It doesn’t matter where we go, the habit of rising early for work seems to follow us, so it was no surprise that we were up and out a long time before we would be meeting the rest of the party. I had seen a sign in Seahouses, pointing to the local church, and as we would be going that way, it seemed only polite to call.
I have to say that at first glance, we were not overly hopeful. The church proved to be a mile inland, in the older village of North Sunderland. Seahouses grew from the ‘new’ seafront houses that were built when the harbour was constructed on the nearby coast to service the herring fishery, so the church stands at the centre of the original village. But the building looks neither old nor particularly interesting from outside… though looks are often deceiving and many an old church has had a facelift. The little bell-cote is often a good sign, though, and the rather unusual dedication was intriguing.
While some churches are jointly dedicated to two saints… like the one at Dinton, named for Ss Peter and Paul… this church has a dual dedication, as the church is a shared place of worship. I like that idea; it is one we have seen several times on our travels and it suggests an open attitude to the facets of religious belief. So, depending on whether you belong to the Anglican congregation or that of the United Reformed Church, we were about to step inside St Paul’s… or St Cuthbert’s.
The church was built in 1834 by Anthony Salvin. It was he who had restored the gatehouse at Bamburgh Castle and he had designed the memorial to Grace Darling in the churchyard there too. The interior is very simply furnished, with a blue-painted barrel-vaulted ceiling suggesting the heavens and light streaming in through the recessed windows.
Behind the simple bowl of the font, the first stained glass window we saw depicted an old friend. St Michael with his dragon and scales has been cropping up an awful lot since we began looking into the Michael Line. Had we found nothing else of interest in the church, the crowned and beatified archangel would have been a good enough reason to visit.
The church was designed to reflect a much older style of building, yet there is a light and airy feel to the place, distinctly modern and cheerful and has a particular ‘feel’ to it that we have come to associate with those churches where a woman has been installed as vicar.
It is difficult to describe quite what the difference is in words the Church itself would not condemn as ‘New Age’, but there is a distinctly feminine energy… earthier, often more welcoming and more approachable than in the traditionally patriarchal parishes. It is not a question of ‘better’ or ‘worse’… simply different and frequently livelier.
The altar, beneath the star-spangled apse, is simplicity itself. There is absolutely no pretension about this little church. Its mission is clear and direct… workmanlike, in some respects. Denuded of the curlicues and furnishings that decorate many of the older churches, yet still a place of quiet beauty.
Yet, there is more to see than first meets the eye, including the woodwork. The lectern is, in fact, a memorial to the First World War, given in memory of Lance Corporal Thomas Cuthbertson
The screen and the pulpit, by a local artist Ralph Hedley, were installed in 1915. The pulpit is carved with the figures of St Paul bearing a sword and St John holding a chalice. From the cup rises a serpent, recalling the story of how, at Ephesus, John was given poisoned wine. Before drinking, he blessed the wine and the poison, taking the form of a serpent, left the cup. There was once an old tradition of bringing wine or beer to the church for blessing on the Feast of St John, in commemoration of this event, which would then be taken home and added to every barrel in the house.
In addition to the traditional stained glass windows, there are works by the prolific twentieth-century artist, Leonard Evetts who designed hundreds of stained glass windows.
The flowing angularity of his designs is a style we have seen in many churches, particularly in the north. There is something about their stark simplicity and the symbolism they contain that harks back to a much earlier age, when every detail still held meaning. They worked perfectly in this little church whose own simplicity masked a far greater depth than a casual glance would have suggested. We have learned the hard way over the years not to go by first impressions. A bland Victorian exterior may overlay an ancient place of worship… and sometimes it proves to be far more ancient than Christianity itself. Not this time though, St Paul’s and St Cuthbert’s is just a lovely little church and I was glad we had found the time to visit.