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Visitors to the little village of Simonburn in the North Tyne valley often wonder at the size of the settlement’s substantial parish church. For sure, it is a big one, and seemingly out of all proportion to its modest setting. But there is a good reason for the discrepancy, for Simonburn was once the largest parish in England.
Prior to an Act of Parliament of 1811 – which, when enacted in 1814, split the parish into several splinters – this sparsely populated ecclesiastical unit covered a whopping 260 square miles! And considering that this huge area has only ever contained around 1,000 folk, well, that is one long trudge into church every Sunday for some very lonely people. It was known, for obvious reasons, as ‘The Great Parish’, and stretched from Hadrian’s Wall in the south to Carter Bar on the Scottish Border – some 30 miles in length and 14 miles wide.
It is believed that the parish boundaries were established in 1072 by Bishop Walcher of Durham during the re-organisation of his diocese (which then included Northumberland). The 1811-14 division saw the creation of Wark, Bellingham, Greystead, Thorneyburn and Falstone out of the ancient parish – with Humshaugh & Haughton (a single entity) following in 1832. So, seven parishes out of one!
At its heart lies the mother church, St.Mungo’s, with roots stretching back, we think, to the 6th or 7th century (though the earliest stonework probably dates from the 9th century). It was then that the aforementioned St.Mungo was on his travels after having been ousted from his cell at Glasgow by the pagan King Morken. Some sources even suggest that the church’s founding may stretch back to St.Ninian, who died in the early 5th century.
The current church, obviously much altered over the years, extends over a slope and has a distinct list as a result.