I have recently come to the realisation that a considerable proportion of my spare time is spent exploring churches. On visiting a new part of the country, my first thought is to discover if there are any notable churches in the region. Beyond the essential guide Betjeman’s Best British Churches, of which I have the 2011 edition, complete with updates by Richard Surman, it is often surprisingly hard to find, as it were, ‘reviews’ of churches, and recommendations as to which are worth a visit. Thus I have decided to start writing my own (far humbler than Betjeman’s of course) thoughts and impressions on the churches I visit. I find it particularly hard to find information on smaller churches on the internet (which, on returning to the car after a successful church visit, and with time for another, one often has recourse to consult), so I hope that these blog posts may serve some small use to those in similar quandaries.
I have decided to commence this series with a review of not one, but two churches. These are the remarkable twin churches of St Mary the Virgin, and Sts. Cyriac and Julietta, in the small village of Swaffham Prior, Cambridgeshire. This village hosts another pair of twins, being home also to two windmills not, alas, adjacent to one another, as with the churches). Aside from this there is little to suggest the village as the obvious site for two churches, it is a small village, hardly, one would think, ever having been home to enough people to require double churches. The reason for these two seems to have been related more to altering claims over parishes and changing boundaries, the later St Mary’s seeming to have been built in what was once a separate parish. St Cyriac may originally date from before the Norman Conquest, while the current building has parts built before 1200. St Mary’s has had a troubled history, and after falling to ruin was restored in the early twentieth century. However, a fine tower dating from the twelfth century remained, so this twin church arrangement is certainly a long-standing one (no pun intended). It was not until an Act of 1667 that the two churches were united under the leadership of a single vicar. The congregation seems to have shuffled back and forth for some time after, depending on the whim of each vicar, or the state of dilapidation each church found itself in. This arrangement is not, however, as unusual as it might seem, there being several other instanced of church twinning in Cambridgeshire, and even a case of three churches once having shared the same churchyard at Reepham, in the not so distant Norfolk.
The two churches sit on the side of a low (perhaps high by the standards of this rather flat county) hill, overlooking the village. St Cyriac’s occupies the higher position, which is also more central in the churchyard, one of the reasons why it has been supposed to be the older of the two churches. St Cyriac’s is currently being cared for the The Churches Conservation Trust, although it still occasionally hosts services. Both these churches are notable for their fantastic octagonal towers, which seem abundant in the local area, the most significant of course being the tower of Ely Cathedral. St Cyriac’s belltower dates from the fifteenth century, and is particularly impressive. From the outside you can still see where it was connected to the medieval body of the church, which, having fallen into disrepair, was demolished in order to make way for a new building, commenced in 1806. The impression of walking into the churchyard, which we entered from the higher ground, is quite astonishing. The two towers reaching up in their faceted forms, and the bodies of the churches an easy stone’s throw away from one another, is certainly memorable. The newer body of St Cyriac’s is large, and gives the impression of being oddly flat. It is cruciform, with stubby transepts, which contrast with the tall and comparatively slender tower. The church’s history of building and rebuilding is apparent from its outer fabric, and presents the visitor with something of a puzzle to piece together. After the striking qualities of the exterior, the interior of the church is perhaps a touch underwhelming. Stripped of its pews, all that remains is a somewhat stark Georgian interior. A plastered ceiling gives a strange sense of the space being confined and enclosed, despite its generous dimensions. The acoustics are astonishing, it is perhaps the most echoey church I have ever been in, to the extent that one might imagine it actually interfering with the running of services. Nevertheless, this was the church which, having been rebuilt from 1806 to 1809, by Charles Humfrey, a Cambridge-based architect, was used for the following hundred years or so, until 1903, when St Mary’s was finally restored. The bells however remain in St Cyriac’s, as the tower of St Mary’s was not restored until 1965. The slender columns supporting the ceiling of the church add to, in a bizarre way, the sense of sparsity – if it were an uninterrupted space, perhaps one’s attention would not be so drawn to the low ceiling. The entrance of the church is overhung by a gallery, which, understandably, is not open to the public. From here you step up into the church, but any sense of it opening up is thwarted by the ceiling. Not meaning to do down this church, it must be noted that it is wonderfully light, even on the dreary and rainy winter day that we visited it. The sanctuary, small, as typical of the period, is painted with the
Ten Commandments, the Apostle’s Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer. The provide an interesting contrast to the rest of the interior, which is largely white, with details painted in duck egg blue and terracotta, a somewhat bizarre choice of colour scheme, the antiquity of which I am unsure of.
Other points of interest inside St Cyriac’s are the Victorian parish bier, placed in the North West corner, used to transport coffins (one imagines not the easiest activity on the steep slope of the churchyard), and the charity cupboard, inlaid with the initials of the church’s saints, SC and SJ, also Victorian.
While it is thus well worth a look inside St Cyriac, it cannot be denied that most interest is found on the exterior. The octagonal upper stage of the tower rises from corbel heads of lions, human grotesques, and half-angels, carrying shield or crowns, some of the few sculptures found on either church. The north-west wall of the tower also holds the clock face. The face itself is a repair, dating from 1811, but the original mechanism of the clock dates from the late seventeenth century. As far as I can tell it is no longer attached to a bell. The contrast on the exterior between the medieval tower and the Georgian body of the church is great, and as noted above, you can at various points see traces of the original medieval church. The squat cruciform church would not, I suspect, meet current tastes for the harmonious integration of new and old, the new not meeting the height of the old, giving the impression of two buildings that just happen to have been stuck together. Nonetheless, the weirdness of this building is part of its attraction, and I would highly recommend a visit.
If one church were not enough to please you, Swaffham Prior of course answers this with the adjacent St Mary’s. Its most striking feature is the twelfth and thirteenth century tower, constructed in flint and fieldstone. The upper-most level was added in 1964, as
was the stainless steel fleche with ‘Queen of Heaven’ crown. This addition would seem incongruous anywhere else, but given the long history of alteration and addition at Swaffham Prior, it rather seems to be the continuation of a tradition (even if I must admit it is not to my taste). This also serves to recall the church’s lost spire. The porch, now with charismatically crumbling tracery, dates from the fifteenth century, and was identified by Pevsner as originally containing fan vaulting. Through this one moves into the tower itself, which is truly remarkable. As an individual with distinctly medieval taste, getting to look up through the tower, its stages open, lit by its narrow Norman windows, was a joy. My photographs don’t capture it, needless to say this unusual building is best appreciated in person. The simple construction, that has been used to achieve such a clever design,
is quite wonderful. From here you progress into the church through a modern glass screen, cleverly inserted into the fabric of the building. One is again met with a vaguely underwhelming church. One of my residing memories is of orange, reminding me of the various furniture in my 1990s childhood bedroom. However, on venturing further inside, one finds much of interest.
The rather stern faces of William and Alice Water of Reach are commemorated in a brass of the early sixteenth century, above a smaller one thought to depict their six sons. The presumably related Richard Water, also with a wife named Alice, are also commemorated in a brass of a similar date. The church (I think unusually) has a parquet floor, the culprit behind its orange appearance, made of memel fir, a choice apparently made to reduce the noise of walking about the church. The current rood screen was gifted to the church in 1909 by the Allix family, local squires, and a family prominent in the history of the two churches, an imposing yet elegant structure. The height of the church is emphasised by the clerestory windows, which give it a bright atmosphere. The pews, pleasingly simple, but probably rather uncomfortable for anything by the shortest of services, are those missing from St Cyriac’s. Clearly there was no need to commission or buy a new set when there was a ready set waiting at a soon to be unused church next door.
The church also contains two medieval piscinae, and a rather interesting brass commemorating ‘Robert Cambers, Gent.’, of 1638, and a floor marble commemorating Sir John Ellys, tutor at Gonville and Caius, having studied there from 1647. But perhaps the most interesting element of the interior of St Mary’s (even to this medievalist), are the stained glass windows, designed by the local squire, C.P. Allix. Those in the North aisle were designed as the village’s First World War Memorial. There are three in number, two being dedicated to war, and a third to peace. The modern subject matter is an unusual choice for the ancient art of stained glass, with windows depicting the various industries or exercises of war, including tanks, trenches, submarines, munitions factories, field hospitals, and a Howitzer. Specific sections also depict the water pipeline laid across Sinai Peninsula during the invasion of Palestine, and the sinking of the Lusitania. The images are believed to have been drawn from Allix’s personal scrapbook, and the tank image is noted as an exact copy of a photograph in the Imperial War Museum, showing a Mark I tank. Each section is captioned by a relevant biblical passage, with the text of the Book of Revelation, 14:13, running along the bottom, ‘And I heard a voice from heaven saying unto me, Write, Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord’. The final window celebrates the happier industries of peace, depicting ploughing, harvesting, and animal husbandry, as well as the Parable of the Sower (Luke 8:5-15). Along the bottom is Psalm 104:23, ‘Man goeth forth unto his work and to his labour, until the evening’. The windows are arranged progressively, West to East, beginning with the call to arms and various weapons, with the second illustrating (in an arguably rather sterile fashion) the horrors of war, and the final window, depicting peace, the furthest east, appropriately closest to the altar.
Allix’s other set of windows are in the south aisle, featuring more unusual subject matter from his own interests. The windows were designed to commemorate the vicar of the parish, John Peter Allix, and his son Charles, presumably relations of some sort to C.P. They predate those of the North aisle, having been dedicated in 1914. Scenes include the 1771 eruption of Vesuvius, an image of the earth, moon, and starts, seen from space, and Greenland glacier, drawn directly from an illustration in Sir James Geikies The Great Ice Age. There is also an image of Mount Pilatus, in Switzerland. Each of the subjects is labelled, within the frame of the image. The technique of these windows is unusual, creating a striking appearance, particularly in the image of Eart, and of Aurora chasing away night, the former in the form of a lark, the latter an owl. These remarkable sets of windows are worth a visit in their own right, even if they were not houses in such a fascinating church.
All in all these are two of the most interesting churches I have visited; their variety and complicated history of dereliction, restoration, use and reuse, makes them particularly worth a visit. It is worth noting too that the village itself, even in the rain, was charming, and the walk we took around it also led us in sight of one windmill, and past the other, so it is worth exploring. About eight miles from Cambridge, we were able to part outside the church gate, at the top of the hill. There is also a pub for those wishing to quench themselves after the thirsty work of church spotting, although it was closed on the Sunday morning that we visited. The village is of course accessible by bicycle from Cambridge, and I believe there is also something of a regular bus service. The two churches now share a vicar with at least two other churches, so I believe St Mary only holds services every few weeks.
I owe a debt of gratitude to the Churches Conservation Trust, for their marvellous work in general, but also specifically with their highly information leaflet on St Cyriac and St Julietta, and to Elisabeth Everitt, for having written such a comprehensive and useful booklet on the history of St Mary the Virgin. I would highly recommend reading both of these for further information, the former to be found here, the latter available in the church itself, for a modest and highly reasonable fee. There are collection boxes in both churches, and should you wish to donate to support the work of the Churches Conservation Trust in general, one can do so here.