Old St Stephen’s Church: Rugged Individualism

On the hilltop of Fylingdales sits a beautiful and unique building overlooking the seaside town of Robin Hood’s Bay. This building is Old St Stephen’s Church and it has an interesting history.

The church was probably founded in the 11th Century and in the early 18th Century a west gallery was introduced together with box pews. Then in 1816, when the church was in poor condition and was too dark and small, the arrival of a Mr Barry donated £150 from The Incorporated Church Building Society. This allowed a new church to be built and opened in 1822. This is the current church we see today.

As soon as you enter the building, a feeling of uniqueness will overcome you. The Georgian-style windows and Tuscan pillars are something to see in themselves. The pillars were built using Navy surplus that was left over after the Napoleon wars and has a similar feel and design to that of St Mary’s in Whitby.

The first thing that will capture your eye though, is the dominate three-decker pulpit. With the clerk’s desk at the front and the reading desk behind, the pulpit is complimented by a semi-octagonal tester to increase the volume of the speaker’s voice. However, what is unusual is the positioning of the pulpit. During the time of the construction of the church, a law was passed by the government at the time which agreed that the pulpit cannot obstruct the altar.

In Old St Stephen’s, the pulpit does not obstruct the altar on the eastern end but instead dominates the south wall. This is not unusual in itself, what caused some controversy at the time was how the pews are positioned. As I sat with the pulpit to my right, Deb Gillanders, one of the friends of the church, sat in the pew in front of me. The shock was Deb did not face the altar like an average church but instead faced me. Face-to-face. The church does abide by the law and it could be seen as a middle finger-up to the hierarchy of the church at the time. No doubt, many devote Christians will find this church off-putting but what a story it has to tell.

Not only does the church have an interesting story regarding the pews and pulpit, but the church has hanging original Maiden’s Garland. A Maiden’s Garland is a crown-shaped garland used as a funeral memento for female virgins. These were hung from the chancel ceiling and were carried at the funeral procession of a maiden. These garlands date from the 19th Century. Not only are there garlands in the church but also an interesting list. This list shows all the single women buried in the church graveyard.

With the fantastic views spanning the countryside through to the coast of Robin Hood’s Bay with the new St Stephen’s steeple in view, two graves caught my eye. Looking like the King and Queen of a chessboard, these graves are just two of the dozen interesting graves this church has. These are the resting place for Richard Knightley Smith, who moved from London and married into the local Storm family.

He wanted to be buried in the south west corner but there was no room. But that didn’t stop him. He made sure he was buried there and he built a circular part of the wall similar to the method of flattening out a garden and there he was buried.

As well, the church has roughly around 150 women who never married buried there as well as the same amount of men who died at sea. According to Deb, that is roughly around 100 families that never happened. This is a shocking number of people for a town the size of Robin Hood’s Bay.

The church is full of unique and different things to see from the block of text on the wall that is not attached to anything else through to bell that was brought to this church during the eviction of the monks from Whitby Abbey during the reign of Henry VIII.

The rugged individualism of the church is a brilliant site to see. With no electricity and some of the original 1822 float glass, it seems that the church has a personality all of its own and according to Deb ‘everything is the same but changing at the same time.’

Old St Stephen’s was replaced in1870 by the new St Stephen’s nearer to Robin Hood’s Bay as you cannot have two parish churches in the same parish. This caused uproar from the church warden, who married into the Farsyde family, who found the church to be locked on a Sunday. His letter to the paper can be seen to the left. It still served as a mortuary chapel for many years the church was repaired and services were resumed in 1917. After a big storm in the 1980s, a decision was made to vest the old church in the care of The Churches Conservation Trust in 1986.

The church now holds regular music festivals as the acoustics are great including the 40th year festival of the traditional folk band, The Wilson Family, who will be playing in the church on June 6.

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