BEDFORDSHIRE  DECEMBER

FELMERSHAM, SHARNBROOK, KNOTTING, & SWINESHEAD

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It was early afternoon on a gloriously sunny early December Saturday. It was to be a full day’s churchcrawl in Bedfordshire. The morning had seen six churches visited; with some lovely churches seen, but none open on the day. We had left Turvey and were heading towards Sharnbrook; with the prospects of an open church there according to their website.

Before we got to Sharnbrook, we popped in at neighbouring Felmersham. ‘Look at that west end’ I said to Gary as we went past Felmersham church looking for somewhere to park.  Gary was the driver for the day and he looked at me with a look of mild alarm. He is not interested in churches but loves to drive. There was a fair chance that I would give him a detailed description of the architecture when I got back in to the van and his afternoon was liable to drag rather as a result!

The church here is known as one of the grandest in Bedfordshire; a wonderful cruciform structure with fabulously crafted west end. It was built between 1220 and 1240 and the structure that we see today consists of nave with north and south aisles, central tower, north and south transepts, south porch and chancel.

The church is built on high ground and there is a fair drop from the western edge of the church grounds on to the road which runs past the church. As a gardener, I would not like to mow the grass here! One mistake and you and mower would be on the main road heading towards Sharnbrook.

Starting with the west end, this is on three levels. The lower level has a central west doorway flanked by two identical moulded arches, each with blind trefoil and quatrefoil designs. The middle level has a wall arcade of seven bays, each having a moulded arch with shafts that stand slightly clear of the wall. Fabulous craftsmanship! The third level has two single lancet windows, either side of the three light west window. The whole thing is perpendicular battlemented and glorious!

The aisled, clerestoried nave leads up to the central tower, transepts leading off to north and south.  Looking at the church from the south, the tower has three stages rising above the rest of the structure. The lowest stage has two very small lancet windows, either side of the church clock. The middle stage has two lancet windows, with a blind bay on each side. The upper stage has a double lancet window with decorative frieze running across the parapet. As with the nave, the tower is battlemented. The chancel has a fine five light east window.

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This was my seventh church of the day and I had yet to find one open. I tried the south door more in hope than expectation, and was pleasantly surprised to find the church open. Entering in through the south porch, there is an image niche over the south doorway, with a statue of St Mary.

Throughout the nave, there are several carvings of human figures, one of which is hanging upside down, looking down at those walking towards the chancel. Looking around the interior, it is remarkable in size and architecture for a parish church. The church was built by monks from Lenton Priory, in Nottinghamshire, and it is suggested that this may have been built with the aim of forming a monastic order here but it never came to fruition.

The nave leads up to the central crossing tower; with a painted and elaborately carved screen separating tower from chancel. The chancel is plain inside, with just a few wall mounted tablets. The east window depicts Christ giving His blessing as the centre point. Jesus has over sized hands, a symbol of piety; with crucifixion wounds visible on hands and feet. He has a vivid red nimbus and flames of gold and yellow pulses outwards from Him

To the left of Jesus, as we look at it, is the Virgin Mary, with hands at prayer. To the right of Jesus is St Thomas, ‘doubting Thomas’, who carries a spear and carpenters set square, his traditional symbols. I like this window! I like the fact that Thomas is depicted immediately to the side of Jesus, despite his earlier refusal to believe until he saw with his own eyes. Peter was restored and so was Thomas! He died for his belief in the end, the spear denoting the manner of his martyrdom. From memory, I have not seen St Thomas portrayed in an east window, except when his denial is part of the Easter story.

To the far left is a depiction of St Christopher, carrying the infant Jesus over a river. To the far right, St James is depicted with staff and scallop shell.  Up in the tracery, angels play musical instruments.

A tiny chapel to the south has a modern stained glass depiction of the Holy Spirit, dated 2000. Standing by the alter, alongside candles waiting to be lit in prayer, is a silhouette of a soldier with head bowed.

What a beautiful and historic church; which I enjoyed visiting very much.

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The church of St Peter, Sharnbrook.

We made our way to Sharnbrook. I did a little research prior to this visit and Sherbrook’s website indicated that it was liable to be open; and so it proved to be. This is being typed in late January 2021; things are bad. We have been in a third nationwide lockdown for about a month and it is liable to be that way for a while yet.

 A quick look earlier today at Sherbrook St Peter’s website shows that they are still opening their church for private prayer and for visitors, with this being the case for each church in the benefice.  What a lovely attitude! This is how I hoped that things would be once churches were allowed to be opened again after the first three month lockdown.  Church doors opened for those who wish to make use of them in very challenging times!

There was a church mentioned at Sharnbrook at the time of the Domesday Survey in 1086, but the structure that we see today dates from the 13th century. It consists of west tower, with octagonal broach spire, nave with north and south aisles, south porch, north chapel and chancel.

The tower is pinnacled, with flying buttresses attached to the spire. A parapet runs along the top of the tower; this being a repeated quatrefoil design.  Grotesque, winged creatures can be seen on each corner of the tower, these being very similar to those at nearby Carlton. Possibly this could be the work of the same stonemason?

The nave is long, and there is no clerestory here, but there are signs that the roof level has been raised at some point, a previous roof line being visible on the east wall of the tower.

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Moving inside, it was really peaceful. There was hand sanitiser on entry and freedom of movement throughout the church. The sun had been blazing down for much of the day. When I was at Sharnbrook though, it had hidden behind some clouds.  As I was walking around the interior, a few rays came in, giving a nice light quality inside.

The nave is separated from the chancel by a 16th century screen. Throughout the nave, carved heads look out, mostly human figures with one crowned and one wearing a bishops hat.  The chancel was now bathed in sunlight, rays falling across a reredos of the Last Supper. The east window features the crucifixion as the centre piece, wine vinegar being given to Jesus on the end of a stalk. Roman soldiers off to the side and Mary and John at prayer at the side of the cross. The letters Alpha and Omega are included on side panels, the beginning and the end!

Other glass here includes two panels depicting the Resurrection and the Ascension; another shows Jesus, with wounds visible in hands, holding a lamb tenderly.

With it being December, it was going to get dark really early, despite the sunshine. There was time to visit two more churches before we lost the light, with the first of these being the church of St Margaret of Antioch, Knotting.

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The church of St Margaret of Antioch, Knotting, Bedfordshire.

Knotting is a small village, close to the Northamptonshire border. The church is redundant, having been cared for by the Churches Conservation Trust since 2009. The CCT has been really good in keeping its churches open wherever possible in this covid year. This one was closed to visitors though at this time.

The church here, in a delightfully rural setting, dates back to the 12th century and consists of west tower, nave with south porch, south transept and chancel. The tower is of two stages, square and un buttressed, with the church clock in red and gold on the south face. There is a date plaque saying 1615 on the upper stage and what appeared to be a few pieces of Roman tile high up, used as filler.

A small two light window on the tower, has wooden shuttering on the inside, which is dated 1716. There is a very weathered sundial on the south transept which may or not be dated. A war memorial stands in the south of the church grounds, which have been substantially cleared of gravestones over the years.

The sun was starting to set and there was a lovely late afternoon glow about the light. We would soon hit that time when the sun hits a certain trajectory and the light turns golden for a couple of minutes.

As mentioned earlier, this church was open when I was here before. There are spiked metal gates across the chancel, which were unlocked when I was there; but struck me as being unusual. The story behind them is one of the more unusual that I have come across.

It turns out that these were installed, upon the order of the then Archbishop, in 1637 to prevent gambling and cock fighting inside the chancel. Evidently, this was a real problem here at that time and not only did the vicar of the day not stop it, it appears that he was involved in it and was defrocked as a result.

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Interior photographs of Knotting church, taken on a previous visit.

Final church of the day was that of St Nicholas at Swineshead.  It was a case of stopping off at the first church we saw as we headed back towards the Northants border, before the daylight faded completely, and this was the first one that we saw; and a good choice it turned out to be.

The church here consists of west tower, with spire, battlemented nave with north and south aisles, south porch and chancel. There is a decorative frieze which runs the length of the south nave and the south porch. This is an alternating design of ball flowers and heads,

St Nicholas dates mainly from the 14th century, but the upper levels of the tower and the spire, as well as the clerestory all date from the 15th century. This is a fine church, with a particularly beautiful view to be had of the perpendicular west tower from the west. 

It was good to find the church open to visitors. Hand sanitiser on entry and unrestricted movement throughout the church. On entering, I was immediately struck by the feel of the place. This was like stepping back in time, and I mean that in a good way!  The visitor could have been stood in that same spot a couple of hundred years earlier and the scene wouldn’t have changed a great deal.

Standing at the west end and looking towards the chancel, I had visions of what this must have looked like back a few hundred years. Possibly, there would have been a doom painting over the chancel arch, the saved being taken off to Heaven with the condemned being thrown naked in to hell. Some churches, after being restored, lose some of their history, their contact with the past. This is not the case here!

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No modern stacking chairs here, still the old pews, with floor leading down the nave uneven through thousands of feet over hundreds of years. The chancel is plain and simple, with one of the last rays of the sun finding its way across the stained glass depiction of the crucifixion. There is no reredos here, plain and simple; less is more!  A medieval coffin lid is set in to the floor of the chancel. There are no bells and whistle here; no fireworks going off, no dry ice here, no sound systems nor worship bands, just a place to be still, to put Psalm 46 verse 10 in to action: to “Be still and know that I am God”.

A stone head at the entrance of the chancel, with interesting hair, flashed a mouthful of uneven teeth. The nose is badly damaged; this sometimes being the work of the reformers. Why this simple, human head would be seen as a reformers target though, I have no idea!

A small narrow panel of stained glass is of interest. This is a curious depiction at first glance, with a Bishop looking at three young boys, who are at prayer in a barrel!  This is St Nicholas, after whom the church is dedicated. The legend goes that a butcher murdered three young boys and hid them in a barrel. St Nicholas found them and raised them back to life. The butcher repented and found faith.

There was just time as the daylight faded to take a look around the church grounds. There was nothing of any great interest to be honest. There are some really lovely old cottages close to the church though, especially to the west. This is a delightful church, possibly my most favourite of the day and it was good to see it.

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