Christian England: The Church of St. Michael and St. George, Castleton, Yorkshire
The Yorkshire church that became a First World War memorial
The vast expanse of the North York Moors must be one of the most admired landscapes in the North of England, a spectacular vision of rolling beauty moulded over centuries, not only by nature’s gentle forces but also, in later days, by the hand of mankind as agriculture and farmsteads developed, epitomising man’s eternal struggle to tame its bleak but wonderful ruggedness.
My story centres around the small but thriving village of Castleton nestled among these moors, an area that holds quite an emotional tie for me as I was born and brought up here.
With religion very strong at the beginning of the 20th century, especially in rural areas, the Reverend George Bird believed the time was ripe for a new church for his flock rather than the old iron structured “tin tabernacle” which had stood at the base of the village since 1863.
The community were in full agreement, so fund-raising began in earnest and over the next few years a sum of £1,100 was raised. But this proved futile as Germany became a much more serious threat with the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. Many thought it would soon be over, but it took four long years of fighting and tremendous loss of life before peace was finally declared.
By this time the Reverend Bird had moved on and the project was taken up by the enthusiastic new vicar, the Rev. Sydney Smith, and now the building had taken on a far greater importance. It
would be built as a lasting memorial to the 24 brave men from the parish who had made the supreme sacrifice.
Costs had risen dramatically due to the war effort and the appeal for donations was quickly taken up again, but even after several generous grants and a hearty response from parishioners, it could not meet the cost.
Saviour of the project was Castleton businessman Fred Flintoft, suggesting the use of local tradesmen instead of importing outside labour. Costs could be cut dramatically, and he would act as honorary clerk of works.
There was only one firm at that time with the knowledge and craftsmanship to carry out such a project: stonemasons Messrs. Robert, Jack and Tom Liddell from Moorsholm who readily agreed to undertake the building work and masonry, with all joinery work carried out by Danby’s Joseph Underwood.
This was a mammoth task for such a small firm, but they were masons of the highest order. John Liddell, son of Tom, takes up the story on the early problems.
“The very first weeks they encountered trouble. The east end foundation proved to be on unstable ground and after many nights pondering, the only solution the brothers could come up with was to widen the foundation to a massive 12ft width, spreading the weight of the structure over a bigger area.” As John states, “It proved to be the correct decision as there is still no sign of movement in the structure.”
London architects Messrs. Temple, Moore and Moore, great designers of many churches in their day, were retained for the project and the new building would follow the traditional architecture and design of centuries-old church history.
The late Viscount Downe not only gave the site for the building, but also the stone for the erection of the building free of charge and with a donation of £300. Also his son, the Rt. Hon.viscount Downe CMG DSO, would lay the foundation stone on 24th July 1924.
Transport of the stone involved much local labour and was from stone quarries high above Castleton. One bears the name Windholes, obvious from its position, the other, Brownhill, less so, possibly stemming from the rich, brown colour of the stone or, I suspect, more likely to derive from the Celtic word “bron”, meaning breast.
These quarries bear many a childhood memory for me, where just a little sentiment seeps in. One that never dims is of bursting through knee-high heather at the Brownhill quarry entrance to
be met by a swirling mass of raucous jackdaws and a huge, dominant rock face that appeared to blot out the clear blue sky. Or, that was how my childish eyes saw it, not having reached double figures in age. I also remember the skinned knees and elbows as I tried desperately to reach the deep, narrow fissures in the cliff face where their nests were buried.
The old moorland track is barely visible now, winding its way steeply toward the entrance as, with the passage of time, Mother Nature patiently claws it back to her breast. But, with careful scrutiny, it is still detectable just to the right of the fiercely rising road leading you over the highest point of these moors from Castleton to Hutton-leHole. A good marker are the old stone watering troughs set at the right-hand side of the road for horse and traveller in years past. Look immediately right and there stands the old stone post jutting out of the hillside, still standing at the entrance.
I often wander here still. Nothing changes. The only signs of life are a few sheep, along with the sharp “caback, caback” call of the grouse startled into flight from the surrounding heather, and jackdaws as raucous as ever. Venture there as the sun dips and shadows lengthen and with very little imagination it is easy to imagine the chatter of workmen, the rattle of chains on block and tackle and the thud of heavy hammers.
Early dwellings in these dales were built from rough, tumble stones dragged from moor and fields. Little is left of these now; in some cases there are just foundations. The many quarries dotted around these moors would spring into existence in the strong building period between 1700 to the middle of the 19th century.
Brownhill quarry might have been worked earlier. If it had, it lay dormant for almost a century until surging to life again in the early 1920s as Castleton inhabitants finally realised their dream of a new church.
The stone to be quarried first had to be unearthed, then a chase chiselled deep in the stone face, followed by wedges hammered home to split the stone from the sheer rock face. Derricks with block and tackle were constructed to lower these enormous blocks of stone to the ground where the masons cut and dressed them into walling stone. This was carried out by the Weatherill family from Ainthorpe and done before transportation. Arches, lintels, tracery and other delicate dressings that could easily be damaged were all carried out on site at Castleton.
This brought much needed work and money into the area as stone leading was taken on by local farmers, three of whom were Tommy Boyes of Conn House Farm, Fred Watson of Didderhowe Farm and Walter Booth from Holly Lodge.
Transport was by horse and cart, although Tommy Boyes also used an old army truck and made the comment that he had never visited a church so often in all his life.
The church has an imposing 52ft tower, giving commanding views of the surrounding district, and a slim, central Gothic arch design window just below the louvred top tower. The main Gothic style porch entrance and windows all have beautifully dressed hooded mouldings above them which helps divert rain away from the glass and a small, slim side door is topped with a shoulder arch. All pews are finished with the adze, and rood screen, pulpit and lectern were carved by the famous “mouseman” Robert Thompson from Thirsk.
The rock-face stone structure, with walls nearly three feet thick, has lost its early starkness, the stone weathered to its familiar oven-baked tone blending well within its surroundings and all gables are crowned with stone crosses of differing detail.
The church is dedicated to St. Michael and St. George, of which relevant crosses and dates are chiselled on the foundation stone. The trees planted at the time have now grown, adding a maturity to the site.
Not only is the church a marvellous testament to the skill, talent and dedication of these master craftsmen, who learnt their trade in these very villages, it is also a truly fitting memorial to the brave men of the parish who gave their everything for their country.
Castleton Ridge overlooking Danby Dale.
The church contains a number of Robert Thompson’s carved mice which are in rather better condition than the weather-beaten example outside.