St Cuthbert's Church can be found at the south-eastern end of Bellingham's main street. We say "can be found" because this is one of the most retiring of churches, hiding away behind the much more obvious Black Bull Hotel and, with the exception from a corner of roof and the tip of a bellcote, invisible from most of the town.
If you walk up past the hotel you find that more of the church is visible from the main road beyond it, but we suspect that the need to negotiate the corners here means that few drivers ever notice St Cuthbert's. Which is a shame, because what you find is a church of great antiquity and character, and one that deserves to be better known than it is.
The church is built on a site that drops away steeply on the south and south-east, to the River North Tyne and the valley of the Hareshaw Burn. Combine this with an impressive growth of ancient yew trees in the churchyard, and you find that it is difficult to see much of the outside of the church from any direction.
Bellingham is a long established settlement, and it seems that a church was first built here to serve the wider community of North Tynedale as far back as 1180. The village was probably already here at that point, and Bellingham Castle had probably been built a little earlier in the same century.
The first church to be built here seems to have comprised a chancel and a nave, plus a south transept. When St Cuthbert's was originally built, the nave had aisles to the north and south, while the south transept had an aisle on its western side. Slight traces of the original arcades allowing passage through to the aisles can be found in the side walls of the nave, but these have since been extensively rebuilt and most evidence of the aisles was removed in the process.
The earliest standing part of the church is the chancel, whose north and east walls largely back to the original build, as does the chancel arch. There are also traces of the original structure in the lower parts of the walls of the transept and the west end of the nave. Most of the remainder, however, is from a rebuild usually dated to after 1609. This resulted in a nave that feels long and narrow, and a large south transept, now used as a side chapel. This is connected to the nave by means of a semi-circular arch which at first sight seems older than the chancel arch, despite being built over four centuries after it.
The most remarkable feature of the church that appeared in the early 1600s was the roof of the nave and chancel. Viewed internally, the vaulted roof is supported by a series of arches spanning the space: fifteen in the nave and seven in the transept. Externally the roof has been covered in stone slabs, in overlapping vertical rows. This is described in information within the church as "possibly the only one of its kind in England".
The theory appears to be that the new style of roof was put in place to give the church better protection in an area that had for centuries been crossed and recrossed by armies, and prey to marauding "border reivers". The problem with this is that the timing is wrong. The union of the crowns under James VI/I in 1603 heralded a period of peace along the Anglo-Scottish border for the first time since the late 1200s. Why choose to built a defensive structure just as this new era dawns? We wonder whether the roof simply reflects the availability of suitable local stone and, perhaps, a Scottish mason, as such roofs are more common north of the border, for example at St Mary's Aisle in Carnwath; Dunglass Collegiate Church; the transepts at Seton Collegiate Church; or the freestanding aisle at Humbie Kirk.
Having said that, there is a slight issue with the traditional dating of the rebuilding of the church and the installation of the stone roof. The issue comes in the form of three small cannon balls on display in the church, found in the roof during renovations in the 1800s, and thought to date back to a raid by the Duke of Buccleugh on Bellingham in 1597, more than ten years before the roof was supposed to have been installed. Either way, this style of roofing appears to have placed more load than anticipated on the walls, and in the 1700s no fewer than eleven buttresses were added to the side walls of the nave. The two large buttresses on the west gable were later additions, placed there in the 1800s to help support the weight of the new bellcote.
In the graveyard, just to the north of the chancel, there is a fascinating recumbent grave marker known locally as the "Long Pack" or the "Lang Pack". This seems to date back to the 1200s, but has become associated with a more recent local legend. One version of the story is that in 1723, the local Lee Hall was left in the care of servants while the master was away. An attempt was made to rob it by a man secreted in a large pack left for safekeeping with the servants by a pedlar. A manservant saw the pack move, and fetched his master's gun and fired at the pack, killing the robber within: who was subsequently buried beneath the Lang Pack. This would be a more convincing story if it didn't come in so many varieties, and if the supposed burial marker was not more than four centuries older than the event associated with it.