St Giles Church can be found at the southern end of the small Northumbrian village of Birtley, which stands on ground rising above the east side of the River Tyne. The church is an interesting one. Closely surrounded by trees on its south side, the only clear views of it are from the north, and here the most obvious feature is the complete absence of windows on this side of the church, something that was relatively common in early Northumbrian churches built in exposed locations.
The view from here does give a clear indication of the form of the church, however. At the west end is the porch. This sits next to the offset spire, which is attached to the south-west corner of the church. Some three quarters of the length of the church is occupied by the nave, while the eastern quarter is occupied by the lower-roofed chancel. When seen from the north there may be no windows in the church, but there are a series of buttresses, and a blocked up doorway towards the west end of the nave.
As well as trees, the south side offers a rather more fully occupied graveyard, and a view of the church that does reveal a series of windows in both nave and chancel.
It is believed that a wooden Saxon church stood on this site from before 700. The church you see today had its origins in a stone building erected here in about 1100 by the de Umfraville family, the Lords of Redesdale. In about 1150 the church came under the religious control of Hexham Priory, though responsibility for its care and maintenance resided with the local landowner.
Centuries of war between Scotland and England did few favours to communities on either side of the border, and this could well explain the indications of fire that have been found on many parts of the structure during renovation work. Whatever the reason, the church was allowed to fall into disrepair and by 1610 was recorded as being in ruins.
In 1723 Sir Cuthbert Heron, Lord of the Manor of Chipchase left £40 per year to allow a number of services to be held in the church after it had been "coarsely rebuilt for present use".
In 1883-4 a much more major refurbishment took place. The Reverend George Rome Hall raised £1,350 through public subscriptions and donations, and the work that resulted was so complete "as to make the church look like a modern building." The north wall was left windowless. The east gable was rebuilt, and new windows were inserted into the east and south sides of the church. Meanwhile the porch was added to the church, as were the vestry, the tower, and the spire that tops it off.
During the reconstruction of the east gable a number of Saxon graveslabs were uncovered carrying symbols including swords, crosses and shears. These were built into the walls of the porch, and can be seen there today. Also uncovered was a stone carrying an Iona cross and the date of 700, plus the inscription "O R P E", thought to stand for "Orate Pro Edmundo" or "Pray for Edmund".
Buildings, whether old or new, can often convey a feeling. It may just have been us, but on our visit we found that St Giles' Church just wasn't a very comfortable place to be.