On 14th October 2015 Tony Henfry gave an excellent talk about Biddlestone Chapel and the Selby family. Our speaker had been much involved in the rescue and restoration of the chapel through the support of the Historic Chapels Trust and the National Park, and with its continuing maintenance.
Biddlestone is a tiny, remote hamlet at 800 feet on the edge of the Cheviot moorlands. The name means ‘little valley of the little burn’, unrelated to the large (listed) stones which were the base of a Saxon village cross. Sited in an excellent defensive position a few yards to the south of the ‘little valley’, a well hidden chasm with a 200 foot drop to the little burn, is a 14th century pele tower, which became the ground floor of the chapel.
The Selby family inherited Biddlestone in 1311 and owned it for over 600 years. A Roman Catholic family, one of many in north Northumberland, as border landlords they paid their recusancy fines and maintained pragmatic relationships with the government and their neighbours. As the border region settled in the 16th century they became quiet estate owners, and through good management and good marriages the estate grew to 30,000 acres.
The Selbys did not live at Biddlestone all year, preferring York and London; thus they avoided any involvement in the Jacobite Risings of 1715 and 1745.
When in 1796 they rebuilt the house after a fire, Dobson designed their new home to join a chapel seating 50 people superimposed on the pele tower – clearly the Selbys were confident to show their faith publicly well before the Catholic Relief Act of 1829. In Scott’s Rob Roy (1817), the narrator Frank Osbaldistone heads north to Scotland, and describes seeing on his way a large and antiquated house, the burn and the hunting kennels in a wild spot at the edge of the moors – surely Biddlestone.
The chapel was refurbished in 1862 with gothic windows, the east window displaying the Selby coat of arms; a small but elaborate altar; and tile-patterned linoleum at the east end. But it remained quite simple, with plain pine pews and gallery, white walls, small framed pictures of the Stations of the Cross and the coats of arms of the family.
The family prospered, gaining coal mines in Lancashire, Jesmond and County Durham. Several younger sons became priests, and in the 1840s another made his fortune in Denmark where he became the king’s chamberlain and a baron. In the 19th century two Selbys became JPs, one of them serving also as Deputy Lieutenant and High Sheriff of the county.
In 1914 the last Selby owner was a naval Lieutenant Commander based in Sussex, who severed all connections with Biddlestone. In 1911 he sold some land to the War Office to form part of the new Otterburn Training Camp, and before war broke out he sold the remaining 17000-acre agricultural estate; the house and its immediate grounds were finally sold in 1918, becoming home to several families in succession. In 1940 the house was requisitioned as a military hospital, left in poor condition, vandalised, and subsequently never occupied. It was in a ruinous state by the time it was demolished in 1957.
The chapel remained intact because it was used for worship by local families, a nominal rent paid by the Catholic diocese. The Forestry Commission took over the land, planting a dense spruce and fir plantation which hid the chapel from casual view and no doubt protected it.
By 1990 the chapel was unfit for use; plaster 2 feet deep on the floor, although the pele tower, and an Anderson shelter erected within it, remained in good condition. The Historic Chapels Trust acquired it in 1997 and began its restoration. It has no electricity or running water but it is well ventilated being 10 feet above ground level. It is technically a secular building but it used for occasional services and is licensed for Catholic marriages.
The Selbys were buried in Alwinton parish church except for two buried in a small plot in a field to the south around 1900.
Tony Henfry also gave twenty GLHS members a guided tour of the chapel, an opportunity to see this fascinating building for ourselves.
For more information, including opportunities to visit, see www.hct.org.uk.