Brief history and description
Wasdale Head was originally a Norse settlement, its first settlers being 2nd and 3rd generation Norse explorers who became farmers after landing on the west coast from Ireland and the Isle of Man around 1000 AD, bringing Christianity with them.
The earliest record of the present church was in 1550 when the Bishop of Chester ordered the parish to contribute towards the upkeep of St Bees Priory. Mention of it is also made in Eskdale Parish Records in 1587. In 1976 the original vellum parish register was discovered sealed in the small alcove just inside the door. These records date from 1620 and are now in the county archives in Carlisle.
It is likely that the present building is on the site of an earlier church. Norse settlers or their early descendants would have almost certainly built a church at the centre of their settlement. The earliest buildings are likely to have been in timber, so there may have been more than one ‘earlier church’ before our present sturdy little stone church was erected – which is around 200 years older than any other building in Wasdale Head.
The church is simple in form, a single unit under a duo pitched slate roof with a single bell cote at the west end. The walls are local stone with roughcast render and there are just three windows. Detailing to the door and window surrounds is in local St Bees sandstone. The interior is simple with a historic roof structure, whitewashed walls, stone floor and oak pews.
Legend has it that the church’s ancient roof beams are timbers from Viking ships. Although they have not been carbon dated, it is more likely that they are the original beams of the present building. The remainder of the roof timbers date from 1892, when the roof was renovated. The north pitch has the original Wasdale rough-cut sturdy slates from the old Red Pike quarry, the south pitch later high grade Honister smooth slates. This indicates that at the time the roof was renovated there were not enough of the original ‘sturdies’ in fit condition to cover both pitches.
The church is fortunate that its 1892 restoration was restrained. Prior to that date records show that there was an earthen floor, few pews, a hurdle at the doorway to keep out the sheep, and unglazed windows with only shutters to exclude the elements – the windowsills slope steeply outwards so the rain could run out! The east window is dedicated to Queen Victoria, and the font was also installed at this time – its lowly predecessor stands in the alcove at the back of the church, and our plans are to bring it back into use. The door from an earlier oak pew, belonging to the local Stanley family, and dated 1868, forms part of the panelling on the south wall of our tiny chancel.
Prior to 1900, there was no churchyard at Wasdale Head, the church was in the corner of the field. The dead were carried over the Burnmoor corpse road – between Scafell and the Screes – to be buried at St Catherine’s churchyard in Eskdale. The present churchyard was consecrated in 1901. It is the burial place for Wasdale Head residents, and of climbing fatalities, and is home to Fell & Rock Climbing Club Memorial to its war dead.
Wasdale Head had its own Vicar until 1929, the vicarage at that time was Lingmell – the house on the Green beside the track to the church. Until 1920 it also had a school – that’s the lonely little building on the Green. There can have been few tinier schools!
From 1929 until 1977 Wasdale Head and Nether Wasdale formed the Parish of Wasdale and then in 1977 they joined forces with Gosforth so today we have the Parish of Gosforth & Wasdale with its three churches – St Mary’s Gosforth, St Michael & All Angels Nether Wasdale and St Olaf’s. Our Rector lives in Gosforth.
There were two other significant events in 1977. It was the year St Olaf’s became St Olaf’s! Until then it had been simply Wasdale Head Church. This was the result of forming the larger parish, it was felt that as the two larger churches had patron saints, Wasdale Head should have one too! It was also the year that mains electricity finally reached Wasdale Head and its little church.
St Olaf (1000-1035), King and Patron Saint of Norway, revered as the ‘Eternal King of the Norwegians’, is widely credited with uniting his country and its widespread adoption of Christianity. Legend has it that he visited this area around 1020, when he was asked to help design its defences against the ever-present threat of Saxon invasion. Cumbria was part of Scotland at that time, and his defences enabled the men of Cumbria to inflict a humbling defeat on the Saxon army, a scene depicted on the Viking hogback tomb in Gosforth Church.
Back to St Olaf’s, the vestry was partitioned off in 1935 and its ‘roof’ added in 1963, the pipe organ was donated in 1984 replacing an ageing harmonium.
The resident population of Wasdale Head is 29, but around 25,000 visit this church annually, many leaving prayer requests that are included in our services. St Olaf’s, at the heart of this community, remains an icon of Christian life and care.