Bywell is a tiny settlement at the end of the road in a loop of the River Tyne. The Romans had a bridge here and in the Middle Ages it was a flourishing town with a thriving iron industry, mainly making stirrups, buckles, harnesses, swords and other iron work for horsemen. The area was subjected to raids from the north and cattle and sheep were brought into the town at night time and a guard was set to watch the ends of the single road through the town.
Now only the castle, medieval market cross, the hall and the two churches are left. The population began to drop in the C18th and in the late C19th, the Beaumonts of Bywell Hall decided to clear the village, situated between the two churches, to create a more attractive landscape to surround the hall. The old village and inhabitants were moved across the river. St Andrew’s vicarage was demolished, but the vicar of St Peter’s refused to move and a very tall wall, the ‘spite wall’, was built to conceal the vicarage from the hall.
The churches stand a short distance from each other and both predate the Norman Conquest. The presence of two churches may reflect pre-conquest land ownership. Now only St Peter’s is still used. St Andrew’s is redundant and in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust.
The first church which was probably built of wood dates from around AD709 and may have been founded by St Wilifrid of Hexham Abbey.
It was later damaged by Viking raiders. This was replaced by a stone church. The base of the tower dates from AD850 and has very thick walls built with Roman masonry. It was clearly designed for defence against further raids, with only a tiny Saxon window in the base. The upper part of the tower was added around 1000 and has much better stonework. It has the typical double Saxon windows at the top. Pevsner describes the tower as “first rate Saxon tower, the best in the county”.
The rest of the church is C13th although like many other churches, it was repaired and enlarged in the C19th when the north transept, north chapel and porch were added. The pulpit, lectern, communion rails, mosaic floor in sanctuary and reredos date from then as do the stained glass windows.
During the C19th restorations, twenty five C12/13th grave covers were placed on the external north walls or used as lintels inside the church. Between 1991-3, several of these were removed from the external walls and were placed inside the church to stop further erosion. Their places are marked by new slabs of stone.
Most date from 1150-1250 and are probably the best collection of medieval cross grave slabs in Tynedale. They were originally used as either recumbent gravestones on the lid of a coffin or a grave marker either in church floor or churchyard. Each has a cross and many have an emblem denoting the trade or rank of the person buried. A sword, always on the right of the cross shaft, denotes the right to bear arms. The pair of shears is a female emblem as the medieval housewife often had a pair of shears along with her keys hanging from her girdle.
It is a lovely old church set in what looks to be a circular churchyard, a sign of antiquity. It is a cruciform church with north and south transepts and a chapel on the north wall. Entry is through the south door and there is level access into the church. Lights come on when you enter the church. On the floor by the door is and old tombstone and another forms the lintel above the door. Just inside the door is a small water stoup with a metal cover designed to stop people stealing the Holy water.
At the back of the church below the tower is a C13th plain stone octagonal font. It’s simple clear lines give it a modern feel.
It is a simple church with whitewashed walls and a wooden beam roof. Coronas or candles hang from the ceiling. The C19th pews have carved ends. Pointed arches lead into the transepts and also the chancel. Above the chancel is a hatchment. There is another above the arch into the tower at the back of the church.
The open carved stone pulpit has decorative columns of Frosterley Marble. On the opposite side of the chancel arch is a stone reading desk with a carving of an eagle.
In the church is the the shaft of what is thought to be a Danish cross.
The south transept contains several old carved gravestones. On the walls are monuments to C19th Bacon and Bacon Grey family members as well as a splendid memorial to William Fenwick who died in 1802. The organ is in the north transept.
The north chapel is separated from the chancel by a central pillar with pointed arches and has a collection of larger gravestones.
There is a small step up into the chancel with a simple altar set on a low raised dais with a mosaic design of trailing vines. Behind the altar is a stone reredos with Frosterley Marble pillars and inset mosaic designs. In the centre is IHS below a crown. On either side are lilies set on a blue background. Outside them are the symbols for alpha and omega, each under a gold star. At the ends are large mosaic figures of St Andrew with a saltire cross and St Peter with the keys of Heaven. Above are three lancet windows with C19th stained glass.
This is a very attractive church with a lot of character. It must have one of the best Saxon towers in the valley and the carving on the medieval grave slabs is of high quality. It is definitely worth searching out. It is a lovely peaceful setting.
The church is open daily and there is parking on the road by the church. It is just a short walk to St Peter’s Church.
There are more pictures here.