Wednesday 20 December 2023

Edge Of The Fens

Just a brief interlude in this rainiest of Decembers allowed us a trip to the familiar landscape of Fen Drayton Lakes; except it wasn't quite as familiar as usual.

All the lovely rain has returned this little area on the very edge of the Fens to something like its pre-drainage glory. It's easy to understand how medieval outlaws and rebels could hold out in a watery maze like this and how those without detailed local knowledge could soon get hopelessly lost.

It's all rather a long way from the summery days of freedom and fun which the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) promises on the welcoming sign. Water levels can rise quickly here and they'd taken the precaution of closing the car park which can get cut off. That was no surprise as the RSPB tends to be very safety conscious these days - signs recently seen include advice that muddy paths might be slippery,

We parked in a safe place on the approach road and walked from there, making sure to be careful on the muddy path. 

All the expected birds were present, but none of those occasional rarities that add a little spice to the day's observations. It soon began to drizzle and the camera was cradled inside my jacket like a spoilt little dog!

Just a faint blush of sunlight lit the land (and water) as we got back to the car, but we'd already decided to head elsewhere.

Whenever you explore this dead-flat area your eye is inevitably drawn to the array of church towers and spires that punctuate the endless horizon. I'm sure the Fenmen of old must have oriented themselves in the watery waste by those same landmarks. It may even be that these dominant features were built to guide ships on their way - this is not so daft as it sounds for quite large vessels could at one time navigate the fenland waterways.

The church at Fenstanton is dedicated to St Peter and St Paul, and Peter's keys and Paul's sword are shown over the porch door.

The church dates from the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, much of the best building stone having been brought from Barnack by boat. We visited Barnack Hills and Holes, the site of the quarrying, back in June of this year. Many of the churches along the Fen Edge owe their grandeur to the availability of this excellent stone. But it's the chancel and in particular that huge East window that draws the eye.

It's worth pausing to admire the early 16th century pulpit and a Christmassy display of candles.

And here's the window itself. The "tracery" - that's the network of carved stone that holds the glass - is exceptional. It's unusual to see such a large window in a village church.

The stained glass dates from 1876 and is by Henry Hughes of the firm Ward and Hughes. It depicts scenes from the life of St Peter.

Also in the chancel stands a memorial to Lancelot "Capability" Brown who was Lord of the Manor here from 1768-1783. Brown was the father of English landscape gardening and designed the grounds of many grand stately homes. The inscription reads as follows:

Ye Sons of Elegance, who truly taste 
The Simple charms that genuine Art supplies, 
Come from the sylvan Scenes His Genius grac’d, 
And offer here your tributary Sigh’s. 

But know that more than Genius slumbers here; 
Virtues were his which Arts best powers transcend. 
Come, ye Superior train, who these revere 
And weep the Christian, Husband, Father, Friend.

Although he owned the manor Brown only lived here for a very short time, but it's thought that he intended to retire here, however he died suddenly before that could happen. His son, also Lancelot Brown, did inherit the manor and is also buried in the churchyard.

Lancelot, the son's, wife Frances is not recorded on the large memorial but has a separate, much prettier, memorial in the corner of the chancel.

Another plaque records that Henry Howland lies buried in the churchyard. He was the father of John Howland, one of those who sailed on The Mayflower. There's also a sketch of the Howland House in New Plymouth, Massachusetts. Many claim to be descended from John Howland including Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Richard Nixon and the two George Bushes. The Pilgrim John Howland Society paid for the plaque and one of the church bells. Maybe someone should point out to them that this building is a symbol of the very intolerance which forced Howland out of the country.

There's also a modern wall-hanging by Ian Thompson, apparently the coloured silks change hue as the light changes. He also designed a very striking modern stained glass window, which I can't show you because the good people of Fenstanton have decided to stand a large and rather scruffy Christmas tree right in front of it.

If you want to celebrate Christmas you could always look at the beautiful scene depicted by Clayton and Bell in one of the windows. Lets have a look outside.....

In the churchyard there's the base of an old preaching cross. It's difficult to date these, but it almost certainly pre-dates the church building.

There are a number of old tombs and gravestones which seem to have acquired an odd pinkish patina, presumably some kind of lichen.

On the north side of the church I found this attractive old door. But what I was looking for was this....

No one seems to be quite sure where "Capability" was buried. But did they once?

Snooping around online I found this peculiar story....

The author of the piece claimed to have met the last person alive to have seen Capability Brown. Michael Behagg, a well-respected member of the community, recounted that many years ago the church needed a new heating system. The only place to site the oil tank was on the grave of Capability Brown and Bridget, his wife. The remains were therefore respectfully disinterred and buried nearby, but the site of the burial was unrecorded. Mr Behagg was the last to see the remains before they were covered up.


Take care.


  1. As usual John I walked with you in spirit. The water is everywhere isn't it? What always makes me smile is how quickly seagulls and other birds who like water take over flooded bits of land and swim around serenely as though this water has always been there. Another lovely church - beautifully kept - thank you for the interesting tour.

  2. It’s interesting to see the Fens as they might have been before their extensive modification at the hand of man. I suspect that some of those RSPB signs have something to do with insurance requirements and the exercise of due diligence.

  3. I always enjoy the old churches you feature since around here, 100 years is old.

    The stained glass is incredible for the time. It certainly tells a story!

  4. I've enjoyed your post of watery fens and churches and the story of Lancelot Brown. Super photos as always:)

  5. You must have good sturdy hiking boots to keep your feet warm and dry! That was a lot of water!

  6. I enjoyed the misty grey photos of the fens, a watery landscape. The poor old bones of Capability Brown - not known, someone should write a song about it.

  7. I love these wanders with you. Your pictures capture the scene perfectly. Your words perfectly frame the scenes.

    The tracey is carved stone?. When one thinks of how many craftsmen were needed to work together to breathe life into the abstract, it really does boggle the mind.

    1. Yes, and the great cathedrals took so long to construct that many stone masons worked on the same building for their whole lives and never lived to see it completed.

  8. Another old beautiful church to explore. You always seem to find them and they tell a great story through your narrative. The stained glass windows are absolutely beautiful. Thanks for the tour, John, I enjoyed it.

  9. Definitely wet - as parts of Oz are at the moment. Love the story about the last man to see Capability Brown - and his wife.

  10. I remain surprised at how many churches and cathedrals there are in England. They seem so ornate, and so close together. I suppose people didn't leave their village much, even to go to church? Considering how close together villages are, it seems like a lot of expense and effort to build so many churches! But they are all so beautiful, with great craftsmanship, and deep local history, which might have otherwise been lost.
    The story of Capability Brown's grave is intriguing. To be less important than an oil tank? Perhaps he was one who would enjoy eternal anonymity though, a joke played on the future.

    1. There are over 16,000 Church of England churches in England, of which over 12,000 are listed by Historic England as historic buildings. There is a church (or at least there was) in almost every village, though a few now have been converted to other uses. The expense of our finest churches was mostly paid for by the Lords of the Manor - the wealthiest landowners in each village. In medieval times ones passage into heaven was thought to be reliant on ones good deeds on earth and building a fine church was chief among these.

  11. I think the church was a much nicer, drier destination for you and Les. That group of candles by the pulpit is an Advent wreath. The 4th candle will be finally lit on Sunday. That is one gorgeous stained glass window.

  12. The church windows are just fascinating to see

  13. La vista de la iglesia es magnífica. También me ha gustado mucho su interior, en el que hay que destacar las maravillosas imágenes de sus vidrieras.
    El agua está muy mal repartida, en unos lugares sobra y en otro hace falta.
    Feliz navidad junto a familiares y amigos.

  14. What a wonderful church with some illustrious burials. I love the stained glass (a passion of mine as you know). And your photos of the flooded fens have a peace about them that is welcome in these frantic times.

  15. Interesting that you have had such a rainy season as we have been on the dry side here. The pictures of the fens are beautiful as are all the others including the stained glass windows. I love all the ancient churches you take us to. Thank you for another lovely "walk" with you.

  16. We have had more than our fair share of rain lately but a visit to the church made up the disappointment outside.

  17. The stained glass in the church was well worth a trip to this area, John. I had heard of all the rain you have been getting and your shots really tell that story.

  18. That's quite a mystery and an interesting story. These old churches are fascinating. Love the huge stained glass window. What a beauty! Have a very Merry Christmas!

  19. It looks a really lovely walk and the church is very beautiful with so many interesting features. It is particularly interesting to hear of the connection with Capability Brown and see his gravestone Have a good Christmas.

  20. it always amazes me just how wonderful the churches are they you find and share on your explorations, John, and this one is no exception. The windows were beautiful. Thanks for a sharing your wonderful photos and walks over this past year and I look forward to more in 2024. Sending all good wishes to you for a very Merry 🎄and a Happy New Year 🎉for us all. See you in blog land next year!

  21. Hello John. I wonder would you do me a great favour and send Christmas wishes to the Furry Gnome and Mrs FG on my behalf. What has happened to my laptop and my ipad I don’t know, but I am quite unable to comment on his blog and I have no other way to contact him. I still read his posts regularly and would really like him to know how much I appreciate his thoughts.
    Thank you very much Georgina from CheeseburgerCrisps

  22. Fascinating history, beautiful church and stunning view as you enter. I hope the weather improves.


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!).