Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Unfinished Business And A Phoenix From The Ashes

A couple of years ago - March 2012 to be precise - I visited the village of Duxford and its various churches and chapels and wrote about it here. However access was denied to the disused church of St John by a locked door and my laziness or inability (I forget which) in tracking down the key-holder. The exterior of the church is a jumble of unmatched parts, much plastered over and held up with inelegant triangular buttresses. On top is a twisted little spire that became deformed, so they say, as a result of carrying a large flag for Queen Victoria's Jubilee. On Sunday I was passing again and found the door open.

Inside it was as disused-looking as any disused church could possibly be, but, despite its battered and neglected appearance it has a certain charm and tranquillity which is hard to describe or capture in a photograph. It has some medieval wall-paintings too, one of the best-preserved of which can be seen below.

I could, and should, have lingered longer but I was on my way to see something that promised to be finer still, so I pressed on towards the nearby village of Ickleton.

Externally, although rather attractive, St Mary Magdalene at Ickleton is unremarkable. Closer inspection revealed an extraordinary carbuncle near the top of the spire which looked at first like a TV satellite dish! In fact it's a Sanctus bell which hangs from a protruding beam: a most unusual arrangement.

After the bare, stripped interior of St John's the inside of Ickleton church is all richness and colour. It has been likened to stepping into a church in Tuscany rather than rural Cambridgeshire. Most of the main features can be seen in the picture above, but lets look a little more closely.

The walls carry some particularly fine paintings from the early Medieval period. The technique employed is what is known as "true fresco", that is the paint was applied while the plaster was still wet. As a result the pigment is able to penetrate the plaster giving it both vividness and permanence. There are few finer examples in the country. Remarkably nothing was known of these works until 1979 when a fire swept through the church. Luckily the fire was soon discovered and put out, but not before it had blackened much of the plasterwork. It was in cleaning off the soot and grime that the some of the layers of whitewash were also removed revealing, for the first time in centuries, the underlying frescos. 

A further unusual and striking feature of the church are the round arches supported on cylindrical columns. For many years it was believed that they were salvaged from a Romano-British villa, the remains of which were found nearby. More recent research suggests that they are probably of Saxon origin. Spoilsports!

There's a fine rood-screen from the fourteenth century (above)...

                                                            ....and a more modern altar and reredos (below).

The church is dedicated to St Mary Magdalene and she is depicted in the stained glass in the east window.

A few of the pews retain their old carved "poppyheads"; the one above shows St Michael weighing the souls.

The church is further enhanced by the rich colours of the kneelers which depict key moments in the history of the parish and also commemorate former vicars and other important people. One past vicar from the fourteenth century appears to have been known simply as "Peter The Vicar".

I am well aware that we've been to lots of churches recently. There's no reason or plan behind that - it's just the way things turned out. I've got a couple of days off work coming up and with good weather forecast I'll be trying to keep to the great outdoors!

Take care.


  1. I had not expected the churches to be such rich storehouses of history when I visited last fall, or to find them so compelling and moving. I wanted to stay in the ones I visited with Julie for hours, just be there alone and listening. Of the two in your post today, the first one strikes that same place in me. I would want to stay there alone all day, just looking and listening until dark descended. I am sure there are stories that would whisper to me from those walls.

  2. I find it so fascinating that buildings this old can still be standing, and some even still in use. I think of all the generations of life those walls have seen! What great luck that cleaning led to the uncovering of the medieval paintings and now they are at the surface again where all can see.

  3. Interesting how something (fire) that could have destroyed the church instead lead to the revealing of an unknown treasure lying within. I like the emptiness of the first church. I'd have lingered there longer myself.

  4. For some reason I find the picture of the kneelers very poignant. Your pictures always have something 'extra'. Thank you.

  5. Both churches have such substantial pillars and arches that the churches feel like they could weather any storm - literal or figurative. Lovely stained glass of Mary Magdalene. Old mossy tombstones leaning towards each other in the spring sun - sweet.

  6. I can never 'visit' too many churches through your blog John!

  7. Such grand churches you have in your area -- barbara

  8. We have a few churches round here with faded frescoes on the walls John - I love them.

  9. What a couple of beauts, John. The abandoned St John's is particularly intriguing. It must have been amazing to see these places when they were fully painted.

  10. It must have been hard dragging yourself away from the first church John, so many photo ops but oh my gosh, how exciting the discovery of the ancient frescoes.. Enjoyed your visit here so much, always a pleasure.


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