Monk Bretton, Barnsley – by Ian McMillan
By Ian McMillan
The constant surprise about Barnsley is that every now and then you come across something ancient, something that’s just stood there for centuries letting the weather wash its face and dry its hands. These are buildings and places that couldn’t care less that you’re staring at them and making notes and taking photographs, and one of the greatest examples of these in the borough is Monk Bretton Priory, situated at Cundy Cross in Lundwood.
It’s a twelfth century ecclesiastical building, originally set up by Cluniac monks as a sort of reserve bench for their main team near Pontefract Castle, although what English Heritage describe as ‘gang wars’ meant that it later set up on its own and became a Benedictine priory. I’m not a historian but I’m interested in the idea of orders of monks fighting gang wars, particularly if they were from a silent order.
They had a market charter which was one of the reasons for Barnsley’s rise as a market town and, if you believe in the 37 degrees of separation idea of history, it’s thanks to these monks that you can buy black pudding on Barnsley Market. The monks were amongst the first to mine coal in the area and according to local tales they would make their way in boats down the Dearne to Darfield to get their corn from the mill there.
The Priory was trashed in 1538 after the dissolution of the monasteries and some of the stone was taken to be used for the new church in Wentworth, just a few miles away, and the bells were taken to London to be melted down. Nothing changes, I guess: things are nicked and the money trickles South.
The Priory sits by the main road near houses and shops and takeaways but, and this is a cliché that just happens to be true, once you step into the area occupied by the Priory a kind of fragile peace descends. Even the visually and spatially illiterate like me (have you seen me trying to put up a tent? It’s conceptual art) can get a sense of what the whole site would have been like in the sixteenth century. Places built around stone and light have almost been replaced by light but the stone still seems to stand there, invisible. There’s hardly anything left of the church but luckily some of the other buildings are in a much better state of repair because people lived in them until the late 1800s and used the working toilets that were linked to the River Dearne.
I stand in the space of the ghost priory and imagine how it would have been as the Industrial Revolution grew up around it and the trains rattled by over the huge viaduct in Storrs Mill Wood and the road got busier and busier. I liken it to standing at Stonehenge and seeing the wagons rumble along to Salisbury.
“Fan of follies”
The village of Monk Bretton got its name from the Priory, being referred to as Munkebretton in 1225; the medieval butter cross is one of the oldest parts of the village and it’s well worth a look but care must be taken (to use a guidebook phrase) because it stands on the junction of two busy roads.
Even though Monk Bretton is an ancient settlement, there aren’t that many preserved older buildings, and as a fan of follies I have to say that one particular loss I feel keenly is Monk Bretton Castle, a remarkable tower structure that was built by a local clergyman, Mr Wordsworth, and was used as a lookout tower and beacons were lit there to mark special occasions. I never saw it but the one photograph I’ve seen gives it a dark grandeur.
St Paul’s Church is where I often rang the bells as a teenager with the help of the nominatively-determined Ted Bell. Given the extreme age of the settlement, it’s unusual that the church is a relatively recent one being built in 1838. Inside, you can see a carving of the amazing-looking ‘Madonna of the Working Classes’. The pit at Monk Bretton opened in 1870 and closed in 1968, before the huge wave of pit closures after the 1984-85 strike; there’s nothing left of it now but a stroll along the scrubland where it used to be.
“Wind attacks you with bread knives”
I’m always looking for metaphor in landscape and place, and I found one round here once when my grandson’s cricket club played Monk Bretton one still June evening. One of the great advantages of watching him play football and cricket is that it takes me to parts of Barnsley I’ve never visited before. The recreation ground at the back of the houses in Worsbrough. The high fields at the back of the old Boys Grammar School where the wind attacks you with bread knives. The field at Hoyland Common where the Zumba music is a constant soundtrack. The field at Darton that you find down a track by the sound of people shouting ‘That wor nivver a penalty, ref!’
The Cricket Club at Monk Bretton is at the back of a pub called the Pheasant and you get a fantastic view over Barnsley’s lines of streets and the Oakwell’s stands and floodlights. My wife and I arrived to find the team standing outside the locked gate of the cricket club, looking like chesspieces with boxes on.
We hung around like monks waiting for the sound of the Dissolution to come cantering over the hill. The phone rang and the trainer told us the Monk Bretton team had gone to Darfield and were standing around the edge of the field like resting morris dancers with shin pads on. It was agreed that we should go back to Darfield to play the match but still, according to a Heath Robinson version of the rules, treat it as an away fixture.
“Let the stories flood in”
We piled into our cars like cops in a HBO show and were about to set off, indeed the lead cars had already left, when the trainer waved us back because Monk Bretton were on their way. That’s like me, looking for psychogeographical truth in one site and then learning that it might be located on another field but then being sent back to the first field again. I could walk to or from a lot of the places round here and I’d end up at Stairfoot Roundabout, a place notorious in Barnsley folklore since it was built in the 1980s.
An easy way to start a conversation in Barnsley is just to say, in the pub or on the bus, ‘Eee, it was busy at Stairfoot Roundabout this morning’ and then sit back and let the stories flood in. Have a notebook or recording device handy. The ‘Eee’ is optional, by the way, but the natives like it and it will establish you as a friendly person. It’s the oral equivalent of sparkly trinkets.
Article taken from ‘Real Barnsley’ by Ian McMillan, published by Seren, £9.99, ISBN: 9781781724118