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)

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