In the quiet, East Riding countryside some 3 miles east of the market town of Pocklington is the small village of Nunburnholme. The community here is a number of pretty cottages and farm houses built along two lanes (Church Lane and Butt Lane) whose junction marks the village center. At the time of writing I’ve visited Nunburnholme countless times and have to say I’ve yet to see any people in the village, aside from one lady who kindly lent me the keys to the St. James’ church. I’ve seen hundreds of pheasants, but not many people. Maybe the pheasants live in the cottages?
The village has a rich history going back quite some way. ‘Nunburnholme’ is a Scandinavian, or Scandinavian-influenced place name. Broken down, its formation begins with ‘brunnum’, meaning ‘at the streams’. Nunburnholme Beck continues to flow through the village to this day, although perhaps not as vigorously as it once may have. ‘Holme’ comes from ‘holmr’ – a component of a few settlement names in the North which roughly means, or so I am informed, ‘higher ground among marshes’. Until roughly the beginning of the 16th Century, however, the village was known as Burnholm; Burnham; Brunnum or Brunnom. The prefix ‘Nun’ likely comes from the mid-12th Century foundation of a Benedictine Nunnery to the north of the village. Nunburnholme’s early beginnings can be traced back through time to the mid 9th century through a large section of late-Saxon stone cross shaft in the village church.
Approached from Pocklington via Burnby along Church Lane, the church dedicated to St. James is one of the first buildings on the right hand side of the road before entering the center of the village.
Visit the church today and you will see a well kept, early medieval church beautifully restored in 1872-3 in a neat and tidy churchyard. But this was not always the case. Only two years before restoration work began in 1872 the church was bluntly observed by John Marius Wilson as being “not good” in his Imperial Gazetteer of England and Wales. Wilson’s comments clearly reflecting the state of the decaying roof and interior – unsafe for public worship. Wilson’s blunt and brief, yet entirely truthful observation is confirmed in the writings of the Rev. M.C.F Morris, rector of the church in 1907. Writing some 30 years after the extensive restorations, writes of “very poor and unsightly” fittings and mentions repeatedly a horrible pantiled nave roof, going on to praise the renevation effort, he was clearly very proud of his newly refurbished parish church. Nunburnholme’s tower is clearly a modern addition the rest of its medieval fabric and dates to 1902. Plans for the restoration to the tower were put on hold in 1873 due to a lack of funds. The tower was rebuilt 29 years later at a cost of £1775; £750 more than the entire cost of the 1873 restorations. The church of St. Giles in the neighbouring village of Burnby was observed as also having fallen upon hard times, getting restoration to its own interior in 1872 as well. Knowing also that St. Giles church, Burnby required “urgent repairs” only two years later in 1904, having been abandoned and left to become covered in ivy – it is clear that restoration projects to local, unfit churches were carried out at roughly the same time. At St. James’ church, Nunburnholme, it is noted that the builder hired in the 1873 rebuilding was from Pocklington; the overseeing architect from London.
The late-Saxon cross was an unfortunate victim of these hard times. It was rediscovered in the 1873 restorations between part of the old south porch and south wall. Damage to the cross shaft as we see it today was caused by iron fittings used to hold the stone into the walls prior to its discovery. The cross has since been put back together and now takes pride of place under the tower, out of harms way.
However, the cross was wrongly reconstructed. The current understanding, and what I believe to be entirely correct, is that the current top section of the south face should have the bottom section of the north face beneath it. This was noticed by the misalignment of a distinctive side border of round pellets on the two faces.
The cross is understood to be of a mid 9th century date. The upper-most sections of each of the four faces boast an original late-Saxon programme in remarkable detail. However, the greater iconography of the cross shaft is complex and busy with figures performing on the toes of one another; in part due to a number of lower scenes having being reworked over subsequent years by at least more than one sculptor. In this sense the Nunburnholme cross perhaps functioned as a visual aid enabling the illiterate to recognise religious scenes in the familiar, decorated Scandinavian and Germanic styles of their heritage. The cruder, mid-10th century additions to the programme of the Nunburnholme cross have been noted in comparison with similarly aged scenes on stone crosses in Middleton (which I wrote about in one of my previous articles). A seated, helmeted warrior proudly brandishing weaponry are present features on both crosses. Even as representations within their own period, they differ significantly in quality and style but do go some way to ask the reoccurring question of who these crosses depict and what their function may have been. Talk of funerary crosses for a local Lords begin to surface at this point, although with the complex cross of Nunburnholme, we may not know. It’s likely the function changed at some point between the time of the first phase of carving’s ecclesiastic imagery and the secular, warrior imagery of the mid-10th century.
James Lang suggests that the cross may have been relocated to Nunburnholme area from York where it may have originally been made by the hand of its first sculptor. It is true that the 9th century imagery of the Nunburnholme cross share more in common with Mercian imagery more than the Northerly, Anglian imagery of vine scroll apparent on sculptural stone from other sites. Leading to a strong possibility that the cross may well have been carved at York, the nearest situ of great sculptors.
The Nunburnholme cross is a diverse piece of Northern sculpture, pre-dating the church building, and would have been quite a feature somewhere in a nearby pasture. To praise the sculpture’s mysterious craftsmen, the skill in detail is magnificent. One familiar saintly figure, undoubtedly Northumbrian, or dare I say Irish in appearance, holds a book to his chest whilst above him two otherworldly, outstretched arms clutch an arch within which a zoomorphic beast twists with jaws wide open.
A final word on the beautiful location. Nunburnholme is part of a route I really enjoy cycling. The land to the north and further to the east is has some good hills with a nice mix of bends and straights. If you follow the main street from the village center north-east and turn onto Back Lane you’ll eventually arrive at the village of Warter on the B146. The approx. 1 mile route from Nunburnholme to Warter along Back Lane is one of my favourite country lanes to cycle. I only wish it was slightly longer.