Little churches (1) – St. Stephen’s, Fylingdales near Robin Hood’s Bay.

I come from a religious family and every Sunday my parents would take me to church. As my father was also very interested in architecture, wherever we went on holiday we were church tourists. I probably visited hundreds of churches in my youth, so when I came to create a church for The Little Church by the Sea I had plenty of examples to draw upon.

The biggest inspiration for Cass’s church was the church of St. Stephen, Fylingdales. Built in 1822 and largely unchanged since it was replaced by an even newer church in a more convenient location the 1870s, this little old church was left behind. Walking into old St. Stephens is like stepping back in time, as if the congregation of 150 years ago have just left.


It’s a church of almost puritanical simplicity compared to the colour and richness of many Victorian churches of my experience. It’s light and bright, packed with box pews and a gallery, as well as a huge triple-decker pulpit. The seats in the pews all face towards the pulpit in the centre of the church rather than towards the altar, which intrigued me – the small altar almost feels like an afterthought rather than the focus of the service.


It’s a church of words rather than images, the words of the preacher and the words of the ten commandments on either side of the altar. There are no stained glass windows, no carvings, no paintings of saints. The only “art” that I noticed were the maidens garlands themselves and two coats of arms – the King’s and the arms of local gentry which would be carried, like the maiden’s garlands, in a funeral procession.

It’s a church of names, a church of the community – names of those who donated money to the church, names of those who served in the village lifeboat. I had hoped to find the names of the families who prayed there painted on the doors of the box pews, but these pews are numbered. Outside, the churchyard is crammed with gravestones, tumbling over each other like the cottages in the village, memorials to those who lived and died in the village – or out at sea. And in the summer, rather than try and cut the grass between the gravestones, sheep really are employed as lawnmowers!


But more than anything, it’s a church of memories.


Old St. Stephen’s Church is in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust.

The Little Church by the Sea – cover!

Here is the first chance to see the beautiful wintery cover for “The Little Church by the Sea” which will be published by Manatee Books on 23rd November. I’m so thrilled with the design, it suits the book absolutely perfectly. It even reminds me of this little church:DSCN0639

which is Old St. Stephen’s Church at Robin Hood’s Bay, one of the main inspirations for the “Little Church” of the title.

I hope you like it as much as I do!

Maidens’ Garlands

One of the curious things I discovered when I was researching the location for The Little Church by the Sea was a small collection of what are called “maidens’ garlands” which hang in the Old Church of St. Stephen at Fylingdales, near Robin Hoods Bay.

The  maidens’ garlands in St. Stephen’s consist of a frame or hoop, covered with material and decorated with ribbons or strips of cloth and paper gloves. In other parts of the country they were more conventionally crown shaped and covered with rosettes. They would be carried with the coffin of an unmarried girl, and then hung in the chancel of the church as a memorial to the young woman.


A replica garland made by artist Mandy Patullo, hanging in St. Stephen’s Church.


The tradition of carrying a garland with the coffin of a young girl who dies unmarried was once widespread, but now only a few of them remain throughout the country.  The garlands were also known as “crants”, coming from an Old Norse word for garland, and Shakespeare mentions them in Hamlet:

Yet here she is allow’d her virgin crants,
Her maiden strewments, and the bringing home of bell and burial.

(I wish I had noticed that myself, but I have to credit that knowledge to Wikipedia!)

Given that my fictional village of Rawscar has a Viking heritage, once I found that out it seemed even more fitting to include the maiden’s garlands in the story, and so in my novel, just as in the church at Fylingdales, the garlands hang in a case at the back of the church, a melancholy reminder of the harsh lives and early deaths of many young women.


The original maidens’ garlands, safely kept in a glass case.

In The Little Church by the Sea, one of the garlands bears the name of Polly Allinson who died about 150 years before the story begins, and the tragedy of this young woman is interwoven with the stories of the modern inhabitants of Rawscar.


Old St. Stephen’s Church and its maidens’ garlands are in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust.