Ian Davis, Community Rail Support Officer for the Northern region, had the opportunity to join a Community Rail Cumbria management meeting in the slightly unusual yet magnificent venue of St Bees Priory earlier this year. Ian has written a short article on how the area connects with the present-day community rail concept of stations as gateways to the past and to the future.
“When we think of community rail and its history, we think of the halcyon days of the railways and the rich history it invokes in many people.
I was fortunate enough to attend the Cumbrian Coast Line CRP Management meeting in the beautiful village of St Bees in West Cumbria during the summer, and was treated to a very special experience. Before the meeting took place, Community Rail Cumbria Chair Eddie Pollock, community rail manager Dawn McGough and community rail partnership officer Warren Birch worked hard to organise a tour of the ancient St Bees Priory by extremely knowledgeable guides Doug Sim and Eric Taylor of St Bees Parish Council and local historian Chris Robson.
Visiting St Bees Priory for the first time, one would be unaware of the great importance it served and still does to the local community, quite like a gateway railway station that opens up a nestled community for the discerning and curious visitor.
Ancient Celtic, Roman, Anglo Saxon, Viking and Norman influences have left their mark on the village and surrounding area. During the 11th century, St Bees was part of the Kingdom of Strathclyde, until the end of the century when the Norman invasion and subsequent conquest of Cumberland (Cumbria) took place. William le Meschin, who was then Lord of Egremont, founded the Priory for a Prior and six monks in 1120 during the reign of King Henry I.
During our tour, we were told of the incredible discovery of the St Bees Man, who was found during a final dig of the priory in 1981. The body of a medieval man was unearthed in such remarkable condition, that an autopsy had to be carried out. The body of Anthony de Luca had been preserved in a linen shroud inside a lead coffin for over 700 years – he had been part of the Northern Crusade when he was killed in 1368 in New Kaunas (present day Lithuania) and brought back with reverence to St Bees.
We also learnt about the 200-million-year-old local sandstone the Priory was built with. The remarkable material was recently identified as a replacement to rebuild a cathedral in the USA and is famous throughout the world – St Bees Railway Station is proudly built with St Bees sandstone.
The Priory atmosphere emitted a sense of peace and tranquillity which readied oneself for the wonderful CRP meeting ahead, hosted in the beautiful setting of St Bees School – a private boarding school founded in 1583 by Edmund Grindal, Archbishop of Canterbury.
The tour of the Priory was a truly wonderful experience and set up the CRP meeting in a very special way. One got a real sense of the rich history of St Bees, as well as its connection with our railways and its place within the modern world. It was an honour to be able to celebrate the work of Community Rail Cumbria and the communities it continues to serve, in a place so richly steeped in history.”