Stepping off the tiny, two carriage train in the picturesque village of St. Bees, the roar of the ocean is audible long before you see it. At least today, a day of high winds and high tides, the noise of the Irish Sea crashing into the mighty sandstone cliffs of the West Cumbrian Coast, easily carries the half mile inland to the train station. Even at this distance I can tell that the sea is rough, and my planned walk along the Cumbria Heritage Coast might be wetter than expected.
West Cumbria is often overlooked by visitors to the region, overshadowed by the nearby Lake District National Park. It has been a long time since I visited and, although the weather can be terrible, this is an area full of natural beauty with a history as surprising as it is fascinating.
This region has suffered significant economic decline, with communities gutted as industries closed. For years this was one Britain’s most depressed and deprived areas; a status seemingly at odds with the beauty of the landscape. The transport infrastructure doesn’t help. The train route meanders along the coast, cutting inland around bays and estuaries. It’s a beautiful route, but even the relatively short journey to St. Bees takes over two and a half hours. A day-trip on public transport is an endurance test.
From the early 17th Century onwards, shipping, mining and trade with the Americas and Caribbean were the drivers of the economy. A predominantly rural region, West Cumbria was remarkably industrialised, connected to far flung corners of the globe through trade. This has left an industrial and cultural legacy that is only just beginning to be exploited for tourism.
There are many small towns and villages worth a visit, but one that already attracts thousands of visitors annually is St. Bees. This pleasant village is the start/end point of the 192 mile Coast to Coast walk, popularised by Alfred Wainwright. Its proximity to the beautiful and rugged coastline, and the beach which sits beneath the cliffs, draws visitors; but it is the former Benedictine Priory of St. Bees, and the legend of St. Bega, that sparks the imagination.
The name St. Bees is a corruption of St. Bega. Reputed to have been a beautiful and virtuous Irish Princess, St. Bega fled Ireland to avoid an arranged marriage. She lived the life of a hermit, in isolation and poverty in St. Bees. Fearful that Vikings, who were pillaging along this coast, would rape her, she fled to Northumbria leaving behind her one worldly possession, a bracelet. Naturally, St. Bega, and her bracelet, became the focus of worship at the Norman-era Priory built in St. Bees in the 12th Century.
There was a thriving cult dedicated to St. Bega by the time the Benedictine Priory was built around 1120. The cult was still going strong in the early 16th Century, when records show a large amount of money being donated to ‘the bracelet of St. Bega’. She is credited with several ‘miracles’ and in Bassenthwaite, only a short distance away in the Lake District, there is a church dedicated to St. Bega. This is fine, but there’s evidence to suggest that St. Bega didn’t exist.
It’s argued that St. Bega is a Christian invention based on pre-existing pagan beliefs. This is why her bracelet is important. The local word for bracelet is ‘beag’ and there may have been a sacred pagan bracelet that took human, and Christian, form as St. Bega. In a world where Christianity was encroaching on pagan beliefs, apparently this isn’t improbably. An alternative theory is that chroniclers confused her with an entirely different person. There seem to have been quite a few Irish women living as hermits who later got canonised. These and other theories are explained here.
Whether she existed or not, in 2000 the local council decided to commission a sculpture of her. Not everyone is a fan. The woman I asked for directions said, “She’s supposed to be an Irish Princess, but she looks like a chubby fisherwoman.” To be fair, the sculptor didn’t have any pictures to work from. The sculpture depicts her arriving in a small boat. I’m no expert, but if she sailed that boat across the Irish Sea she deserves her own cult. Then again, since she’s probably fictional, I’m not sure it matters.
Carved stones found at the Priory of St. Bees indicate that Gaelic-Scandinavian settlers lived in this area in the 10th Century. This community probably lived in relative isolation until the arrival of the conquering Normans in 1092. It was William le Meschin, a Norman Baron, who extended the existing religious site into the Benedictine Priory. The Priory functioned as a religious institution – a wealthy one at that – until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539. It continues to be used as the parish church, but many of the original buildings have disappeared.
The Priory has seen much history and has many secrets. In 1981, during excavations of a 14th Century burial site, a mystery was unearthed – a coffin containing a six hundred year-old male body. Known as St Bees Man, remarkably his nails, skin and stomach contents were found to be in near-perfect condition. The body has been identified as either Anthony de Lucy, a knight who died in the Teutonic Crusades in 1368, or Robert of Harrington, buried here in 1297. It’s all a bit Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and the carved Norman doorway and coffin lids inside the church add to that feeling.
Walking away from the Priory towards the start of the coastal path, I could hear the ocean getting louder. Suddenly, the headland and ocean came into view – giant waves were pounding into the cliffs and onto the beach with a ferocity I’ve rarely seen. Above the ocean I could see the track that would take me over St. Bees Head and onto the beautiful route that follows the cliffs to Whitehaven. The wind was blowing hard at my back and the sun had decided to shine for the first time in weeks. Onwards and upwards…