St Peter's Birkby
Birkby, North Yorkshire, is hamlet located in rural farming countryside. The church is small and is the only public building in the hamlet with a population estimated at 40 in 2012 (North Yorkshire County Council). The congregation is mainly of retirement age, drawn from Birkby and further afield (well beyond the parish boundary) due to the preferred type of service offered. The church is a single-cell brick structure and dates from the 18th century making it something of a rarity as very few were commissioned during that period. Although alterations and embellishments were carried out in the 19th century, the building retains its original strong sense of simplicity.
The secluded site occupied by St Peter’s church and the former rectory adjoins the site of the scheduled monument of the early medieval settlement of Birkby, with its associated field systems and fishponds, now privately maintained as permanent pastures. This medieval village is mentioned in the Domesday Book. The church stands in a well-maintained grassed churchyard with headstones dating back to the late 18th century and is enclosed on three sides by the boundary walls and beech hedging of what is now, Birkby Manor. There is evidence to suggest the church rests on the site of a 12th century building. Pevsner mentions that “of the church preceding that of 1776 a round Norman multi-scalloped capital survives” - this now stands outside the south door. This and other loose stones were allegedly found beneath the nave and chancel floors during the 19th century restoration work. An 18th century baluster font also stands outside the south door.
The church was completed in 1776 and consists of a red brick rectangular ‘box’ with a double bellcote above the west gable, tall round-topped windows and a polygonal apse to the east. In 1872 the building was considerably altered. The original windows were walled up and replaced with pointed arched windows of a simple 13th century design, a gabled porch added on the south side and the bellcote largely rebuilt. The 3-light chancel window of the same date is a memorial of the late Revd. T W Morley.
The church is small and has a 3-bay nave and a large canted bay chancel. Built into the inside west gable is a carved stone, that may have comprised part of the shaft of a Saxon preaching cross, and whilst it is clearly ‘ex situ’ it is thought to have been found during the Victorian restoration work. There is a full set of 17th century oak panelled benches with 2 knob finials to each bench end, which predate the building, possibly from an earlier church on this site
Interestingly, the two bells in the bellcote also predate 1872 and it is believed from the markings of three crowned lions on one bell that they were cast in York about 1460 and they are on the Diocesan preservation list. During extensive repairs to the bellcote in 2009, the two medieval bells were taken for conservation work to Taylors, Eayre and Smith (Bellfounders) and Soundweld before being re-hung.
The PCC aims to keep the building well maintained. Following advice from Quinquennial Inspections to prevent further deterioration, damaged rendering on 4 original walled-up, round-arched windows was replaced using hand-made bricks to match existing brickwork in 2004 and urgent major repairs to the bellcote were undertaken in 2009 with restoration to the medieval bells as mentioned above.
Generous help from the Heritage Lottery Fund (2014-2015) allowed for both slopes of the nave roof to be re-slated to prevent further damage due to water ingress and allow redecoration to be undertaken. As part of the HLF award the PCC organised various approved ‘activities’ which were well supported by the wider community. A Leaflet to St Peter’s Church, Birkby and Visitor Guide, ‘A brief history of St Peter’s Church, Birkby’ were produced and are available in the church.
The church is, and possibly always has been, the focal point in this small hamlet and provides a visual link with our past. It is important therefore to help ensure that the building is preserved for continued use for future generations.
The Friends’ of St Peter’s Church Birkby was established in 2015 in response to the PCC’s successful application to the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) to repair and restore the church roof with the aim to help the PCC not only with raising funds for maintenance but encourage and harness wider community interest in this special building.
(by Barbara Rodgers 2019)