferry heading out to Ireland and the one coming back in and the one sailboat out on the bay. Last of all, I took away the power stations.

There’s a local story that St Patrick, after whom the chapel is named, landed at Heysham bringing the Christian message from Ireland, founding one of the earliest Christian Oratories and communities here on the headland. Vikings moved into Heysham during the 10th century, travelling in from existing communities in Ireland and the Isle of Man. Some of them had been absorbed into the Christian tradition, but some remained pagan. Without doubt, the historical edges here are blurred.

A 1970s inspection of the site found that the chapel was ‘rapidly deteriorating’ as a result of the severe weather on the headland, vandalism and the constant stream of tourists traipsing through the ruins. As a consequence, human bone fragments could be seen in the earth and the ‘underlying stratigraphy was greatly at risk’.

Archaeologists and restoration teams moved in to survey the site and to preserve the ruins from imminent collapse. Amongst the remains they found a Viking woman together with her decorated, carved bone comb. She’d been buried in a shroud beneath a fine spread of charcoal. The presence of the comb infers that she was buried within the Scandinavian pagan culture. Many of the graves were either overlaid with stones or else the bodies had been laid into natural cavities in the bedrock. One of the burials incorporated a stone with a detailed carved bird’s head, thought to have originally been a section from a carved stone chair or throne of the style seen in the 7th century. More carved birds were found, both in the headland burials and in the chapel, and on a richly decorated Viking Hogback stone.

Karen Lloyd photo by Callum Leacn

Karen Lloyd photo by Callum Leacn - Credit: Alamy

This intricately carved stone was found in the chapel ruins and had been exposed to the elements for centuries. In the 1960s it was taken indoors to the neighbouring church of St Peter, built in a dip of the land just beyond the line of trees. The narrative scenes carved on the stone have been variously described as the victory of Christianity over pagan belief, or to show Germanic or Scandinavian legends or myths.

On one face, there are wolves, men and a deer; on the other, a tree, birds, saddle horses and a man, possibly with a sword raised above his head. Surrounding all four faces of the stone, a serpent. It may illustrate the Viking legend of Sigurd. In this tale the hero overcomes attack by wolves as told in the poem ‘Eiríksmál’, written to commemorate the reign of Eric Bloodaxe, the last Viking King of York, and whose rule probably extended over Heysham at about the time the hogback stone was carved. But beware of false idols, say the archaeologists, who argue that a true and detailed interpretation of the stone’s carvings is nigh on impossible given that it dates from a time when ‘Christian iconography, folklore, convention and mere decoration are inextricably mixed together’.

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Me, I like a bit of legend. I think I’ll stick with Sigurd.

I like too the symbolism of birds. Looking out from the headland that mid-winter afternoon with the light at its zenith, birds were so much part of the place. Oystercatchers went spinning past, following the edge of the headland, gulls winged languorously out into the middle of the bay, and, on the headland, small birds bounced on pockets of air between the trees. There’s a natural justice to their inclusion in the symbolic and celebratory carvings of the time. Given the abundance of birdlife on Morecambe Bay and the idea of migration, perhaps the stone-carver thought of birds and people, journeying into unseen places, and most, though not all, returning home again.

Karen Lloyd has lived most of her life near Morecambe Bay. After a childhood in Ulverston, she now lives in Kendal, where she writes creative non-fiction and poetry.

Karen was inspired to write The Gathering Tide, her first book, by the beauty of the bay, often eclipsed by its adjacent star-turn, the Lake District. She felt that the bay’s edgelands – so long an integral part of her own life – possessed their own understated qualities, and it was high time their story was told too.

Along the way, she discovered ancient roadways buried underneath the peat, caves where wolves and lynx once fed, and a ghost in the grass in a country churchyard beside the sea.

The Gathering Tide: A Journey Around the Edgelands of Morecambe Bay by Karen Lloyd is published by Saraband, priced £12.99. ISBN: 9781910192191

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