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The Settlement of Alnham
The hamlet of Alnham is set on the edge of the Northumberland National Park, close to a source of the River Aln, and well off the beaten track.
The earliest written records of a church on this site date back to 1135, when William de Vesty gave the church to the monks of Alnwick Abbey. However, there are Saxon stones at the north-east and south-east corners of the nave, indicating earlier origins. It is also possible that the churchyard is older than the present church: there are three stone socket bases for crosses near the more modern lych-gate, which probably also date from Saxon times.
A Turbulent Past
Opposite the church are the contours of a lost medieval village. It is not known why the village was abandoned, but prolonged periods of conflict along the English-Scottish border may well have been responsible. Indeed, the reddish hue of some of the stones within the church itself indicate that it almost certainly suffered a fire at some point.
The Pele House on the west side of the church is further evidence of this turbulent past. Built in the 14th century, during the reign of Edward III, this ‘little tower’ would have offered protection from raiding Scots, as well as local outlaws. The Pele House eventually became the vicarage and was renamed The Vicar’s Pele. It fell into ruin in the 17th century, before being restored in 1844, and is now a private house.
The Salters Road
Perhaps one reason for the lawlessness in the area may have been the potential for plunder and pillage on the Salters Road, which passes near the village. This ancient trade and drove road was used for moving cattle and transporting salt, but it is also thought to have been a route for smugglers.
Struggles to Save St Michael’s
At several points in its history St Michael’s Church has faced ruin. In 1862, a visitor described the church as having ‘damp, mildewed walls’ with ‘streaks of sky seen through the unceiled slates’. It was overrun with mice and woodworm, and thought to be at risk of imminent ruin unless work could be undertaken to save it.
After WWII, local parishioners raised sufficient funds to restore the chancel, which had fallen into disrepair. In 1953, the remainder of the church was restored, thanks to the generosity of a local benefactor, Gustav Renwick (‘The Major’) of Holystone Grange. Renwick died in 1956 and is buried between the south porch and the transept. His memorial stone can be seen in the porch.
Lighting and heating were added to the church between 1960 and 1964, when the nave, transept and vestry were re-roofed, at a cost of £4,000.
A major community-led restoration project was completed in 2018. As a result, facilities were upgraded, and the church – now a Grade I listed building – was removed from Historic England’s ‘Heritage at Risk’ register.