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Sunday, 24 May 2015

Healing water of Cuddy’s Well performed miracle

IF YOU are looking for soaring spires and lofty columns, then give St Cuthbert’s Church at Bellingham a miss.

No-one could call it a beautiful building – but it has been providing strength and succour to the people of the North Tyne capital for over 800 years.

It has squatted on a promontory over the North Tyne, defying the best efforts of marauding Scots and rampant Reivers to wipe it off the map.

They have come close more than once – it was a roofless ruin for many years – but the flame of St Cuthbert has always proved stronger than the flames of the invaders.

It is notable for its unique roof, made not of slate or tiles, but of massive inter-locking thick stone slabs, resting on stone ribs.

It may not look particularly pretty, but those stones were impervious to the blazing brands of its attackers.

Although no-one knows for certain, local people like to believe that St Cuthbert himself came to Bellingham when he was prior of the monastery just over the Border in Scotland.

By tradition St Cuthbert was a talented water dowser, and he is credited with finding and consecrating the spring-fed well which still bears his name in the village, although it now bubbles from a Georgian pant.

St Cuthbert’s (or Cuddy’s) Well was certainly regarded as holy in the early Norman times.

The earliest written reference to a church in North Tynedale comes from the pen of Reginald of Durham, who records a miracle performed by St Cuthbert at “Bainlingham.”

This tells how a young girl of the village called Eda insisted on sewing a new dress on St. Lawrence’s Day (August 10), whereupon her left hand contracted so that she could not release her hold on the material.

Her parents took her to drink the water from St. Cuthbert’s Well, and they spent the night in the church in prayer and intercession.

At dawn they saw a vision of the saint, who touched the girl’s hand and the material fell from it.

However, when she screamed, the vision disappeared and her hand remained contracted.

The priest and congregation assembled for early Mass, and after they had made a novena of nine paternosters for her recovery, her hand was restored to health.

Legend or not, all babies christened at St Cuthbert’s to this day are baptised with water from Cuddy’s Well, in the shadow of the church.

An old wooden church served the needs of the village for many years, but in the 12th century, it was replaced by a new stone building.

Although the dates remain uncertain, 1180 saw the church’s official founding.

Although ecclesiastically Bellingham was a part of the chapelry of Simonburn – the largest parish in Britain – it was frequently spoken of as an independent parish.

Richard of Tynemouth, an Austin friar, was permitted to hear confessions from the parishioners of Simonburn and Bellingham in 1366, and 16th and 17th century wills often directed that the testator be buried in his parish church of Bellingham.

The unruly residents of the North Tyne acted true to form when one Hector Charlton “took the Sacrament forth of the Sepulchre in Bellingham church, and one firkin of wine and 800 breads and carried the same to a place called Tarset Hall.

“Next day he brought them back to Bellingham where they got a Scotch friar (kidnapped, no doubt) to give the Sacrament to a number of evil disposed persons...”

For the wild Reivers of those days, theft and kidnapping would be justifiable actions in the face of the necessity of receiving absolution at the Easter Eucharist from a qualified priest – even though he possibly had a dagger at his back!

In 1541, it was reported that the inhabitants of North Tynedale resorted to the Bellingham chapel rather than Simonburn church but it wasn’t until 1650 the Commonwealth Commissioners decreed that Bellingham should become a separate parish.

The constant battles between reiving clans raged for much of the 16th century.

One officer of the law spent many months chained to the great hearth at Bower near Tarset, forced to kneel for what food he was given.

The major reiving incident to affect Bellingham was made by the Duke of Buccleugh in 1597.

The four clans or graynes of North Tyne and Redesdale – the Charltons, Dodds, Milburns and Robsons – had provoked his anger and hurt his pride, his pocket and his tenants.

He took Bellingham’s defenders by surprise by attacking from the south, and resistance became centred on the church.

The Reivers had started using artillery – serpentines, seven-inch bore cannons, and half hawks and the harquebus – and in a short but bloody fight around the church 11 men were killed.

Bellingham and all its livestock now belonged to the Duke of Buccleuch.

Cannonballs from the battle were found embedded in the old roof when it was repaired in the 19th century, and are now preserved in a glass case in the south transept of the church.

The Bellingham area was so lawless that for many years local residents were officially known as “the thieves of Tynedale.”

Records preserved in the library of the Dean and Chapter of Durham show that at the start of the 17th century, the church at Bellingham was almost a ruin, and not much patronised.

Communion was administered but once a year, the font was broken and books were non-existent – perhaps just as well, as the clerk could neither read nor write!

It wasn’t until the Union of the Crowns of England and Scotland in 1603 that things began to improve.

During the incumbency of Cuthbert Ridley of Simonburn, the church was almost entirely reconstructed.

Violence was never far from the surface, however, and around 1710 William “Bowery” Charlton, of Redesmouth, killed Henry Widdrington, of Buteland, in a duel fought near Bellingham.

Charlton obtained a pardon at the trial, but Widdrington’s remains were buried in the church alongside Charlton’s pew.

Not surprisingly, Charlton never entered the building again!

He was a Roman Catholic, but was liable to prosecution in those days for non-attendance at church.

By 1843, however, a report on the church painted a pretty gloomy picture.

Its condition was described as “melancholy” with earth piled to a depth of up to six feet around the walls.

The inspector wrote: “The damp consequently strikes through the walls in every part in spite of their extraordinary thickness, and the green mould forms a plentiful colouring which resists all the whitewash of the plasterer.

“The furniture of the chancel consists of a communion table of deal covered with a ragged cloth... the lower portion has been converted into a cupboard with two doors which give it a strong resemblance to a kitchen dresser.

“ The chantry chapel contains a quantity of chicken bones, and a quantity of human bones lie exposed under the step ladder leading to the gallery .”

The credit for remedying this state of affairs goes to the Rev. Robert Powell, the rector from 1860 to 1886.

Under his inspiration, the choir was re-roofed and the roofs of the nave and the south transept repaired.

A picturesque belfry was replaced by the present bellcote.

It’s not only the interior of St Cuthbert’s that excites interest.

To the left of the door lies an unusual gravestone in the shape of a pedlar’s pack.

For 300 years, North Tyne folk have told the story of the bulky pack left at lonely Lee Hall, on the banks of the Tyne between Wark and Bellingham, by a passing pedlar.

During the night someone saw the pack move, and with commendable alacrity a young farmhand named Edward blasted it with his musket.

Loud groans and copious amounts of blood erupted from the pack, and it soon became apparent that a man had been concealed inside it.

Around the dead man’s neck was a silver whistle, so Edward and two other members of the domestic staff deduced mischief was afoot.

They rounded up fellow workers and raided the hall’s arsenal, so they were heavily armed.

Just after midnight Edward blew the whistle and within minutes came the sound of galloping hooves.

Around a dozen heavily armed men clattered into the courtyard – to be met with a hail of lead from those inside.

Four raiders died in the ensuing carnage, but by morning their bodies had been spirited away.