A Tour of The Minster

This is a new page, still under construction, but now with only one or two major feature to cover, so it has now reached the stage where I would appreciate suggestions for aspects which should be included. Before looking at specific areas, first a look at more external views , and then onward to our tour of 'the heart of the church'. May I also refer you to the 'Minster History' and 'Rectors' pages/booklets for other excepts from more professionally written, detailed notes -and like this page,it includes some occasional personal recollections.

The church is normally entered through  the South Porch, which was added as  part of the programme of restoration some seventy years ago. This porch gives access, on the right, to a small room now used as a Traidcraft (Fair Trade) shop -Open Mondays to Fridays 11am to 1:30pm - this is a venture which supports overseas workers, selling a surprising variety of goods for which the workers have received a fair rate of pay. We have supported the scheme for over twenty years now, and strongly urge that you include this worthy enterprise in your visit to the minster. Sadly, the shop  close on 22nd April, 2011.

     It was succeeded later in the year y the Minster's own venture, which is advertised  as selling some Fair Trade goods - but despite enquiries and as I write is celebrating its first anniversary. A good thing, but a pity that the previous team did not wish to leave, as I am told.


      Opposite , and up a couple of steps, a doorway leads to the South Gallery, which is rarely used now.

Still in the porch, the next doorway on the left is the Clocktower Coffee Shop - is a very popular venue with local workers, passers-by and shoppers, as well as other folk visiting the church for a number of reasons: a good range of meals and snacks is served here. This facility was created at the time of the extensive re-ordering of the building, which commenced in May, 1981 and was concluded in December, 1981,  and which resulted in the church seating capacity being reduced from 1200, while allowing the church to extend its ministry and service to the community at large by also enabling the use of the church to include mid-week activities, lunch time forum, concerts, special services, drama and exhibitions.

      Normally, access to the church itself is gained via the Coffee Shop, which gives on to the extended Narthex; our tour will therefore take this route.


     Formerly the back of the Nave, this area was included as part of the Narthex/West Porch in the re-ordering, by the sympathetic use of the former Choir screen and the construction of two doorways (at the south and north sides) to enclose the two outer aisles. At the same time, the World War 1 memorial doors were moved forward to the east side of the tower, thus completing the line of the newly ordered Nave. 

         Turning under the Tower to the left, we come across the plaques mounted to record a very long line of incumbents, many of whom went on to greater preferment - although this parish at one time was known to be a very lucrative living - although many of those names listed paid few, if any, visits to Bishopwearmouth - they paid a curate to do the work !

       Still moving towards the West window, and left again, we find the stairs leading to the Minster office, Tower balcony and the belfry and under these stairs is a third font - this time a very old one believed to be Saxon in origin. The only other items in the church of equal age are  wall-mounted fragments, believed to be part of a grave cover, discovered during some excavation work in the 1930's ,  and a selection of Sidesmen's staves - largely designed originally  to ensure that worshippers continued to 'watch and pray' rather than fall into slumber (especially during the lengthy sermons which were 'de rigueur' in earlier centuries.) They are no longer employed to restore either order or wakefulness to a recalcitrant congregation !   

On the west wall is a very attractive Victorian memorial window

   Back towards the northern side of the  Narthex/West Porch, we visit the William  Morris window (See the Minster History (Click this hyperlink to visit it now)  page for the full picture and a detailed description of the panels).

          The Morris window was moved to this church from Christ Church, Ashbrooke - happily, with much of the congregation - on the regrettable but necessary, closure of that building as a parish church. (It is now used, and is apparently the focal point of much  good work carried out, by the Sikh community).

Like the East window,  this  West window follows the best traditions of church stained glass; it ornaments and lights up the church , and in doing so it describes events in the life of Our Lord, while the East window  confirms our faith in the words of the Creed.

    Going across to the northern end of the porch, (which has been adapted to house the ladies' lavatory), there are some items of less recent date, including two old settles or pews , whose provenance appears to be largely unknown, but which very probably date from around 1632.  Also here are pictures of some of the parish's previous incumbents - featured also on the Rectors page. Worth spending a little time putting the faces  to some of the names - one or two of them quite famous!

      Turning back and and left, in front of the Morris window, we  pass into the arch under the Tower,  turning left to view two rather magnificent pieces of work; firstly a marble font donated by Robert Long, rector of the parish from 1183 to 1907, in memory of his son who died in India in 1902. This font was in constant use for a great number of years, when the choirboys (myself included in the 1950's) would process to it, there to sing at the baptism of new members to the church -- a rather private (and perhaps all the more a spiritual and  meaningful, rather than purely a social),  celebration in those days. Sadly, it is never used now.

Behind the 'Long font', we find that second item, another font, now rather 'crammed' into a corner, despite the fact that for some people it will be of greater interest.  This one is of alabaster and (at least to my untrained eye)  is a beautiful piece of work, which underlined the significance of the service.  It is said to date from the sixteenth century, and was unearthed many years ago in the rectory garden. Not now in use for its original purpose, until very recently it worked to the glory of God through the skill of the dedicated flower arrangers who work in and for the Minster.

      Beyond those fonts,  a door gives access to the rooms above, used in comparatively recent times for a well-used and appreciated resource - the Minster "Internet cafe" and computer centre, run by the City of Sunderland College to give mainly retired folk the opportunity of acquiring computer skills to equip them more for the exciting development being made in the world of Information technology.  I was one of the avid students, who gained the necessary grounding, enabling the production of this website.  I , like others who have spoken to me, regret its loss to the community. I remain convinced that, were the Minster's former Administrator Ann Todd still with us, so also would be the computer section -- otherwise she would certainly have invoked the 'delapidations' clause in the contract to return the two rooms here  to their former condition and dimensions.  But, perhaps their present usage  is the best answer, it now being occupied by the Sunderland Antiquarians Society.  Access to the  second room or lounge, is now via the South porch                  

 ..... And so out towards the memorial doors, passing first the wall-mounted wooden  plaque (constructed by Andrew Newton, a member of the former parish and present congregation)  recording the date when the church became a Minster on 11th January 1998- more of Andy later. This area also contains other tablets, mostly war memorials prepared by various organisations and churches, which now find a welcoming home in the Minster.

     Moving through the main Memorial doors into the Nave, take a look at the main body of the church, the Nave, Chancel and Transepts (north and South)


 We turn left, then right down the North aisle, passing the 'upper rooms'  already referred to, beneath which is very useful ground floor storage - where much of the Choir's music is kept among other treasures, such as the staging and chairs used for Bishopwearmouth Choral Society (at least they have retained the old name!) concerts and also various other 'grand occasions'.

      Proceeding onwards, we next come to the North Transept, with its array of  memorials (all the church's memorial tablets will be featured separately on this website, in due course) to former parishioners, included among which is a rather fine lectern - sadly also no longer in use at all - dedicated to the memory of Major Robert Hudson, a Churchwarden and bellringer (as was his father before him) who lost his life in the belfry, where he was muffling the bells following a Royal death.

     The North Transept gives on to the North Porch, from where steps lead to the Gallery (left at the top of the stairs) and the second of the lounge rooms referred to.  It is worth that extra climb up the steps into the Gallery to look at the view from there, pausing to not the blackened, but still legible, oil-painted record of benefactors of the church

      And so, returning down the stairs and into the main church area, turn left to enter and take a look at the Vestry /Choir Vestry, which is a pleasing room constructed in about 1887, with two large safes installed for the safe keeping of such things as registers and the church plate. (I first entered this vestry in October of 1954 when I was drafted into the choir and church).

  It also contains some interesting paintings including one of John Wesley, who preached here and one of of one past incumbents (see Rectors page) ; in addition, there are plus some old prints of the church and a copy of the seating plan headed "A List of the Seats in Bishopwearmouth Church as they were at first and also in the year 1658", which we might reasonably assume is the first plan drawn up for the newly installed pews, in or about 1632, including, as it implies, any changes which had occurred by 1658. The 233 seats were shared out between 121 parishioners and their families..

   Coming back out from the vestry out , move past the pulpit which formed part of the 1930's reconstruction and left on to the dais and thence into the Chancel. Sections of the carved woodwork which formerly formed the screen, in line with the front of the pulpit, have been incorporated into the new doorways at the west end of the aisles and also against the back wall of the small gallery beneath the tower. Take a look towards the Tower:-


                  At the same reordering, half of the choir stalls (obviously the front half, with the clergy stalls), were removed to accommodate the dais. Unfortunately, this left only the choir stalls behind the arch and at least partially reduced the effectiveness of the choir's efforts, as the resonance /acoustic in the remaining area is now rather poor - and particularly so in competition with the organ, or any musicians on the dais. The  organ loft is on the north side of the chancel and the consul on the South side. The instrument has been well acclaimed, the work of the well known builders, Harrison & Harrison. Also dating from this time are the four stone figures of the Saints Michael, George, Aidan and Cuthbert, set into the walls at various points, which were modelled by a Mr. Cameron of London.

           The nave and chancel are in fact not in strict alignment, as the chancel slants slightly to the south; this is sometimes known as a "Weeping Chancel", as it is said to represent the drooping head of Christ on the Cross.


        The East window, designed by D.M.Grant dates from the late 1940/50's as it replaced the one which was destroyed by WWII bomb damage.,  It's subject is the Apostles' Creed - the main tenets of our faith and the words are sympathetically translated into images which very well sum up our Anglican tradition.

 Only two phrases have been omitted :- "He descended into hell" and "To judge both the quick and the dead". Pictorial representations link the ascended Christ, St. Michael and the Mercantile Marine with other references to the city of Sunderland and the Diocese of Durham.

 Central Panel (from the top)

The hand of God, representing God the Father, is surrounded by marks of the creation - the sun, moon, stars and the firmament

From the hand flows the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove pointing to Christ in Glory, the Cross, and the Tree and Water of Life. The design of the throne is based on St John's description in the Book of Revelation.

Round the throne are the seraphim and a choir of angels while the four Evangelists (coloured in blue)  represented by their personal insignia are:-  St. eagle,  St. Mark..a lion, St. Matthew..a winged man, St. John...... a bull

 The Apostles are identifiable by the items which they carry. Many of these objects are in some way connected with the manner of their deaths while others have been passed down to us through various Christian traditions :-

 Left (next to centre)   

St. Simon Zelotes - bald with a beard and holding a saw. he was martyred by being sawn in half longitudinally.

St. Bartholomew - young with a small beard holding a flaying knife.

St. Thomas - holding a spear. Sometimes he holds  carpenter's square and is therefore the patron of Masons.

 Left (outer) 

St James the Less - holding a fuller's club with which he was beaten to death.

St Philip - carries a foliated cross - an emblem of martyrdom. The cross is sometimes upside down as he was crucified head downwards.

 Right (next to centre)

St. Jude - holds a club

St Matthias - carries a chopper which probably signifies his style of martyrdom.

St Peter - an old man with thick hair holding keys.

St James the Great - the patron of pilgrims holds a shell

St Andrew - the patron saint of Scotland with the saltire cross depicting his martyrdom.

 St Michael (right)

The saint to whom the Minster is dedicated is the personification of immortal service to God. St John tells how Michael led the heavenly host and overcame the devil and the forces of evil, represented by the dragon at his feet. he has wings and feathered armour, carries a spear and shield bearing the cross, his head is surrounded by a flaming halo.

 St Nicholas (left)

The patron saint of sailors and one time Bishop of Myra holds a merchant ship and has a rope and anchor at his feet. His presence in the window refers to the close connection of the City of Sunderland with the shipping industry.

 The Two Coats of Arms

On the left that of the bishops of Durham places the Minster in its Anglican Diocese. On the right that of the town of Sunderland. Since the charter granting city status came into being this has been modified. 


It is interesting to note that the reduced worship area is restored to the cruciform shape that existed between 1850 and 1932. Hopefully, the church will continue to suit the needs of the community, but especially Anglicans for whom, and by whom, it has been nurtured for for over four hundred years 

The  tour ends with the small Bede Chapel was added to the south of the chancel and the new altar with its Jacobean carved panels. This structure was found in a local chapel, as a pulpit very much the worse for wear but identified as belonging originally to this church. On it were carved the date 1632 and the initials R.P., which possibly referred to Robert Pattison who was a considerable yeoman farmer at the time; he may have been a churchwarden, and as such would have been largely responsible for the installation of the new furnishings.  In spite of the pulpit's sorry state it was found possible to restore the four carved hardwood panels, and these were incorporated into a new altar table which can now be seen in the church's Bede Chapel.

               Finally, our latest installation is the Bede Chapel window, which was was commissioned by the congregation of Sunderland Minster in March 2005 and has been designed and created by Thomas Denny, and fabricated and installed by Thomas Denny and Patrick Costeloe August 2006

The designer explains his work:-

"The Bede Chapel is an intimate space with three windows enveloping the altar. Stained glass in the windows contributes profoundly to the character and atmosphere of the chapel. Unity of colour is important here and I would hope that the windows can be enjoyed as a unified whole, but also explored individually.

The colour, golden with areas of near whites and passages of more intense cooler colours, is intended to work in the particular situation of the Bede Chapel, where much of the daylight is partially obscured by buildings: golden windows will appear to draw light into the Chapel.

The theme is prayer, contemplative and active, as expressed in the lives of Bede and Benedict Biscop and their relationship with the City of Sunderland:

"seek the welfare of the city... and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare will, you find your welfare" (Jeremiah 29 v 7) 

     In the southerly window (pictured right) Bede kneels in prayer at the shore of the sea. Above him, an owl moves up towards the moon. His landscape, bounded by the rivers of the Wear and Tyne is suggested, map like behind him. The right hand light contains memories, events, activities of his life - teaching, welcoming, writing; "pages" emerge as one looks down the window, themselves full of fragmentary letters and miniature scenes.

The northerly window (pictured left) is about Biscop, who walks and gestures like a giant sower, scattering his achievements around him; his movement and activity balancing Bede's stillness and contemplativeness. The left hand light contains figures representing aspects of the extraordinary fruitfulness of Benedict Biscop's life.

The central window has areas of intense violet that seem to emanate from the two outer, supporting windows and a structure of nebulous columns of colour. The central window is about the city, with its layers of time, humanity, life and structures: groups of walkers, of onlookers, of workers; half veiled buildings and bridges and pavements; the mouth of the Wear.

The leadlines are unassertive and supportive of the rhythms expressed in the colour and light. The pieces of glass have many colour changes arrived at by way of acid etching, plating and silver staining."

This ends our Tour


Your opinion on these pages is invited. Please contact me by e-mail:-  with any queries, comments, criticisms or suggestions - all are equally welcome !


Pages prepared by David Herring 10/10/2012