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(See also St. Bees Head Heritage Coast)
Four miles south of Whitehaven, in a deep valley, sits the village of St. Bees with its long sandy beach. Nearby, the rocky promontory of St Bees Head, the westernmost point of Cumbria, is the start of the Coast to Coast walk that ends in Robin Hood's Bay, Yorkshire.
The Romans established fortifications here to guard against the Irish and the Scots. Early documents called the village Kirkby Beagoth or Kirkby Begock. St. Bega means the saint's house.
A legend states that an Irish nun, St Bega, founded a small nunnery here c650 (date disputed), after escaping from Ireland, when a forced marriage to a Norse chieftain was planned. The land, on a 3-mile stretch around the headland, was granted to her by Lord Egremont after he told her, in midsummer, that she could have as much land as was covered by snow. The next day it snowed, and she was granted the land.
It is thought the nunnery was destroyed by the Danes. In the reign of Henry I, around 1120, a small priory of Benedictine monks was founded on the site of the former nunnery, but it fell into ruin after the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII. Although the domestic buildings of the priory no longer exist, part of the red sandstone church (built in the shape of a cross) was spared and allowed to serve as the parish church.
It is a real hodgepodge of styles that includes a central tower with a ring of eight bells (cast in 1857), an Early English chancel, a clerestory in the Perpendicular style, Early English arcades, an Early Gothic presbytery, and the Norman west door. A carving of St George and the dragon, thought to date from the 8th century, forms the lintel of an alcove and attests to the Scandinavian heritage in this part of Cumbria.
A wooden figure, the effigy of the last lord Lucy of Egremont, outfitted in armour, once lay on the south side of the nave. Part of an ancient cross remains on the north side of the church. Other 12th century stones and coffin stones are here. The church has a famous organ, the Henry Willis Church Organ, completed in 1899 and considered a masterpiece of Victorian building. The organ was built with several inventions that were new at the time. These included a bellows and a pneumatic switching device with special features.
Wordsworth wrote a poem about the monks of St Bees:
“Who with the ploughshare clove the barren moors,
And to green meadows changed the swampy shores?
Thinned the rank woods; and for the cheerful grange
Made room where wolf and boar were used to range?
Who taught, and showed by deeds, that gentler chains
Should bind the vassal to his lord's domains?
The thoughtful monks intent their God to please,
For Christ's dear sake, by human sympathies
Poured from the bosom of thy church, St. Bees!”. . . . . .
A college to instruct candidates for holy orders within the province of York was established in 1817 in the choir of the priory church and closed in 1895. Outside of Cambridge and Oxford universities, it was the first established in England to train clergy. In the 1980's when excavations took place near the Priory, a lead coffin, containing mummified remains, was unearthed.
The village's long main street has a number of interesting old houses. A 1585 bridge over the rivulet Pow, or Poe, was decorated with the arms of Archbishop Grindal. The village sat on one side of the Pow and the church, the college, and the school on the other.
Before the nineteenth century, the inhabitants of St. Bees depended upon fishing and farming for income. St. Bees School, founded in 1583 by the archbishop of Canterbury, grew in the late 1800's into a large boarding school. The original Elizabethan wing of the school still serves its original purpose. The railway came to the village in 1850 bringing holidayers. A large hotel was built to accommodate the visitors and the students at the school. The nearby mines provided additional employment.
A short distance from the village is St Bees Head, with its cliff-top path. Far-reaching coastal views to the Isle of Man are possible in clear weather. The ledges, nooks, and crannies of the twin, red sandstone headlands are a sanctuary for nesting sea birds. In 1973, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds took over ownership of most of the cliffs.
During the summer, the area is a bird watcher's paradise, with one of the largest colonies of seabirds on England's western shore. Thousands of birds scream and wheel on the wind during the nesting season. The varieties include kittiwakes, herring gulls, razorbills, puffins, ravens, stonechats, and red-legged guillemots.
The shingle banks of the cove at Fleswick, between the twin headlands, are well known for their pebbles and stones, sought by collectors.
St Bees, with its beach promenade, bird sanctuary, and church is a perfect beginning or ending for the Coast to Coast walk.
W. Wainwright's Coast to Coast walk, from St Bees to Robin Hood's Bay stretches 190 miles across the north of England. It passes through three National Parks: the Lake District, the Yorkshire Dales, and the North York Moors
St Bees is located on the B5345 4 miles (6km) S of Whitehaven.
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