Lancashire

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The "Cathedral of the Fylde", and the parish church of nearby Garstang

Churchtown is often known as Kirkland, "kirk" originating from the Old Norse "kirkja" meaning church. St Helen's, sometimes called the "Cathedral of the Fylde", is the parish church of Garstang.

The building is not mentioned in the Domesday Book, but this is not conclusive proof that it did not exist at that time. A very early date for the site has been argued from the shape of the churchyard. It is almost circular, and was completely surrounded by two branches of the River Wyre until 1746, when a new course was dug. All this suggests that it may have been a site of pagan worship taken over by Christianity. The earliest documentary evidence for the church comes from a court case of about 1203, when nearby St Michael's on Wyre claimed the church, but was rebuffed when a jury found that St Helen's had been "always in their time a Mother Church" i.e. the centre of a parish proper. The vicars of St Helen's are known from 1190 onwards.

The oldest part of the present building is the north chancel arcade. It has compound piers with stiff leaf capitals from c.1220-1230. The north nave arcade, also early C13,has circular columns and capitals while the south arcade is later- about 1300 -and has octagonal capitals. The windows at the west ends of the aisles are Decorated, that to the south having cusped intersecting tracery, whilst to the north the arches are curiously straight. The chancel arch is Decorated also, and displays evidence of a former rood screen - the underside of a stairway, and a squint. Many of the arches in the church, including the vestry doorway, have scripts written around them.

The east window is Perpendicular in style. In the five main lights the stained glass illustratesthe lifeof Christ, with the birth in the leftmost, and the Crucifixion in the centre.

The choir stalls are much restored but include work of c.1500 and misericords. Re-used timbers can be seen in the chancel roof: the easterly one records that the work was paid for by Sir Robert Bindloss: the westernmost is inscribed "XRISTE IS BUILDED THIS 1620". The pulpit is Jacobean, dated 1646. Pevsner rightly notes that the arabesque carvings still look Elizabethan. The pedestal must be a Victorian embellishment. Nearby is a much defaced C13 effigy.

The south chancel aisle may have been a chantry chapel endowed by Roger de Brockholes in 1490. Next to it is the Lady Chapel. It was endowed by Margaret Rigmayden of Wedacre in 1529. It has a black and white work ceiling with a Latin inscription carved on the frieze joining wall and ceiling. In both the Lady Chapel and south chancel aisle are recently uncovered wall paintings. They are biblical texts, in painted frames with scrolls, anddate from after 1611 (possible c.1650) since the wording is from the King James Authorised Version of the Bible.

The exterior of the church is remarkable for the way in which it appears to have grown organically as succeeding generations have made their marks. The west tower is Perpendicular with a west window and doorway, diagonal buttresses, a projecting stair turret and a short corner spire (later). The old roof line can be seen on the east face. A clerestory was added in 1811, with slightly pointedwindows in groups of three. On the south side of the church are two large doors. The eastmost marks the original south porch, now no longer used. Next to it is another door to ahearse-house added in 1754. This held the wheeled bier used for funerals. It is now a boiler house.

On the north-east corner of the church is a vicar's vestry. This remarkable structure was added in 1570. It is of different stone, and is not well joined to the rest of the building. It has been suggested that it was bought in from a disused monastery - perhaps fromCockersand eight miles distant. If so, it would be fitting since the church was under the control of the Premonstratensian "White Canons" of Cockersand Abbey from c.1240 until 1539. During that period the vicars of the church came from among their body.

Most of the stained glass in the church is by Ward & Hughes.

The church from the south

The leftmost white door is the hearse-house; that onthe right is the former south porch.

View from the north-east

The vestry of 1570 can be seen in the centre, and the old roof line is visible on the tower.

Looking from the north door

This view is across the north aisle, nave, and south aisle into the Lady Chapel.

East window of Lady Chapel

Glass is by Ward & Hughes (1870). The patron saint (Saint Helen) is in the top, centre light.

Capital, north chancel

The Early English column,with stiff-leaf capital, dates from c.1220-1230.

Vestry (1570)

The vestry is of different stone, and may have been bought from a defunct monastery.

Photographs and text Tony Boughen