windermere panoramic
Kendal
St Oswald's Church, Grasmere
Main Street
Cumbria AL22 9SW
 
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St Oswald’s in Grasmere is a very unusual church in a number of ways.  To start with it is home to both Anglicans and Methodists and is part of Churches Together in Grasmere.
 
William Wordsworth is buried in the Churchyard
The Grasmere church is one of the most visited literary shrines in the world.  The best known of the great ‘Romantic’ poets, William Wordsworth, is buried in the churchyard along with some members of his family including his wife, Mary and his sister, Dorothy.
 
Church site may date from 642AD
Another of its features is its extraordinary architecture.  Through a lack of records, little is known about its early history but it is believed that in 642 AD the King of Northumbria built a wooden mortuary chapel in Grasmere.   The site may have been where the present church is or beside the nearby St Oswald’s well in Red Bank Road.
 
Strange Double Nave
The most amazing features are the strange double nave, the primitive spaces broken through the thick intersecting wall, and the massive, misshapen timbers that support its roof.
 
It is hard to imagine just how isolated Grasmere was in Anglo-Saxon times.  There were only footpaths between isolated farmsteads, living was barely above subsistence level, and much of the time the population was engaged in fighting wars.  Spiritual life was looked after by a visiting monk who would say Mass.
 
First Stone Church built in the 13th Century
The first stone church was built in the 13th century by the local inhabitants from boulders taken from the nearby river.  They looked for neither skilled help nor money from anyone else and the church reflects their sturdy, strong and self-dependant nature.  With only a lowly monk for an architect the building was very basic – just a rectangular space with a squat tower at one end.  No glass in the narrow windows, just wooden shutters to keep out the weather and a hard packed earth floor.
 
When it came to expanding and remodelling in the 15th century, other parishes were building finely proportioned Gothic churches out of dressed stone. Grasmere’s builders only knew how to build houses and barns so around 1490 they chose to erect another plain rectangular space beside the original nave. They didn’t know how to roof such a large church so the four foot thick external wall was kept to support the roofs.  Arches were pierced through the wall giving entry to the tower, the new nave and to support the new roof.
 
The roof was a problem because the builders had no idea how to span the enlarged space so they built the same sort of roof as the one over the old church.  Naturally the deep valley where the two roofs met filled up with snow and leaked.
 
In 1592 a local benefactor left some money to remove the troublesome roofs and build a new one covering the complete church.  Good idea but how to do it?
 
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Unique double roof built in 1592
A local genius suggested that a hipped roof should be built over the original ones. The central wall was raised to include a series of smaller arches resting on the crowns of the lower arches.  By this method an external single pitched roof could be placed over the entire church supported by the double roof within.  The resultant roof is completely unique to St Oswald’s.
 
Parts of this original medieval church can still be seen – possibly the tower, the porch, the south wall, and one window between the porch and the tower. There are indications that before its enlargement it was more ornate then than now.
 
The font may be as old as the original stone church, if not older.  Its mouldings which originally followed the rim and divided the bowl into a hexagon, are almost obliterated.
 
The whole building was whitewashed to tidy up the primitive remodelling and this is how we see the building today together with the Victorian renovations undertaken in 1851.  There are several beautiful stained glass windows in the Pre-Raphaelite style.  The floor was laid with flagstones in the 19th century and after the traditional Rush Bearing Ceremony in July the floor is strewn with rushes.
 
William Wordsworth
On the central dividing wall is a memorial to William Wordsworth who is buried along with his family outside in the churchyard.  On display in a glass case near the organ is Wordsworth’s personal prayer book.
 
For the over 100,000 tourists who come to St Oswald’s in search of William Wordsworth’s grave they are treated to the added bonus of discovering a unique ancient church.  There are a number of helpful leaflets giving detailed information about the history of the Church, about the Rushbearing, and the Wordsworth graves.
 
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Contact & Further Information
 
 Getting There
There are excellent directions on the Visit Cumbria website link above.
 
Google Map - St Oswald's Church, Grasmere