A rich history to be found in little church

Holy Trinity, Widdrington Village.
Holy Trinity, Widdrington Village.

Widdrington Village has two churches, one on each side of the road. As you approach Widdrington from Widdrington Station, the United Reformed Church is on your left, and the parish church of the Holy Trinity on your right.

Holy Trinity is easy to see, but difficult to find. If, however, you start at the Widdrington Barn Restaurant — always a good place to start — and leave at the back, behind the buildings, you find yourself in a lane that leads to a field that leads to the church.

It is old, 12th-century according to the guide books. For most of the time it was not a parish church, but a chapel of the parish of Woodhorn.

The vicar of Woodhorn had the right of presentation to Widdrington, that is, of appointing the curate. In 1768, however, he surrendered this right to the Warren family, who were the lords of the manor after the Widdringtons were dispossessed in 1715.

At the same time, the vicar also gave over his right to the ‘ecclesiastical profits’ of the chapelry to the curate. Since the Mercers’ Company of London owned the tithes, it appears that what the curate got was the surplice fees (mainly those for conducting weddings and funerals) and possibly the small tithes, for example milk, eggs and cheese, as opposed to the great tithes of corn, hay and wood.

Widdrington seems to have become a parish in its own right round about 1900. It was a question of status. It meant that the church was officially a church rather than a chapel, and the resident priest a vicar instead of a perpetual curate.

The church is usually locked, but I was lucky enough to visit on a Saturday afternoon when the ladies were getting it ready for the service the next day. So ladies, if you happen to read this, thank you. It was a treat to visit your church.

A rather fine gravestone near the south door records the death in 1781 of George Craister, of Woddrington Dog Kennel. This was probably the Low Kennel shown on old maps, lying to the west of the present URC.

The Woddrington spelling was not uncommon and led Hodgson to think that it referred to the woods that used to surround the village. The earliest reference to the name, Wderintuna in 1160, also lent support to this. But, like Issy Bonn, a Jewish comedian remembered now only by people of a certain age, the medieval scribes mixed up their Wees and their Wobble-yews. A better rendering is Vuderintuna, probably meaning the Toon of Wuduhere’s People.

Either way, it’s a good Anglo-Saxon place-name and clearly a lot older than 1160. In 1166 we have Wodringatone and in 1177 Widerentona. The form ‘Witherington’ does not appear until much later, but medieval scribes often used a ‘d’ for the early English ‘þ’, or thorn, so the ‘th’ sound is probably correct.

There’s plenty to see inside the church, but two things particularly caught my attention. One was the piscinas.

To the Romans, a piscina was a fish pond. But the word got adopted by the church, at first to mean the tank in which a person was baptised, and later the place where the priest washed his hands before celebrating the Mass, and the chalice and other vessels afterwards.

It was important that the water, dregs of wine and crumbs of bread should drain into the soil, though whether piscinas were ever properly constructed for this purpose, or whether the water simply soaked into the wall, I have never been able to tell.

The main piscina at Widdrington has an ornate moulding, known as a trefoil. It means three-leaved, like a clover, but trefoils in church architecture are very stylised and bear little resemblance to a living plant.

The second one is close by and is called a pillar piscina. I’d never heard of such a thing before. It looks very crude, and Pevsner remarks that it “seems to be original”.

Perhaps the little piscina was what they started out with and they didn’t like to do away with it when they got their bigger and more elegant one.

Another thing that caught my eye was a fine marble epitaph to John Wilkinson Esq. of Alnmouth: “a native of this village. He left his home at an early age for the United States, where he was one of the first to commence the cultivation of the cotton plant.

“After thirty years of unceasing industry, unwavering energy and unimpeachable integrity, his labours were crowned with success. He returned to his native country and died at Alnmouth 3rd Oct. 1839 aged 81 years.”

There is no reason to doubt the underlying truth of the statement, but it begs more questions than it answers. Mr Wilkinson was in the USA, but in which state? He was there for 30 years, perhaps longer, but the range of possible dates covers almost 50 years. Was it earlier or later within that period? And finally, there is no such thing as ‘the’ cotton plant so which kind did he cultivate?

Cotton was grown in the American colonies from the earliest days. Sir George Watt, The Wild and Cultivated Cotton Plants of the World, London, 1907, says: “According to Carroll, colonists from Barbados settled in America at Cape Fear (North Carolina) about 1664, and brought cotton-seed with them. Samuel Wilson tells us that Smyrna and Cyprus seed, by the close of the century, had been successfully acclimatised in Carolina.”

E.C. Brooks, The Story of Cotton, Chicago, 1911, describes very clearly the difficulties that the early settlers faced in trying to grow cotton.

“It was some time before the settlers learned the peculiar habits of cotton in America. When should they plant it? How should they cultivate it? In the tropics it grew wild. When it was cultivated, in many places they had to plant it only once every seven years; but at Jamestown it died down in the winter and would not come again in the summer.”

At page 45, Brooks says that cotton: “was cultivated with some success in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New Jersey.”

Was Mr Wilkinson in one of these middle states, or was he operating further south?

E.J. Donnell, Chronological and Statistical History of Cotton, New York, 1872, says: “Miss Lucas, the daughter of the Governor of Antigua … was, at the age of eighteen, in charge of a plantation in South Carolina. In her journal, 1739 and 1741, she speaks of the pains she had taken to bring cotton and indigo to perfection.”

Mr Wilkinson wasn’t born until 1758.

Donnell goes on to say that: “The green seed, or short staple cotton, was the kind principally cultivated before the Revolution. The black seed, or Sea Island cotton, was introduced into Georgia from the Bahamas about the year 1786.”

Is Sea Island cotton what John Wilkinson cultivated? We don’t know. He doesn’t tell us, and none of these writers ever mentions him.