OS grid reference: SD 8964 1313. St Chad’s parish church stands upon a lofty ridge overlooking the River Roch and the town of Rochdale, Greater Manchester. The church is a very imposing edifice standing high above the equally imposing Victorian town-hall and its famous clock tower. There was a church here in either the late Saxon period, or more likely just after the Norman conquest – the mid 11th to early 12th centuries – although that is open to question. There is a well-known legend that says there were problems with the siting of the first church which was being built on lower ground on the other side of the river, and that it had to be re-sited to the higher position that we see it today. The church can be reached from opposite the Town Hall carpark and by climbing the steep 124 steps up to Sparrow Hill.
Author Dennis Ball in his interesting book ‘Lancashire Pastimes’, says that: “A Saxon thane, Gamel, Lord of Rochdale, decided to build a church to St Chad on the banks of the river Roche. The foundations were dug and all the materials taken to the site. All the materials mysteriously disappeared and reappeared at the summit of the steep hill on the opposite side of the river. Gamel was very annoyed and blamed his workmen. He made them take all the materials back to the original site. This took the whole of the next day. That night they were again moved back to the top of the hill. But this time the culprits were seen by some of the workmen. They were goblins.”
Another, more lengthier interpretation of the legend, from the 19th century is given by J. Harland & T. T. Wilkinson in ‘Lancashire Legends’, which is published in ‘The Secret Country’ by Janet & Colin Bord. They say: “Towards the close of the reign of William the Conqueror, Gamel, the Saxon thane, Lord of Recedham or Rochdale, being left in the quiet possession of his lands and privileges, was ‘minded, for the fear of God and the salvation of his immortal soul, to build a chapel unto St Chadde’, nigh to the banks of the Rache or Roach. According to Mr Roby, in his ‘Traditions’, a place was set apart on the north bank of the river, in a low and sheltered spot now called ‘The Newgate’. Piles of timber and huge stones were gathered in profusion; the foundations were laid; stakes having been driven, and several courses of rubble stone laid ready to receive the grouting or cement. In one night, the whole mass was conveyed, without the loss of a single stone, to the summit of a steep hill on the opposite bank, and apparently without any visible signs of the mode of removal. The Saxon thane was greatly incensed at what he supposed to be a trick of some of his own vassals, and threatened punishment; to obviate which, a number of the villeins and bordarii with great difficulty and labour con-veyed the building materials back to the site for the church; but again were they all removed in the night to the top of the hill. Gamel having learned the truth, sought counsel from Holy Church, and it was thereon resolved that the chapel should be built on the hill-top, as the unknown persons would not permit it to be erected on the site originally selected. This explains the chapel or church of St Chadde, still standing on a hill so high that one hundred and twenty-four steps were cut to accomplish the ascent, and enable the good people to go to prayers.”
St Chad to whom Rochdale parish church is dedicated was a 7th century northern churchman who became abbot of Lastingham in Yorkshire, and for a while he was bishop of York until St Wilfrid returned from France. Later, he was made bishop of the Mercians at Lichfield. He died in 672 AD and his feast-day is held on 2nd March (Colin Waters ‘A Dictionary Of Saints Days, Fasts, Feasts And Festivals’). The town of Chadderton near Rochdale is probably named after St Chad.
There are no antiquities of great age within St Chad’s, although the Tudor pews are of some notable interest and parts of the church tower are ‘thought’ to date back to the late Saxon age, or more likely the early Norman period. The statue of St Chad high up on the outer south wall is particularly fine. The Lancashire poet John Collier (Tim Bobbin) 1708-86 is buried in the churchyard.
Ball, Dennis, Lancashire Pastimes, Burnedge Press Limited, Royton, Greater Manchester, 1987.
Bord, Janet & Colin, The Secret Country, Granada Publishing Limited, St Albans, Herts, 1980.
The Automobile Association, The Illustrated Road Book Of England & Wales, London WC2, 1961.
Waters, Colin, A Dictionary Of Saints Days, Fasts, Feasts And Festivals, Countryside Books, Newbury, Berks, 2003.