St Stephen's Church, Macclesfield Forest (1)

Recent Photograph of St Stephen's Church (1) (Macclesfield Forest)

Popularly known as 'Forest Chapel'; this church stands over 1,200 feet above sea level. The present building dates from 1834 and replaces an earlier chapel built in 1673 for local farmers who wanted a local place to worship rather than travel to the main parish church at Macclesfield.

The only parts remaining of the earlier chapel are a carved stone above the church porch with the inscription ‘SS 1674’, and the louvre in the tower windows. The suggestion is that ‘SS’ are the initials of Saint Stephen, the first Christian martyr who was stoned to death in the first century, to whom the chapel is dedicated.

Macclesfield Forest is the chief of several townships which formed part of the ancient royal forest of Macclesfield. Legend has it that in pre-Christian times, the site of the chapel, then a clearing in the forest, was a place of pagan worship.

‘Forest Chapel’ is one of the few remaining churches to continue a rush-bearing ceremony. The practice survives from earliest days when rushes were used for floor covering, keeping the floor clean and dry, by absorbing dirt and damp. The practice was abandoned during the Black Death as it was feared that rushes would harbour the disease, but was revived at Forest Chapel in the 1830s when the chapel was rebuilt. Originally, the old rushes would remain in the church for a full year before being refreshed, although today, the rushes remain in the chapel only for a week or so. The annual ceremony, traditionally held on the nearest Sunday to 12th August, when old rushes are cleared away, and new ones laid, is also symbolic of spiritual renewal.

The rushes are harvested from local streams, and are used to decorate both inside and outside the church as well as being laid on the floor. The decorations themselves are true works of art, with designs and techniques, like those of well-dressings, handed down from generation to generation. This is best done when the rushes are fresh and pliable; and the results are garnished with wild flowers to add a touch of colour.

(Information provided by Rosemary Lockie)

Sykes, Janet - A Spiritual Renewal. Article published in Peak District Magazine (Dalesman Publications), August 1999, pp17-19.

Image contributed by Alf Beard on 30th July 2003.
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