SEMPRINGHAM : CHURCH OF ST ANDREW
Church Post Code NG34 0LU
Closed to visitors open by appointment
In the 15 years or so that I have been photographing churches, at the time of putting this page together, one of my most favourite areas to cycle through and explore is that to the north of Bourne, and heading west towards Grantham.
I have many fond memories of my times in this area; and to be honest one blurry one as well, sitting in the church grounds at Morton on a gloriously sunny Friday mid-summer evening, attempting to sober up before heading back to my bed and breakfast in the neighbouring village.
One of the places that I have become most fond of is Sempringham, which is a hamlet which can be found by the side of the B1177, between Pointon and Billingborough. Sempringham is some eight miles north of Bourne and 12 miles east of Grantham. It is the home of Gilbert of Sempringham, the only English saint to have formed a monastic order, the Gilbertines.
Gilbert sent up the original priory here in 1131, a modest set of buildings set against the north wall of the present church. This had accommodation for seven local women who had vowed to live a life of charity, obedience, chastity and humility.
In 1139, new land was given to them and a new priory was erected 350 yards to the south west. The priory grew and at its peak housed 200 nuns and 40 canons.
In 1283 Edward I defeated Prince Llewelyn of Wales, capturing his 17 month old daughter Gwenllian. She was exiled to Sempringham, where she lived her entire life as a prisoner, passing away in 1337. A memorial to her stands where the priory would have stood.
The priory lasted until 1538 when it was closed down under Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries. The land was acquired by the Clinton family, with all the priory buildings pulled down and a large Tudor house erected. There is no trace of either left today.
The church here is normally closed to visitors, but I had arranged for the church to be unlocked, with the help of the friendly benefice office; with this visit in May 2022 being the first time that I had been able to see inside.
Having arrived a little earlier than the appointed time, I photographed the exterior whilst waiting for the church to be opened. The key holder arrived and we spent a few seconds just listening to the birdsong. This is a delightfully secluded place to be; there was no traffic noise, with our only company being a solitary man off in the distance, who was being pulled along by a couple of energetic dogs!
It was a delightfully sunny start to the day, with a stiff breeze keeping the heat down. Turning away from the church and looking off to the north east, the slender octagonal spire of Billingborough church rising up across the flat fields.
Looking at the church of St Andrew from the exterior, we have a central tower, which is pinnacled and battlemented with grotesque to be seen at the four corners. There is a south porch and north aisle, with the chancel taking the form of an apse. A quick look at the exterior shows evidence of restructuring over the years; with a large filled in doorway to be seen on the south face of the tower and the previous roofline visible at the east end of the nave, indicating that the chancel had been rebuilt at some point.
There was a Saxon church here before the present church of St Andrew was built around 1100. The church was larger in the past, being cruciform in structure with north and south transepts. The north and south transepts were each pulled down in 1788, with the chancel also being taken down. The chancel was not rebuilt until Victorian times, so for a number of years the tower here was at the east end of the church which is quite unusual.
There are six bells hanging in the tower here, with the first four of the ring being cast by Alfred Bowell of Ipswich in 1938. The other two are of greater age and interest.
The fifth of the ring was cast by Robert Newcombe II of Leicester, with this one dating from the 1580’s with the sixth of the ring cast by the Seliok family of Nottingham, with this one liable to date from the 15th century. This bell is inscribed ‘Sancta Gabriel ora pro nobis’, which translates as ‘Saint Gabriel pray for us’.
When North compiled his study of the church bells of Lincolnshire, which was published in 1882, the situation was very different. At that time there were three bells in the ring here, with the two ancient bells at that time being the first two of the ring and a third bell being dated 1719, which North does not attribute to a particular founder.
Moving inside, with a friendly and knowledgeable guide now also with us; entrance is through a south porch, which dates from Victorian times. Mounted in to the west wall of this porch is a 12th century tympanum arch which would originally have stood in the bricked in doorway to the south wall of the tower.
The south door itself is finely carved and dates from around 1170, the semi-circular arch being of three orders with one of these featuring a Norman zig zag design.
The nave itself is quite narrow and the north aisle is of four bays, this also dating from around 1170. The arches are semi-circular and there is some medieval painting on the underside of the most easterly arch. The tall, elegant central crossing arches date from the late 14th century
The chancel is plain and simple; walls are whitewashed with three single light windows of tinted glass at the east end. The altar is bare, with no altar cloth and just a simple cross and candlesticks. Standing at the chancel arch and looking to the west, there were some delightful multi coloured reflections cast through the stained glass to the south.
There is some graffiti here, which is of great interest. George Coall carved his name here in a mixture of small and capital letters, this being dated 1815, the year of the battle of Waterloo.
It is always interesting to see graffiti with an important date associated with it. Sometimes these are carved in times of civil war, or plague, the mark of the common man or woman, made in ‘interesting times’! It reminded me of a visit to Temple Bruer the previous year where Imogen made her mark in 2020, Covid year.
Close by is a pentagon, a symbol that today is associated with satanic rites. In the past though, this was a Christian symbol which symbolised the five wounds of Christ.
The most interesting though can be seen on the north wall of the tower. This is a message left from one of the displaced Canons, which is dated 1581, more than 40 years after the priory was closed down. This is carved in relief, with the area around the letter being scraped away, leaving the inscription standing proud of the wall. The inscription reads ‘Sing prayses unto ye Lord O ye sans of his 1581. A gauntlet is carved against the wording, possibly throwing out a Catholic challenge to the Protestant monarch Elizabeth I in days of religious persecution.
There is some Victorian stained glass in the nave, of good quality with vibrant colours. The main glass depicts the ascension but there is interest in a smaller panel close by which was described as the ‘winking Jesus’. This is a full length depiction of Jesus, wounds visible, who should be gazing directly at the onlooker; ‘Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest’ reads the text below. Due to a blemish in the glass though.one of Jesus’ eyes are closed, giving the impression that he is winking.
A grotesque head looks out from a ledge of the north wall of the nave, which I assume used to stand on one of the walls that were pulled down in the late 1700’s. This is badly damaged but has tongue stuck out in medieval gesture of insult, through a fine set of teeth!
Moving back outside, the church grounds are of interest, with many finely carved slate gravestones. Just to pick out a couple; a grieving widow kneels by the side of what would be her husband’s gravestone, on which is written ‘Memento Mori’ remember death. Across the top of this scene is carved ‘Prepare to meet thy God’ A warning to the onlooker to be at peace with God before your own time comes; which is days of lowlife expectancy could be sooner than you think!
The widow carries a flaming torch, which is pointed towards the ground. The flaming torch is a symbol of eternal life but downturned can also symbolise mourning.
On the second we can see a finely carved angel, which holds a trumpet. The trumpet was an often used symbol of the resurrection and a speech bubble coming out of the angels mouth reads ‘the trumpet shall sound and the dead shall be raised’, this coming from I Corinthians Chapter 15 verse 52.
This was a lovely time spent. From first visiting this church to setting foot in it for the first time was a mere 15 years; there’s no point in rushing these things. This is a wonderful church with a wealth of history. St Andrew is normally closed to visitors and arrangements should be made beforehand if wishing to see inside.