St Olaf's Church at wasdale Head

Wasdale, a magnifent and beautiful part of the English Lake District. At the top end of England’s deepest lake, Wastwater, plus England’s highest mountain, Scafell Pike, rising up beside it.

At Wasdale head though, amongst all this massive landscape is a remarkable little buiding. St Olaf’s Church, said to be the smallest parish church in England. It has space for 35 people.

inside view of St Olaf's church

I have come to Wasdale many times to set foot up the mountains that adorn the area. But for a little bit of quaint British history it was time to take a closer look at ths little building, surrounded by beauty, as well as a lovely circle of yew trees. A building that has history back to the days of the Vikings.

the grounds of st olaf's church

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Historical background

Wasdale Head may now be famed for the starting point for hikes and climbs but this little church, St Olaf’s is the oldest building in the valley and brings to focus a very different kind of place this was over the centuries.

The valley was first settled by Norse explorers coming over from the Isle of Man and Ireland around 950 AD. Even the area has a name that dates back to these times. Wasdale comes from Vatnsdair which means ‘Valley of the Water’. These Norse settlers would have been Christians.

sign on the door of St Olaf's Church

The current church dates as far back as at least 1550 as this is the earliest record. But it is more than likely that a religious building would have stood here in some form from the date of the settlers.

The story goes that the old roof beams that adorn the church are from Viking ships.

Old beams of st Olaf's church, wasdale head

You may think that the name St Olaf’s has been around since that time but alas no. Until 1977 the church had no name and was simply known as Wasdale Head Church. In 77 the then Rector, Reverend Raymond Bowers, had Norwegian friends who suggested to him the name, and so it was named, St Olaf’s Church.

Architecture

Originally the church would have been a much simpler affair than it is now. Stone walls, windows without glass and an earth floor. Very much like a little barn.

back view of the church

A significant restoration took place in 1892. The 3 windows had frames and glass installed with the east window being dedicated to the then Queen Victoria. The roof was renovated with slate from local mines and new timbers added.

It wasn’t until 1977 that electricity came to the building and thus no more need for oil lamps.

altar at st olaf's

Churchyard

Even before entering the church you are enchanted by the sight of the church and its position surrounded by the big fells and the valley.

The picturesque setting of the church is made even more beautiful in that it is surrounded by old Yew trees, a contrast to the views beyond it.

churchyard st olaf's

The churchyard is a lot younger than the church in that it was not used as a graveyard until 1901 when it was consecrated. Prior to this they had to take the dead on a a coffin route all the way over to Eskdale at St Catherine’s Church.

Early graves in the churchyard are from fallen climbers who sadly lost their lives in the surrounding mountains. A memorial can be found to 3 young men who lost their lives on Scafell in 1906.

st Olaf's memorial to fallen climbers

There is a memorial too for all the members of the Fell & Rock Climbing Club who lost their lives in WW1.

Visiting

Most visitors to St Olaf’s will be hikers on their way to climb one of the mountains, fells and passes that lead out from Wasdale Head. The church is situated on the path from Wasdale Head Inn before going on the way up to Sty Head. If you have ever climbed Great Gable from Wasdale you will certainly have passed this little church.

The church has 10s of thousands of visitors a year who are either visiting specifically or come upon it through an outdoor activity. It is open during daylight hours daily.

side view of st olaf's church

It may seem far away from civilisation to some but services are indeed held here on the 2nd and 4th Sunday of each month. For the 1st and 3rd Sundays then services are held at the other end of the lake at St Michael’s and All Angels Church, Nether Wasdale.

Conclusion

If you are ever visiting Wasdale and Wasdale Head. Be it for a climb, a hike, a walk or for seeing the mesmerising scenery. Take the time to visit this little church with big history. It will certainly leae an impression on you.

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