The Church of the Holy Trinity and St Constantine, Wetheral, stands in a fine location overlooking the River Eden from a platform part of the way up the slope from the river to the village itself. The lanes here are very narrow, and the easiest, and most pleasant, way to visit the church is by parking in the village and wandering down the hill to it.
The churchyard is accessed through a lychgate which serves as a war memorial. Beyond is a large and well kept grassy churchyard that is surprisingly free of gravestones for such an old church. There turn out to be rather more to the east and north of the church, but still fewer than you might expect.
The most striking of the few monuments on show on the near side of the church is what appears to be the base and lower part of the octagonal shaft of a standing cross, possibly displaced from the village green in 1808.
The south aisle of the church houses a fine arched doorway, which appears to have been walled up a considerable time ago. The more recent entrance is from the west end, beneath the rather attractive octagonal tower that could easily stand in for a rook in a giant game of chess.
The interior of the church comprises a broad nave, which appears all the broader as it opens out through wide arches into north and south aisles. At the east end is the chancel, which on a nice morning appears to be bathed in light when seen from the nave. To the north of the chancel is the Howard Chapel built as a family mausoleum in 1791 in a Gothic stye that doesn't look too out of place with the rest of the building.
There are a number of attractive monuments in the church. The life size statue of "Faith" by Joseph Nollekens in the memorial chapel is held by some to be the finest sculpture in Cumbria. Sadly we neglected to either notice or photograph it on our visit. Perhaps because our breath was taken away by two other life size sculptures: slightly damaged stone effigies of Sir Richard Salkeld of Corby (as in Corby Castle, on the opposite bank of the River Eden, not as in Northamptonshire) and his wife Jane Vaux. Sir Richard was Captain and keeper of Carlisle Castle and died in 1500. Sir Richard's head is resting on a helmet, while his feet are supported by a lion. It is still possible to see traces of the decoration of roses around his neck, and he is equipped in plate and chain armour, with a sword, dagger and hunting knife.
Wetheral Parish Church houses some very fine stained glass, including some of Cumbria's limited stock of medieval stained glass. The west windows, above the door in the tower, carry depictions of St Constantine and the Virgin Mary.
The origins of Wetheral Parish Church date back to the 1300s. Most of the structure you see today appeared in the 1500s, including the nave and aisles. Wetheral had been home to a priory on a nearby site since the early 1100s. This was also dedicated to the Holy Trinity and St Constantine, and it is tempting to wonder whether the dedication of the priory church (as well as some of its stone) was inherited by the parish church after the dissolution of the priory in 1536. This is presumably what promoted the major rebuild of the church not long afterwards, leaving it as one of only two churches in England to be dedicated to St Constantine. The other is in Cornwall.
The base of the tower dates back to 1790, the same time that the chapel was added to the other end of the building, and the upper part of the tower you see today was added in 1882. Other changes were also made in 1790: presumably including the blocking up of the door in the south aisle, and a further major refurbishment took place in 1872.
Churches are living buildings, and you can tell a lot from their atmosphere on entering. Wetheral Parish Church is a friendly, comfortable sort of place, and even if you catch it on a quiet morning with nobody around, it feels immediately welcoming. Just make sure you don't miss seeing the finest sculpture in Cumbria...
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Grid Ref: NY 468 544