Cuthbert the child: looking and seeing

Cuthbert the child: looking and seeing
© British Library Board, Yates Thompson MS 26 fol. 26r.
Used by permission.

This is the first of four talks I gave at the Seeing the Light retreat earlier this year at Shepherds Dene. Participants visited the Cuthbert sites and were encouraged to take photographs as a way of “seeing” and enabling reflection, with expert input from priest-photographer Steve Radley ( He and I have set up a Facebook page Seeing the Light in Life where such meditative images can be shared, which you are welcome to ask to join (via the page).

Let me take you back in your mind’s eye to the middle of the seventh century and the time of St Cuthbert. Here he is in one of the wonderful pictures from an illuminated copy of his life in the British Museum, calming the fears of his companions as they sail the dangerous waters of the North Sea. I keep it as the lock screen picture on my phone and this lovely sculpture of it, as favourite present from Jean, is by my elbow in my study. I am rather good at turning the daily waves of life into rolling breakers, so pray for us St Cuthbert, now and in the day of our departing.

The British Isles then were still a patchwork of independent kingdoms, some going back to before the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons, some founded by them; and the northernmost of those new kingdoms is known to us now as Northumbria. which at its largest included much of the Scottish lowlands to the north and our Lancashire and Yorkshire to the south, including the old Cumbric kingdom of Elmet in our West Riding.

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St Mary’s Church, Little Birch

This little church, well-hidden in country lanes, is actually the third on its site. Built at the wish and expense of the vicar in 1868 by Herefordshire architect William Chick it was not hard to “read” the story of up-to-date ecclesiastical design built on a modest budget. The Ham and Bath stone makes for an effective design, but something is awry with the control of the damp as it is spalling badly. But a lovely find and an ancient place of prayer despite its Victorian clothing.

St Mary & St Thomas A Becket, Much Birch

A nineteenth-century church of pleasant aspect but no great distinction, the thing that struck us most was the competition involving local schoolchildren for a design for the east window – a good Victorian one that is possibly away for repair and needed a temporary decoration. A great idea and the one chosen (if I have got the story right) works rather well. The glass doors are effective too and it does rather look as if there are Signs of Life. (The vicar had left out homework for the congregation on the Beatitude of the Week as well…)

St David’s Church, Much Dewchurch

This church, situated in the area known as Archenfield, formerly the little Welsh principality of Erging, may have been a Christian site since Roman times. The present church has an obvious Norman core reflecting its position as a border stronghold, though its inhabitants were allowed to keep their Welsh customs – as long as they manned the vanguard and rearguard when the Welsh were being attacked…

The Pye family are well memorialised! And with so many of their children lined up in height order for remembrance it is good to find several others in the church too, as well as good number of spruce bishops to balance the weather-beaten one on the porch.

Coningsby Hospital, St John

The Hospitallers (Order of St John of Jerusalem) had a preceptory just outside the Hereford city walls (next to the Blackfriars) in the Middle Ages, which at the Reformation passed into the hands of Sir Thomas Coningsby who created the present quadrangle of almshouses and chapel from it. The residents wore red coats – alleged to be the model for the Chelsea Pensioners.

The chapel is still used by the modern Order of St John, and I was there recently to mark St John’s Day with the members of the St John Ambulance Brigade unit who have their HQ next door. (I was a cadet too, once upon a time …).