Building » Chester-le-Street – St Cuthbert

Chester-le-Street – St Cuthbert

Ropery Lane, Chester-le-Street, Co. Durham DH3

A good, well-detailed Neo-Romanesque design of the early twentieth century, about which information is surprisingly elusive. Chester-le-Street was the site of the shrine of St Cuthbert before the translation of the saint’s body to Durham, hence the dedication. 

The monks of Lindisfarne were driven away by Danish invasions in the ninth century, and wandered around the region bearing the incorrupt body of St Cuthbert for some eight years before settling at the former Roman fort of Concangis, now Chester-le-Street. Here Bishop Eardulf established his episcopal see and built a wooden church housing a shrine to St Cuthbert. In 995 his successor was forced to flee from another Danish invasion, and the saint’s body made its way to Durham, via Ripon.  In 1045 Aegilric, Bishop of Durham, built a stone church at Chester-le-Street on the site of the ninth century wooden one. This in due course became a collegiate church and, after the Reformation, the Anglican parish church.

In 1696 William Tempest donated £300 to the Benedictines for the benefit of Catholics living in the area of Lumley Castle. A chapel was established in Chester-le-Street and lasted until 1746, when the focus of the Benedictine mission moved to Birtley. In 1878 the Rev. P.T. Mathews built a presbytery at Chester-le-Street, in which a room was fitted up as a chapel. In 1881 a separate mission was established and six years later, at the time of the twelfth centenary of the death of St Cuthbert, an appeal went out throughout the diocese to build a votive church in the saint’s honour. However this succeeded in raising only £300, so a more modest brick school-chapel was built in Lumley Terrace, opening in 1888. Kelly (1907) writes that ‘a site for a large church has recently, it is said, been given by the Earl of Durham’.  The church, in the Romanesque style and dedicated to St Cuthbert, was built by the Revd Patrick Joseph Kearney and opened in 1910. According to Tweedy (p. 154), the high altar, tabernacle, sanctuary lamp and altar stone removed at that time from St Cuthbert’s, Durham, were installed in the new church at Chester-le-Street, but of these possibly only the tabernacle survives in the church. Other information about the building and its architect has eluded the author. 

A neo-Romanesque church of 1910, stone-built and with a slate roof, with a contemporary presbytery, also stone-built, to the east. The building is architecturally ambitious, but information about its designer is elusive. It consists of a five-bay nave with narrow circulation aisles, western narthex and baptistery, south porch and apsidal sanctuary. The design is strongly articulated, with great piers marking the bay divisions. The western bay of the nave is raised on both the north and south sides, with blind interlaced arcading; the height and the large buttresses suggest intended towers. Apsidal terminations provide articulation at both east and west ends; at the west end the low baptistery is surmounted by two round-arched windows and a circular window in the gable, with a gabled hood enclosing a niche at the apex.   Between the piers of the side elevations are paired round-headed windows separated by a narrower and lower blind arch, with a corbelled string course over. Stone rainwater spouts project from the piers. There is a raised bellcote (but no bell) over the chancel arch, and the apse has high level circular windows and a corbelled cornice.

The porch entrance is framed by an arch with roll moulding and columns with cushion capitals. Inside, the wall finishes are plastered and painted white. The nave has a barrel vault rising from high flat timber soffit in the bays, with broad transverse arches with billet moulding at the bay divisions; these spring from paired stone columns with cushion capitals. Arched openings within the pier divisions in the aisles.  A gallery occupies the western bay of the nave, and the former baptistery now holds a piety shop. At the chancel arch there are columnar shafts of polished Frosterley marble, and similar shafts frame the window openings of the apse.

Apart perhaps from the domed brass tabernacle in an arched recess to the left hand side of the chancel arch, which may be that brought over from the church of St Cuthbert, Durham, the furnishings of the church appear to be later than 1910. The apse is lined with a high dark timber panelled dado up to sill level; the windows above have clear glass incorporating stained glass images on a Eucharistic theme. The carpeted sanctuary is arranged along post-Vatican II lines, with a flight of semicircular steps projecting into the nave and no altar rails; it is simply but attractively furnished with a polished marble altar with circular mensa, ambo also of polished marble. The nave is carpeted, and the pews appear to be fairly modern. 

Heritage Details

Architect: Not established

Original Date: 1910

Conservation Area: Yes

Listed Grade: Not Listed