St Mary-le-Bow – February Asset of the Month

St Mary-le-Bow, a redundant parish church, is our featured heritage asset for February. (See List of Assets of the Month.)

St Mary-le-Bow is a Grade I listed building located on the corner of The Bailey and Bow Lane, near the Cathedral. It is now the Durham Museum, showcasing the history of Durham and the City.

St Mary-le-Bow from the Bailey

St Mary-le-Bow’s origin is in the medieval period as the parish church serving people living in the North Bailey. In that period an arch connected the church tower to the fortifications creating a gateway or ‘bow’, with a room in the tower for a chantry priest who prayed for the souls of the deceased. However, the gateway, the tower and much of the west end of the church collapsed in 1635. The church wasn’t rebuilt until towards the end of the 17th century, with most of the buildings dating from the 1670s and the tower from 1702. The church continued its religious function until it was closed in 1968.

Because the current Church is a reconstruction of an older building, it combines elements of different dates. The roof, for example, dates from the 15th century. The wooden screen before the altar dates from 1707, while the wooden panelling dates between 1731 and 1742. There are two baptismal fonts, one dating from the 18th and the other from the 19th century.It is common for community buildings, such as churches, to go through periodic refurbishment campaigns, and receive gifts from time to time. This church is no exception. World Heritage Site

St Mary-le-Bow rooftop view

The Durham Museum now occupies the building. The Museum presents the history of the people of Durham from medieval times to the present day, using objects, models, pictures and audio-visual media.

The Museum’s sculpture garden contains works by the Durham sculptor, Fenwick Lawson, ARCA. The sculpture (show below) of St Cuthbert was carved in 1984 from an elm tree that grew in front of Durham Cathedral. St Cuthbert stood in Durham Cathedral Cloisters for two decades. In 2004 a bronze was created, funded by the Northern Rock Foundation. The bronze now stands in the Priory at Lindisfarne on Holy Island. In 2005 the original wood carving was donated to Durham Museum.

St Mary-le-Bow sculpture garden, showing the Fenwick Lawson sculpture of St Cuthbert entitled ‘Cuthbert of Farne’.

The Museum is run by The Bow Trust, a registered charity “established in 1975 to maintain the redundant church of St Mary-Le-Bow in Durham City as a centre for exhibitions and activities related to the history and antiquities of both the City and County Durham, and for other educational and cultural benefits.” The heritage centre has now evolved into an Arts Council England Accredited Museum.

The City of Durham Trust was involved in the campaign to set up The Bow Trust and save the church. An entry in the Trust’s Bulletin Number 7, December 1971, discusses the necessity of saving the church and notes: “It is too long since we had a chance to see the interior – the exterior is gladly taken for granted by us all as a delightful and indispensable part of an intimate and crowded street scene.” When the original Trust was formed a number of local societies and organisations were nominated and a member elected to serve on the Bow Trust committee. These included: The City of Durham Trust, The Architectural and Archaeological Society of Durham and Northumberland, Durham Cathedral, The City of Durham (now Durham County Council) and Durham County Art and Architectural Society. The City of Durham Trust continues to actively support the Bow Trust, nominates a trustee to the Bow Trust, and pays a subscription.

Durham Museum will be open again from the Easter weekend, 11am to 4pm. This includes being open on Easter Monday 18 April for the Durham World Heritage Site Festival