Standing solidly on the bank of the River Pont in Northumberland is the ancient church of St Mary the Virgin. A church has stood here for ages, giving comfort and protection to the community. From Saxon times, through the wars with the Scots to the present day, St Mary’s has been (and still is) the one constant anchor locals could cling to. Every part of life in Ponteland somehow always involved St Mary the Virgin’s Church.
Exploring St Mary the Virgin Church, Ponteland
Walking down Thornhill Road, one cannot miss the solid Norman tower of St Mary the Virgin. Massive, leafy trees cast dancing shadows on the thick stone walls in the afternoon sun. In the churchyard, I meet David and David, two gentlemen working at trimming greenery near the church porch. With a warm and friendly welcome, they take me into the coolness of the old church, eager to show me around and point out interesting and unique bits in the church. It is delightful to find two people who are as passionate about the ancient architecture as I am.
Not an Average Church
In medieval times, St Mary the Virgin church in Ponteland was very much a “defensive” church. It is here where local inhabitants fled when the town was under attack. This is very clear when one looks at the thickness of the walls, particularly in the tower, where the walls are 4 feet thick! Bear in mind also that stone was reasonably easy to come by at the time of construction. Hadrian’s wall is not that far away, and stone was repurposed from that structure to build much of this church.
What makes this church even more interesting to explore is the wide variety of building styles that can still be seen. As with most churches of this age, St Mary’s has gone through many transformations, renovations, and partial rebuilding over the centuries. Here, at St Mary’s, one can really appreciate all these changes.
The oldest “bit” can be found, built into the South wall of the tower. This is a 10th century Saxon grave marker with a very clear cross carved into it. Apparently, this old grave marker was found in the churchyard at some point in Norman times and used in the building process. The tower door, with its distinctive Norman arched zig-zag design, is 12th century.
At the nave arch, one of my guides (let’s call him David number one, because they are both David!) pointed out the stunningly detailed carvings of Adam and Eve – one depicting the two paradise dwellers before discovering sin and the other, more haggard, after discovering sin. It is believed that these carvings date from the 13th century. Another 13th-century feature is the beautiful piscina in the chancel.
As is often the case, the church also has a variety of windows and memorials, dating from the 14th century through to the 20th century.
What Not to Miss at St Mary the Virgin Church
When exploring this beautiful example of religious architecture, it is easy to become overwhelmed as there really is a great deal to see. As a quick guide, make sure you don’t miss the following:
- Near the main door is a list of all the Vicars of Ponteland from 1154 – a hugely interesting read.
- The font is 14th century and truly beautiful in its simplicity.
- The 14th-century stained glass fragments in the chancel are superbly detailed.
- In the nave is a very informative display of drawings and writeups of the church’s history – well worth a look.
- Note the early 18th-century grave slabs in the floor.
The church and churchyard at St Mary the Virgin in Ponteland are an absolute must-see for any heritage tourist and those interested in the religious aspects of this part of Northumberland. This is not “just another church”. This is very much the heart and soul of a community – a role it has unwaveringly fulfilled for centuries.
Historical Sites Nearby
- The Ponteland Vicar’s Pele Tower is a one-minute walk from St Mary’s
- The medieval churches of St John the Baptist and St Andrew’s are located in Newcastle, 8 miles away.
- St Francis in Byrness is 33 miles northwest.
- The ruins of Warkworth Castle lie 27 miles north, along the A1
- The medieval St Andrew’s Church in Corbridge is 16 miles away
- Site visit, observation, and conversation with locals
- The Parish Church of St Mary the Virgin Ponteland, R.N. Bailey
- Spirit in Stone website
- Ponteland Town Council website