Wednesday, 28 December 2011

The Oldest Church In Cambridge

It wasn't really fair of me to say that The Round Church was the second oldest church in the city without telling you about the oldest one. So lets put that to rights.

St Bene't's (not a typing error but a contraction of St Benedict's) stands in Bene't Street and in spite of its great age and central position is largely ignored by visitors to the city. One glance at the tower will tell you that this is an unusual structure and that it must be old; it doesn't really look like any other church towers. The detail is quite crude and the stonework on the corners is unusual. According to the experts it shows that the builders knew the kind of work which was done on the continent but that knowledge was rather superficial. And how long ago was it built? Well, King Canute was on the throne, the Normans were still in Normandy, so probably about 1020 AD. Which means that in eight years time.....

Just inside the gate is this old pump which used to supply drinking water to the parishioners before Cambridge had a water company.

The door swings open on these mighty hinges - you can't buy those in the local DIY store.

Inside there are more Saxon survivals, chiefly this magnificent arch which again shows the "long-and-short" stonework which we saw on the corners of the tower. The arch itself doesn't really match the columns which support it, again evidence of the lack of experience of the builders. Still, it's stood for nearly a thousand years!

The main body of the church has been rebuilt but even so the arcading dates back to the 13th century. The outer walls of the church date from a Victorian enlargement.

The stained glass, which is also 19th century, looks wonderful with the late afternoon sun streaming through.

There's a fine chest dating from the Medieval period..... 

....and a modern sculpture, quite small but very powerful, by Enzo Plazzotta. But lets go outside and have another look at the Saxon tower.

Those small round holes are thought to be to encourage owls to nest, and presumably to control the mice in the area.

Take care.


  1. It looks an interesting church, I love the really old ones especially when they have really visible traces of their origins. Must try and visit next time I'm in Cambridge.

  2. Another fine, educational post. The hinge was spectacular.

  3. Mind-bogglingly old, even to us Brits. I love that little sculpture too.

  4. Those hinges did it for me. Strange how such a detail can have an effect. Why do humans overlook these details so often now? Because they can...?

  5. I never would have guessed the holes to encourage owls to nest there. Fun trivia. :)

    Not many Canadian churches can boast a mixture of two styles so it's amazing to me how complicated the history of this structure nearly a thousand years old is.

    The hinges are magnificent!

  6. The chest - okay you deliberately left out what it's purpose was -- I'll be the guinea pig - what for?

  7. Surely there must have been a column to support the middle of the middle window. I like the idea of encouraging owls to nest for mouse control.
    That would be useful here as well, now where do I get some masons to build me a mediaeval tower . . .

  8. Good job, John, thanks. It's hard for us to even imagine a building a thousand years old. And good job photographing the stained glass window. I know from experience they can be the devil himself to get a good picture of. Jim

  9. It's a little bit mind boggling John, just how old this church is. As always it sets me off wondering about the many, many changing scenes this old building has witessed in it's long history! The sculpture is beyond amazing.
    and yes at this moment I would happily accept your 3C thank you very much!!

  10. If only such craftsmen still exisited. goodbye leaky buildings.

  11. The hinges are amazing. Do you know which era they might be from?

  12. Thanks for the look round that beautiful old church. I love the modern sculpture and how well it fits in such an old building - surely the sign of a great work of art. A Happy New Year to you John.

  13. Thanks for all those comments.
    Hinges - I'm not sure but probably 19th century.
    The chest - the short answer is that they put valuable things in there! Before the age of banks, safes etc you put important papers into such a chest. They had so much ironwork on them that they often weighed over a ton, so no chance of them being stolen or broken into. As a further security measure they would be fitted with several padlocks, the keys were held by the priest, the church wardens, the lord of the manor and so on; the chest could therefore only be opened by the whole group together. Even so, important documents still went missing.


Thanks for taking the time to comment. I'll try to answer any questions via a comment or e-mail within the next day or two (no hard questions, please!).