Sunday 28 April 2019

A Couple Of Oddities

Every so often I come across buildings which initially cause puzzlement as they don't fall neatly within the usual categories. Neither of this pair are particularly easy to find: the first requires you to get severely lost while following the designated tourist route through St John's College, the second needs a passenger who is observant and nosey while the driver concentrates on negotiating a country road.

School Of Pythagoras

The strange building above is now part of St John's College, Cambridge, but for most of its life it was part of Merton College, Oxford - this needs a little explanation!

It was built around the year 1200 and was probably originally a manor house. In 1266 it was bought by Merton College, Oxford, shortly after the college's foundation. In these early days colleges were not at all popular with the general population. Many saw them as existing merely to train more tax-collectors. Students were often accused of causing disturbances, while the townspeople were said to overcharge students for food and accommodation - not much has changed there then! Merton College therefore feared being run out of Oxford and as an insurance bought property in Cambridge, including this building.

The expulsion from Oxford never happened, but they continued to own the building till 1959, when they sold it to St John's. Over the years it was put to all sorts of uses, including being left as a ruin for many years. It's been much mutilated and altered, but is nevertheless the oldest secular building in Cambridge.

It has never been a school though and has nothing to do with Pythagoras. The name may be a witty student reference to its great age, but nobody really knows why it is so-called.

St Peter's Ruin

As my brother and I were tootling along, on our way to get a pub lunch in Eriswell, I spotted this odd-looking building standing across the field. What on earth could it be? The general shape of the building and the design of the roof suggest a dovecot, but dovecots don't have church windows in one end. This demanded investigation.

Luckily there was a notice board fixed to the door which explained the history. It was built originally as the church for the settlement of Little Eriswell and once boasted a gilded screen, known locally as "the golden gates of Eriswell". However it fell into disuse at least 400 years ago. Much of it was demolished and the stone re-used to build an odd two-storey porch on Lakenheath church. All that remained was part of the nave which was converted to first a dovecot, then a general farm building.

The building was renovated with help from English Heritage in 2012.

Take care.

Wednesday 24 April 2019

Quiet Reserved Beauty

I was seeking the "quiet" because these pictures were taken over the Easter holidays, when most places seem to turn into raucous Easter Egg hunting-grounds. And "reserved" because I was generally in, or on my way to, various local nature reserves. So here is the quiet, reserved beauty of a small part of the English spring.

The gentle charm of blossoming apple trees.

A drunken path winds through the trees.

Inquisitive residents of a small meadow,
 through which runs an old path;
the way to church in times past.

Butterflies explore their world.
I think this is a male Green-Veined White.

Tulips provide a colourful treat.

Woodland shadow-play.

Happy ponies in the hay.

Between meadows stand
a gate and a footbridge.

Guard duty.

Eager new shoots crowd around mother's feet.

And if you go down to the woods today
you might just find...

A Speckled Wood butterfly.

Well, what did you expect?
The Teddy Bears' Picnic?

Take care.

Monday 22 April 2019

Four Churches Walk - Part Four (St Mary Magdalen)

It's time to wander on to the last stop on the walk, the village of Wiggenhall St Mary Magdalen. You'll be pleased to hear that common sense prevails here and just about everyone calls it plain old "Magdalen" rather than use the full name. The railway station just down the road (which now takes its name from the nearby village of Watlington) used once to be called Magdalen Gates, which is a grand name for a rural train stop.

Before reaching the church my attention was grabbed by this red-brick house. It's now called "The Priory", and indeed there used to be a priory near here, but this is not it! This was probably built as a grange (that is a monastic farm), not by Crabhouse Priory in this village, but by Castle Acre Priory, about 14 miles away. What we see today is the 17th century house which was built around an earlier timber-framed building.

Right next to the church stands the old school (now a private house) which dates from 1841.

The church is as grand as any we've seen on this tour. Like St Germans, it stands at the heart of its community and is very much alive. Lets poke our noses inside and see what we can find.

The pews, though nice enough, are not as ornate as we've seen in the previous two churches. There's plenty of interest though - for a start you can clearly see how the nave and chancel do not quite line up. There are lots of churches built like this, far too many for it to just be a mistake. The church was supposed to represent the body of Christ and there are often transepts leading off right and left, representing the arms of the cross. The chancel represents His head and is accordingly tilted to the left, as Jesus's head is on the cross.

And here is a very old chest that was probably imported from the Continent in about 1420. Originally churches used these to store valuable items, but from the time of Elizabeth I they were required to keep records of births, deaths and marriages and these were then stored in such chests. 

The roof is a rather rustic effort but does have some "angels" - such wooden roof carvings are always called "angels" even when they look nothing like them!

There's also a bier standing in one of the aisles. I've seen quite a few of these and there's nearly always a sign on them explaining that they are no longer in use as they proved too unstable. This one, with what look like bicycle wheels, must have surely been used fairly recently, if not still in use today.

It is high up in the upper lights of the aisle windows that the great treasures of this church reside, in the shape of some very early stained glass figures. Medieval stained glass is very rare, particularly if it represents saints, popes and archbishops as these do. This was because Protestants opposed idolatry and icons according to their strict interpretation of the Bible. And stained glass was just so easy smash to pieces.

Today's visitors look a lot more peaceful and cuddly!

Time to leave this calm and peaceful old building and make my way back to the modern world, which in this neck of the woods means wide flat fields of intensive agriculture.

Take care.
(We'll be back to some more traditional countryside soon).

Saturday 20 April 2019

Four Churches Walk - Part Three (St Mary The Virgin)

We're on our way to Wiggenhall St Mary The Virgin next, which has the finest set of carved medieval fittings to be found this side of...…..well, Wiggenhall St Germans half a mile or so down the road.

I'm aware that as Church Walks go, we're seeing a lot more "church" than "walk" on this four-part outing. Most of the walking was along the raised flood-banks of the river, overlooking wide, flat fields with few trees. Every so often there's a modern bridge or a huge, futuristic sluice system to control the water flow. It's not pretty, and it's quite a surprise when such a path suddenly delivers you into a traditional country churchyard.

Lets see if the church is open....

Over the porch door there's a very stylish sundial dedicated to the memory of a former church warden.

This is a redundant church, which is hardly surprising with just a handful of houses nearby and St Germans just down the road, and is in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust. As is usual with their churches, the fabric of the building is in good repair, but it lacks the little human touches that add a touch of colour and friendliness to buildings that are in regular use.

The Bible has been left on the big brass lectern though, as if a service has been interrupted.

The benches are if anything even more splendid than in the last church we visited. They were made in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and depict various saints, some familiar and some who are difficult to identify. Again the makers are not known, though it's been suggested that they may have been imported from the Low Countries, with which this area was in constant trade during the Medieval period.

Although the carving is exceptional, the subject matter is unsmilingly pious and does not extend to the quirky depictions seen elsewhere.

More saints are depicted on a couple of panels which remain from the rood screen.

These look as though they are the original, pre-Reformation, work that somehow escaped the vandalism of the protestant iconoclasts. They re-enforce my opinion that painters from that time had never set eyes on a real baby! If it comes to it, they weren't much good at painting noses either.

There's a big, imposing memorial to Henry and Winifred Kervil who both died in 1624, and with them the ancient name of Kervil too, as both their children pre-deceased them and are depicted on the front of the tomb, one still in swaddling clothes.

High up on the wall there's a royal coat of arms dating from 1791.

But the sun is shining in through the windows beckoning me outside once more.

It looks pretty nice out there, even through the rather dusty windows, and I shall seek out a sunny corner, sheltered from the blustery wind, and sit for a while before setting out on the last leg of the journey, to Wiggenhall St Mary Magdalen.

Take care.

Thursday 18 April 2019

Four Churches Walk - Part Two (St Germans)

Just over half-a-mile north of the ruined church at Wiggenhall St Peter, stands a church that is more complete and a village with an even longer name - Wiggenhall St Germans.

St Germans has nothing to do with our Teutonic brethren but gets its name from St Germain, who was Bishop of Paris back in the Sixth Century AD, and to whom this church is dedicated. Perhaps this is a reminder that these villages, which today seem an isolated backwater, were once closely connected via trade to mainland Europe.

Although St Germans has many delightful features that crop up again and again as you investigate our wealth of ancient churches, it has one treasure that will stop anyone in their tracks as soon as they enter - row upon row of ornately carved pews.

Back in October we looked at the "Mythic Beasts And Angels" carved on the bench ends at the church in Swavesey, but these at Wiggenhall St Germans are on a different scale altogether. At Swavesey there were small carvings on each pew, whereas here the whole bench is decorated.

Some of the carvings are excellent Victorian reproductions, but many more date back to the fifteenth or sixteenth centuries.

The whole range of Medieval subject matter is here somewhere - saints, evangelists, the seven deadly sins, the seven sacraments as well as some rather quirky animals, though some of the sets are incomplete and some seem to be muddled up.

I don't know what those two are supposed to be but I think this is a hare....

I took dozens of photos and I may show you some more of them when I'm short of stuff to fill these pages. But lets have a look outside.

The south porch, which is the usual entrance to most churches, is a picturesque pile of time-worn red brick that wouldn't look at all out of place attached to the ruined church we saw back at Wiggenhall St Peter. And the south wall is also needing a bit of help from a couple of stout buttresses.

In the churchyard there are some splendidly lichenous old gravestones.

It's a lovely churchyard in a pretty but growing village. It was the birthplace of Ada Cambridge, and she was apparently the first  significant female Australian poet and novelist, though she's little appreciated in the land of her birth. Here's how she recalled the evenings of her Fenland childhood....

The western glories fade and pass. The twilight deepens more and more.
A thin mist, like a breath on glass, veils shining stream and distant shore;
And night is falling, still and cool, on each broad marsh and silent pool.

I've seen nights fall like that over this flat land...... But I can't linger any longer; I've still got a few more miles to traverse and two more churches to visit

Take care.