St. John's Kirk, Stainton - a puzzle with attached mysteries and enigmas!

by Dot Metcalf

Banner Image: "LIDAR" survey, courtesy of Library of Scotland


No-one can worship at St John's Kirk today, but there is clear evidence of its past existence. The 1860 Ordnance Survey map shows the 'Site of St. John’s Church'. In the 18th century enclosure records, there are fields named Underkirk and Kirk Garth. The existence of this probable 12th century Kirk is a little known but significant part of Stainton’s history. This article is based on a short presentation given in May 2021 as part of the series "Stainton Remembered which focussed on local churches.

The Starting Points

Maps and Place Names

The site marked on the 1860 OS map is in a field to the north of the bottom end of St John’s Road. The nearby water course is known as Kirk Syke. A comparison between the map and a “LIDAR”[1] survey shows a clear outline, potentially the Kirk site.

Sadly, although the Cumbria Gazetteer[2] refers to St John’s Church Stainton it suggests it is now under the A66.

Left: 1860 Ordnance Survey map. Right: "LIDAR" survey, courtesy of Library of Scotland

Stones and Bones Stories

There are a number of historical sources referring to the Kirk. For example, in Bulmer's History and Directory of Cumberland (1901): “On the property of Mr. Thomas B. Thompson, of Keldhead, in this township, is a piece of rising ground called "Kirk-garth," commanding an extensive view of the surrounding country. This spot is supposed to have been the site of an ancient church or chapel; and the conjecture seems fully borne out from the fact that the adjoining fields are still called Kirksyke, Kirkrigg, and still further corroborated by the human bones that have been dug up here at various periods. Some time ago an entire skeleton was found, which was supposed by the surgeon who examined it, to have belonged to a female. Dr. Todd tells us that a church once stood in the parish, dedicated to St. John, but all knowledge of its site has been lost.” [3]

Another source from 1860 refers to this skeleton and adds another story: “...In connection with this place there is a traditionary story...shortly after the reformation the lands fell into the hands of a certain baron, a man of reckless violence...He had a number of men employed in the removal of the church or what ruins remained thereof, probably with the intention of making an addition to Dacre Church. One day in consequence of some scruples of his workman, or some hesitation in the execution of his commands he became impatient with progress and he visited to issue some very positive instructions before riding off towards Penruddock where his horse fell under him and he broke his neck.” [4]

Clementson (writing in 1999) has a further story about a field to the north of the church and the finding of the font: “St. Mary’s Ings” has a well. It is said that some of the peasantry or perhaps a priest had a vision of St. Mary at the well and afterwards holy water for use at the church was brought in procession from this well. Many years ago a font was dug up from the garden at Stainton Hill thought to come from the church.[5]

In 2001 this font was given to St Andrew’s Church in Dacre having spent many years as a garden ornament in Penrith. It was confirmed as mediaeval in origin and holes where a lid was fixed are evident.

The font from St. John's Kirk? ©

The Historic Environment Record

The Historic Environment Record [6] confirms that archaeological investigations carried out in 2014 in connection with a planning application uncovered the site of a mediaeval chapel and cemetery and found evidence of human burials. The following details are given of the findings from the 2014 excavations:

  • Two east west aligned juvenile-adolescent burials (the east-west alignment is indicative of a Christian burial).

  • A wide spread of disarticulated human bone

  • The wall foundations of St John’s Kirk, with a rounded, apsoidal, eastern end suggestive of 12th century origin. The description apsoidal refers to a specific piece of Church architecture called an apse. This is significant because only a religious building from a certain period would have this feature. The diagram shows what an apse looks like.

  • A single shard of 12th-13th century pottery

The site is recorded as significant because so little is known of early Christian practice in the North West of England.

DIagram showing an apse at the right-hand end

What happened to the Kirk?

The Kirk existed in uncertain and changing times during which raids from border reivers and outbreaks of plague would have presented challenges to the church’s viability. However, the most likely cause of the Kirk falling into disuse was simply that changes in local landholding, when the Lord of the Manor controlled the appointment of clergy, could have resulted in the amalgamation of parishes. In this case it could have meant that Dacre Church became Stainton’s place of worship.

The statement that the Kirk was extinct by 1571 seems to have come from Dr Todd’s History of the Diocese of Carlisle (A manuscript held in the Carlisle Record Office) but has not been verified from other sources.

Unresolved Mysteries

  • What is the significance of the Kirk being dedicated to St John?

  • There is a suggestion that the Kirk was a chapel of ease in the larger parish of Barton. Given the historic nature of the Eamont as a boundary it seemed unlikely, but one reason for having a Chapel of Ease would be that the “mother” church was inaccessible at times, such as a river being in spate. It would be good to know more about this.

  • There is something both poignant and tantalising about the “juvenile” burials that have lain forgotten in the site for so long. Were they related? Were they locally born? Were they healthy? How did they die? I would love to see the sort of answers to these questions that Osteoarchaeologists offer.

  • Where is the mediaeval pottery fragment? Its whereabouts are unknown.

by Dot Metcalf


[1] Courtesy of Library of Scotland


[3] Bulmer's History & Directory Of Cumberland, 1901

[4] Whellan’s History and Topography of the Counties of Cumberland and Westmorland (1860)

[5] Clementson, Stainton a brief Village History

[6] Thanks To Mark Brennand lead officer for Historic Environment and Commons at Cumbria County Council for providing this document

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