Heysham's heritage - The story behind the chapel

St Patrick's Chapel Heysham Head, Cumbria

Most places have a story to tell. Heysham's story includes Saints, shipwrecks, pilgrimage and graves all with the backdrop of Morecambe Bay.

If you’re fascinated by stories and ruins in magnificent locations, then you’ll find something special about the Heysham coast. Its elevated position with its rocky headland gives you perfect views over Morecambe Bay with its changing tides and swirling channels and the Lake District fells beyond.

View across Morecambe Bay
View across Morecambe Bay from Heysham Head
View across Morecambe Bay

There is a painting set out before you of layers – sands then sea then sands then land then hills then sky. On a clear day these layers are vibrant blues and greens and golden yellows and on cloudier days, gentle hues of blues, greys and brown. It’s a place to stand and stop and think before you carry on with your day.

We’re not the only ones who think Heysham is special. St Patrick did too. The patron Saint of Ireland, it is believed, came ashore to Heysham in the fifth century after being shipwrecked off the coast.

 In its setting with the vast, open bay outstretched before it, Heysham must have had the same spiritual feeling then as it does today, and St Patrick created a small chapel on the headland to help his spread of Christianity.

St Patrick’s chapel still exists today on the historic headland at Heysham though the current chapel was probably built a couple of centuries later than St Patrick’s original building. This new chapel was re-built to encourage the act of pilgrimage.

Such a precious piece of our history needs special care and the chapel is recorded in the National Heritage List for England as a designated Grade I listed building and is a Scheduled Ancient Monument which means that it gets extra protection - designated because of its age, uniqueness and fragility.

The National Trust team of experts carry out regular checks for structural movement within the chapel but thankfully the only physical repairs to have been made to the building were done in September 1903 by the ‘Society for the Preservation of Ancient Monuments’ – which eventually became known as ‘English Heritage’.

These repairs still stand the test of time today as people stand by, walk around and photograph the ruins.

Rock cut graves on Heysham Head, Cumbria
Rock cut graves on Heysham Head, Cumbria
Rock cut graves on Heysham Head, Cumbria

The intriguing story of man’s connection with Heysham continues with the remains of eight rock-cut graves just south of the chapel which were cut from the sandstone headland, several of which are body-shaped and have rock-cut sockets, possibly for wooden crosses.
It is thought that the graves were created around the 11th century and were used for burying very high-status people.

The unveiling of this story has been made possible by archaeological excavations over the years, the most recent taking place in April 1993 on land below the stone coffins. No human bones were found but more than 1,200 artefacts were recovered, showing the site had been occupied about 12,000 years ago.

So next time you're having a walk on the headland at Heysham stand by the chapel and look through the doorway. Catch a glimpse of the wet sands of the bay and the journey St Patrick would have taken across the seas.