Graded locations

Listed buildings are graded in each location in this blog. Eg. Grade I, II* II of grade I is of most importance. Grade A relates to Scotland. See BLB

Thursday, 22 November 2018

Church of St Thomas a Becket, Heptonstall

Church of St Thomas a Becket, Heptonstall

Church of St Thomas a Becket, Heptonstall. At the heart of Heptonstall stands the villages most distinctive landmark the stark shell of the church of St Thomas a Becket.

It was originally constructed in 1260 deliberately squat to withstand the hilltop storms. John Wesley the founder of Methodism and a regular visitor of the church described it as the ugliest church I know in 1786 but this contingency ultimately proved no match for the elements. Shattered by a storm in September 1847 the building was abandoned and a new Church built alongside.

The ruin is so densely packed with the Dead that it central feature resembles a skeleton adrift on the sea of Gravestones. It said that over 100000 folk are buried there most notorious King David Hartley, executed chief of the Cragg Vale coiners. At the southern perimeter of the churchyard the upper Storey of the old Cottage backs onto its elevated Precincts. The building was formerly the cemeteries ossuary - where old human remains, unearthed during the course of subsequent burials, were deposited.

The structure is dated 1779 and at some point it was presumably deconsecrated and turned into a private residence, albeit one whose macabre history was preserved in the fabric. During renovation work conducted by Jack Smith in 1965, all manner of sepulchral detritus was all uncovered: Fragments of tombstone has been incorporated into the walls, two grave slabs  served as window sills and a staircase was found to have been constructed from coffin lids.

Meanwhile, human remains abounded - shards of bone seem to come blossoming for from cracks in the masonry or beneath paved floors. The refurbishments also revealed a blocked doorway, beyond which a room had lain undisturbed for many years.

It was the ensuing restoration that served as a catalyst for the haunting. Perhaps a supernatural presence had caused that chamber to be sealed originally, or perhaps a structural alterations invoked something dormant within the stone. Both Jack Smith and his contractors reported seeing an apparition, although they witnessed only its feet, sandals and tunic. Such garb loosely suggested an ecclesiastic of the old religion, the phantom was promptly dubbed as monk by local commentators.

With such an abundance of corpses in both the structure and immediate vicinity, speculation as to the identity of it's ghost seems an unsuperable task. Nonetheless, there is at least one historical episode and attendant oral tradition that may be significant. An entry in the registers of the Archbishop of York records that in December 1482, the church at Heptonstall was temporarily closed for restoration after having been polluted by an effusion of blood.

Unfortunately, the actual circumstances behind this extraordinary state of affairs was not documented, but where are reliable primary source does not exist, folklore is so often ready to fill the vacuum. Village legend maintains that the spilt blood belong to a parish priest, murdered in the church by the disapproving father of the bride who secret wedding the unfortunate cleric had just consecrated. An echo of the fate of the church as patron, St. Thomas a Becket, can be detected, but this does not necessarily invalidate the stories claim to accuracy, after all, it is a matter of historical record that many clergyman have been slain in churches over the centuries and such synchronicities may therefore naturally arise. Interestingly, it seems that earlier generations in heptonstall may have been aware of the location uncanny influence.

Set into the churchyard wall adjacent the building, on a level at which many people will fail to notice there is a crudely carved stone face. Such images are ubiquitous in Calderdale and the majority seemed to have been carved between the 16th and 19th century. Dubbed archaic stone heads, by folklorist John Billingsley, the deliberate stylised primitivism and the context in which they appear suggests they were not intended as decorative features. Rather, they seem to have been intended as apotropaic 'magically protective' devices, defending a place from misfortune spiritual forces.

Archaic stone heads are often encountered at threshold locations, such as doorways, gateways, gables bridges or boundary walls - liminal points which two the pre-modern mind represented a border not just between spaces in the physical world, but between this world and the other. Few places fulfill such a definition more plainly than the enclosing wall of a churchyard as it meets with the charnel house. Perhaps it is not surprising that, around the same time of  the haunting residents recall that dogs barked and stubbornly refused to cross the threshold at the approach along Church Lane.

No comments :