Ye gods and little fishes, where do you start with the stones of Gosforth? Well, not with the gods and fish… I’ll save those till last. That was the best bit. First, we had the crosses. One, sadly, a mere stump, cut down to make a sundial long ago. The second… a slender pillar… fourteen and a half feet of sculpted, magical red sandstone. The same type of stone as Chester Cathedral… a stone we were going to see a lot of on our travels north of the border, we knew… if we made it that far.
The Gosforth Cross dates back to between 920 and 950AD and is in remarkably good condition in spite of the harsh, Cumbrian weather and a coat of emerald green moss. Scenes from Norse mythology populate the entire surface. The base is round and carved to represent Yggdrasil, the World Tree… then there is Víðarr tearing the jaws of Fenrir, Loki bound with his wife Sigyn protecting him, Heimdallr holding his horn… A whole host of gods, of strange and wonderful creatures with symbolism enough to keep us occupied for ages! This alone would have been worth the trip. But there was more to come.
There has been a place of Christian worship on the site since around the eighth century, though the present building ‘only’ dates back to the twelfth. It has been subject to the inevitable evolution and renovation but as always it carries the history of the community it serves within its walls. Carved medieval grave slabs and stones heads wait inside the porch, though I think we both expected little more than a pretty, country church. How wrong can you be?
The afternoon sun was low and streamed through the windows, casting reflected images on the aged stone. The Norman chancel arch is poised still on its carved capitals, the windows hold stained glass that would have caught our attention at any other time, but as I have mentioned, this trip seemed to be all about the stone… and there was stone aplenty, quite apart from the building itself.
Fragments of early crosses are set into the walls, carvings and sculpted stones rest on the windowsills… and two great hogback stones… such as we had been unable to see at Heysham… occupy a fair part of the north aisle.
The hogbacks date back to the early 900s like the Cross. Richly carved in the shape of houses, they are covered with Viking gods, men and serpents. The ends of one have a strange figure, which may have been carved a little later.
It is usually interpreted as Christ but could equally be one of the Norse gods beneath the rainbow bridge. The imagery is stunning… it would take days just to see all the details hidden in the carving, and who knows how long to understand all it was telling.
We paused to look at yet another carving on the windowsill… a handwritten notice pointed towards the east saying simply ‘Fishing Stone’. We pretty much ignored it, overwhelmed by what we were seeing. My companion wandered off down the north aisle while I was still taking photographs of the hogbacks in a vain attempt to give some sense of the sheer scale and detail.
Looking up I saw that look on his face. He’d found something and was waiting… and something pretty spectacular to judge by the expression. Had I seen the Fishing Stone yet? The tone was far too innocent to be anything other than suspicious. I followed his gesture and stood amazed.
The Fishing Stone was the Fishing Stone… an image we have seen so often in books… and there it was… just there, set into the wall. Not even covered… not behind glass… we could have even touched it… The top half of the panel shows an animal with a serpent, itself tied in knots, tangled around its legs. But it is the bottom panel that we know so well. It hadn’t even occurred to us that this was what the Fishing Stone might be! It is thought to depict Thor with his hammer, fishing with the giant Hymir for Jörmungandr, the great World Serpent. By this point I had driven five hundred miles… and it was worth it just for this alone. And we still had a thousand more to go… what else would we find?