15 May 2023

Twin churches dedicated
to Saint Thomas are
among the ‘architectural
surprises’ in Heptonstall

The ruins of Saint Thomas a’ Becket Church in Heptonstall, dating from the 13th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

The architectural historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner described Heptonstall in West Yorkshire as ‘a very handsome hill village of dark stone houses with all kinds of minor architectural surprises.’ The greatest of the ‘architectural surprises’ of this West Yorkshire village above Hebden Bridge is its two churches.

Heptonstall is unique in having has two churches within one churchyard, and both are dedicated to Saint Thomas – although to two different saints: Saint Thomas a’ Becket and Saint Thomas the Apostle, both in the centre of the village, which we visited last week, walking up the steep hill from Hebden Bridge.

The older church has its origins in the 13th century and was ruined by a storm in the mid-19th century.

The Church of Saint Thomas a’ Becket in Heptonstall was founded by the Cluniac Priory of Lewes and was built in 1256-1260 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The earlier, mediaeval Church of Saint Thomas a’ Becket was founded by the Cluniac Priory of Lewes and was built in 1256-1260 as a chapelry of the larger parish of Halifax, seven miles away. It was dedicated to Saint Thomas the Martyr, Archbishop of Canterbury, murdered in his own cathedral in 1170 on the orders of King Henry II.

This mediaeval church is a low and broad building. Later adaptations gave the church two naves, north and south aisles, two chantry chapels and a tower. A small bellcote above the ruins of the chancel originally housed the sanctus bell, rung during the words of the consecration in the liturgy.

Beside the altar is the piscina where the sacred vessels were rinsed and washed at the end of the liturgy.

Inside the ruins of the Church of Saint Thomas a’ Becket in Heptonstall, facing east (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Mediaeval painted glass filled the east window and other widows, and there was a rood screen that was lost after the Tudor Reformation, and the chapel was later raised to the status of a parish church.

The rectangular west tower is topped with battlements. The lower stages have been dated to the 13th century but the upper storeys are in the Perpendicular Gothic style ca 1500.

William Brygge of Heptonstall left over £6 in his will in 1449 for making the bells. Robert Shagh left about £3 in 1465 for the fabric of the chapel. Thomas Grenewood left £4 in 1494 to buy a chalice, and William Grenewood left £4 in 1508 to buy a vestment. Robert Browne, chaplain, left 20 gold nobles, each worth 6 s 8d, in 1517 to buy a velvet cope. William Sutcliffe left money in 1520 to buy an antiphonary with the sung portions of the Divine Office.

By the late 1700s, the church had been turned into a great ‘preaching house,’ dominated by a triple-decker pulpit in the nave, and with seating for 815 people on the ground floor and a further 300 in new upper galleries.

John Wesley preached in the church on no fewer than five occasions, and complained in 1786 that it was ‘the ugliest I know.’

John Wesley complained in 1786 that the church was ‘the ugliest I know’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Following a great storm in 1847, the west face of the tower fell away. Some repairs were carried out and the church remained in use until 1854, but the storm had caused such serious damage to the mediaeval church that the parishioners had decided it was not worth the trouble repairing the church.

Local people opened a public subscription to build a replacement, and a fine Victorian Gothic replacement was built a little to the south of the old church. To distinguish it from its predecessor, the new church was dedicated to Saint Thomas the Apostle.

The new church was designed by the architects Mallinson and Healey if Bradford, and it was built in 1850-1854 at a cost of £7,000. It was consecrated on 26 October 1854 by the Bishop of Ripon, Charles Thomas Longley (1794-1868), later Bishop of Durham, Archbishop of York and Archbishop of Canterbury. As Archbishop of Canterbury, Longley would convene the first Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops in 1867.

Saint Thomas the Apostle seen from the south porch of Saint Thomas a’ Becket (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The newer church is 130 ft long and 65 ft wide, and much of the stone was quarried on the site itself. The clock was brought from the old church and was made by Titus Bankcroft in Sowerby Bridge in 1809.

The stained glass windows include fine work from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Lady Chapel is entered by steps in the north-east corner of the church. This was formerly the Vicar’s vestry before the church was re-ordered.

The unusual 11-sided font from the old church is set behind the screen in preference to the 1850 font which is to one side of the altar.

Inside Saint Thomas the Apostle in Heptonstall, facing east (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Work on re-ordering the church began in the early 1960s and was completed in 1964. The woodwork of the church was in a poor state and badly affected by dry rot. A legacy from Abraham Gibson who died in 1956 paid for the alterations as a memorial to his parents. The new design is a 20th century adaptation of a traditional medieval style.

The present organ, part of the Gibson bequest, was built in 1964 by Hill, Norman and Beard, and divides the church in two.

There have been church bells in Heptonstall since 1440, and the six bells from the old church were moved to the new tower in 1854. They were recast in 1911 and two more were added to make a peal. They are rung on most Sundays and are often rung by visiting bands of bellringers.

The church has good acoustics, and is used for the annual Pennine Spring Music Festival, held every Spring Bank Holiday week. It is also used twice a year for a Traidcraft weekend of fair trade clothes, food and gifts, with refreshments

Inside Saint Thomas the Apostle in Heptonstall, facing west (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Without its roof and stripped of its fittings, the mediaeval church rapidly fell into ruin, looking like an abandoned medieval monastery. But the ruins of Saint Thomas a’ Becket have been carefully maintained in recent decades, and open-air services are held there occasionally. It was a location in the 1993 BBC Television drama series, Mr Wroe’s Virgins, directed by Danny Boyle.

The two churches stand side-by-side in a churchyard where local tradition says 100,000 people are buried.

In fact, there are three churchyards side-by-side in Heptonstall. The oldest is now closed and is around the old church, while the second part is around the new church. The third and newer churchyard is across Back Lane and is where we visited the grave of the poet Sylvia Plath, before returning down the steep hill to Hebden Bridge.

The Church of Saint Thomas the Apostle in Heptonstall serves the communities of Heptonstall, Slack, Colden, Blackshaw Head and the surrounding areas. With Saint James the Great in Hebden Bridge, it forms the United Benefice of Hebden Bridge and Heptonstall in the Diocese of Leeds. The Parish Communion is at 10:30 on Sundays.

The south side of the Church of Saint Thomas the Apostle in Heptonstall, seen from the newer graveyard where Sylvia Plath is buried (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Morning prayers in Easter
with USPG: (37) 15 May 2023

The Ascension depicted in the East Window in Holy Trinity Abbey Church, Adare, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

This is the Sixth Week of Easter, and Eastertide continues throughout this week and next week, until the day of Pentecost. Today, the Church Calendar also commemorates Saint Matthias the Apostle.

Before this day gets busy, I am taking some time this morning for prayer and reflection. As Ascension Day is later this week (18 May 2023), I am reflecting each morning this week in these ways:

1, Looking at a depiction of the Ascension in images or stained glass windows in a church or cathedral I know;

2, the Gospel reading of the day in the Church of England lectionary;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

The east window in Holy Trinity Abbey Church, Adare, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The East Window, Holy Trinity Abbey Church, Adare, Co Limerick:

Holy Trinity Abbey Church, now the Roman Catholic parish church in the centre of the picturesque estate village of Adare, Co Limerick, was founded by the Trinitarian order and is the only example of a church of the Trinitarian order in Ireland.

By the early 19th century, the abbey was in ruins, and the church was first restored in 1811, when Valentine Quin (1752-1824), 1st Earl of Dunraven, reroofed the church and added the north transept.

Wyndham Quin (1782-1850), 2nd Earl of Dunraven, made a gift of the ruined abbey to the Roman Catholic parishioners of Adare in 1824 and he initiated a programme of restoration that was continued by his successors.

In 1852, Edwin Wyndham-Quin (1812-1871), 3rd Earl of Dunraven, had the church repaired and expanded to fill the space that once contained the mediaeval cloister.

Dunraven employed the English architect Philip Charles Hardwick (1822-1892), who worked in the Gothic Revival tradition of AWN Pugin to restore and enlarge the church while taking care to maintain the fabric of the historic building. Most of Hardwick’s known Irish commissions appear to have resulted either directly or indirectly from the patronage of who employed him to complete Adare Manor and to carry out other work in the village of Adare.

Holy Trinity Abbey Church, restored as the Roman Catholic parish church in Adare, Co Limerick, through the patronage of the Earls of Dunraven (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

John 15: 9-17 (NRSVA):

[Jesus said:] 9 ‘As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11 I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.

12 ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. 16 You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17 I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.’

The Ascension in a lancet in the East Window in Saint Nicholas’s Church (Church of Ireland), Adare, designed by Powell in the Hardman studios in Birmingham, 1850 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today’s prayer:

The theme this week in the prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) is ‘The Ascension.’ USPG’s Global Theologian, the Revd Dr Peniel Rajkumar, reflected on the Ascension in the prayer diary yesterday.

The USPG Prayer invites us to pray this morning (Monday 15 May 2023, Saint Matthias the Apostle, United Nations International Day of Families):

Let us pray for the wellbeing of families of all shapes and sizes worldwide. May they be protected from poverty, discrimination, and abuse, and sheltered from environmental destruction.


Almighty God,
who in the place of the traitor Judas
chose your faithful servant Matthias
to be of the number of the Twelve:
preserve your Church from false apostles
and, by the ministry of faithful pastors and teachers,
keep us steadfast in your truth;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion:

Almighty God,
who on the day of Pentecost
sent your Holy Spirit to the apostles
with the wind from heaven and in tongues of flame,
filling them with joy and boldness to preach the gospel:
by the power of the same Spirit
strengthen us to witness to your truth
and to draw everyone to the fire of your love;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The arms of the Earls of Dunraven in a panel in the east window in Holy Trinity Abbey Church, Adare (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org