After Sophie and I had lunch at the Food Fair, we decided to go up to St.Mary’s lighthouse at Whitley Bay and have a wander around the nature reserve there.
The history bit
St.Mary’s Island is a very small sandstone island, just off the coast at Whitley Bay. Back in medieval times there was a chapel on the island, and it was dedicated to St.Helen. It’s worth digressing here as St.Helen was an important part of Christian history, being the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine, who was the main instigator of Christianity throughout Europe. He made his Mum his chief relic hunter and gave her complete access to the imperial treasury in order to finance the finding of any relics. She was the Indiana Jones of her day! Off she went on a Holy Trip to Palestine where she was responsible for the construction or beautification of two churches, the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem, and the Church of Eleona on the Mount of Olives, sites of Christ’s birth and ascension, respectively. Then she shot off to Jerusalem which was in the process of being rebuilt after Emperor Titus’s destruction of the place. Now, back in the 130’s, Emperor Hadrian had built a temple over the site of Jesus’s tomb near Calvary, and renamed the city Aelia Capitolina. Accounts differ concerning whether the temple was dedicated to Venus or Jupiter but it didn’t matter as Helen had it pulled down, and the site excavated. Well blow me down she only went and hit the jackpot! 3 wooden crosses were unearthed. Helen wanted to make sure that one of them was the “True Cross” so she had a woman who was in the process of dying brought to the site and had her touch each cross. Of course she touched the first one, nothing, the second, niente, de nada, but then! She put her hand on the third one and lo and behold she recovered instantly. Helen declared the cross to be the True Cross of Jesus. On the site of the discovery, Constantine ordered the building of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
But Helen didn’t stop there, no resting on her laurels for our intrepid relic hunter, she also discovered the nails from the crucifixion- (one of which she stuck in her son’s helmet, and one on his horses bridle,) and the Holy Tunic. Somewhere along the way she also found the rope which tied Jesus to the cross, and that can still be seen in Cyprus, where she also went hunting. Considered to be the only relic of its kind, it has been held at the Stavrovouni Monastery, which was also founded by Helen. As well as relic hunting, Helen was a great cat person and is responsible for the large population of cats in Cyprus. Local tradition holds that she imported hundreds of cats from Egypt or Palestine in the fourth century AD to rid a monastery of snakes. The monastery is today known as “St. Nicholas of the Cats”. What a gal! Helena left Jerusalem and the eastern provinces in 327 to return to Rome, bringing with her large parts of the True Cross and other relics, which were then stored in her palace’s private chapel, where they can be still seen today. Her palace was later converted into the Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem. This has been maintained by Cistercian monks in the monastery which has been attached to the church for centuries.
Why there was a chapel to her in Whitley Bay is a mystery, I can’t find evidence of her visiting it, but no matter, presumably the chap in charge had heard of her. Inside the chapel was the Lady Light, also known as St. Katherine’s Light. The light was later, wrongly, ascribed to St. Mary and, as a result, the island became known as St. Mary’s Island. It is debatable whether the light was used as a warning to shipping or was purely religious. Next to the chapel was a burial ground where monks and local people were interred. Traces of St. Helen’s Chapel were sadly destroyed when the lighthouse was built in 1898.
During the 19th century there was an inn, known as the ‘Square and Compass’, on the island, run by a Mr. George Ewen. In 1895, after complaints about rowdy customers trespassing on nearby land, the landlord, Lord Hastings, had Mr. Ewen and his family evicted from the island.
Prior to the lighthouse being built, the island was originally owned by a local prominent family, The Bates, and consequently the Island was first named after them and so was called Bates Island, Hartley Bates or Bates Hill. I have no idea why they had three names for it. The island is opposite Curry’s Point on the mainland and is connected to the coast at low tide by a rocky causeway for about 16 hours a day.
Well that’s enough school for the day, lets crack on with some pictures.
The cause way was under the sea when we got there,
so we had a wander up to the cliffs and the nature reserve. A row of memorial benches lines the path up to the cliff top
some of the plaques on the benches are so poignant
we saw a few people walking back the other way
the views from the top are great
All pictures are embiggenable and a full album can be seen HERE
Stay tooned for our next foray into the Universe 😃
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