St Bees

St Bees lies to the west of Egremont and is the start and finish of Alfred Wainwright’s 192 mile (309km) Coast to Coast walk to Robin Hood’s Bay in North Yorkshire.

It’s also home to the Priory Church of St Mary and St Bega (www.stbeespriory.org), the church’s finest feature being the Norman west door with its three orders of sandstone columns, three patterned arches and motifs or beakheads of birds and beasts. 

The Normans founded a priory here in the 1120s and although Henry VIII closed it in 1539, the church remained. The medieval chancel was walled off but became part of St Bees School, itself founded in 1583 by local man Edmund Grindal. He later became Archbishop of Canterbury. 

Inside the priory church, the ornate Art Nouveau metalwork screen is the work of William Butterfield who restored much of the building in the 19th century. The 2,000 pipe organ is by the great Victorian organ builder Henry Willis.

In the Lady Chapel is a display about sculptor Josefina de Vasconcellos (1904-2005). She inspired the special garden in the grounds, dedicated to all those who have suffered the loss of young life. Three of her sculptures are here.

In 1981 St Bees made national news when archaeologists discovered a lead wrapper or coffin, containing one of the best preserved medieval corpses found in Britain in modern times. He came to be known as St Bees Man. A large glass case in the church displays part of the shroud, the twine and some of the lead from the coffin. www.stbees.org.uk

Close to the village of St Bees is a large sandy beach which is popular on sunny, summer days. From here the Cumbria Coastal Way leads northwards to Whitehaven, passing the RSPB reserve at St Bees Head, St Bees lighthouse, the ruins of Saltom Pit (the first under sea coal mine in England in 1724) and the site of the old Haig Colliery.

Coal wasn’t the only thing that came out of the ground around here. St Bees sandstone has been quarried for centuries and used in buildings on both sides of the Atlantic. 

Perhaps the most famous place is George Washington’s home at Mount Vernon in Virginia, the mansion originally built by his father Augustine but then enlarged when George Washington lived here from 1754 to 1799. 

The sandstone flags were first laid for the Piazza in 1786 but a number have been replaced since then. They, too, were St Bees sandstone. Restoration a few years ago of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Albany, New York also used St Bees sandstone. 

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