Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Great Chishill, Cambridgeshire

It's a gem of a church, small but dominating, on a rise in the middle of the village. When I visited there was a lot of, presumably, restoration work ongoing but it in no way impinged on the impact this church made.

St Swithun is a fine example of late Decorated and Perpendicular architecture, built of local flint and imported stone. The 14th century chancel arch, resting on demi-figures of angels, is narrower than the present nave and out of line, caused by the later extension of the north arcade.To the left of the chancel is a broad squint. The south porch formally had an upper chamber and contains a holy water stoop with a curious carved shaft. The tower, originally topped by a small spire, contains a peal of five bells, four of which were made by William and Philip Wightman who produced the bells for St Paul's Cathedral. The bells were restored and a new ringing platform installed in 1999.

The dedication of the church to St Swithun suggests an early foundation. In 1136 it was given to the monastery of Walden by Geoffrey de Mandeville and the Abbot and the Convent of Walden became patrons of the church. In 1239 the first vicar was instituted. After the dissolution of the abbey by Henry VIII, the church was granted to Sir Thomas Audley. It then passed on his wife's death to Thomas, Duke of Norfolk, whose son sold it to William Cooke, owner of the nearby Osborne's Farm and whose tablet can be found on the north side of the chancel.

The church was sequestrated during the Civil War and the stained glass and plate removed. A new vicar was appointed in 1661, but a further sequestration occurred in 1684. In the 18th century patronage passed to Nathaniel Wilkes and his successors, then to the Cowell family until 1937.

The church was fortunate to escape the disastrous fire, in 1798, when eighty per cent of the village was destroyed, although the church records were lost. Later papers were badly burned in a vestry fire in 1941. In 1879 the nave and aisles were restored, with pews installed to seat 236 persons. The top portion of the tower collapsed in 1892 and was rebuilt in 1896-7.

ST SWITHIN. On a hill facing the plain down to the W. The church is chiefly of flint, very new looking. All embattled, save the chancel. The W tower was entirely rebuilt in 1895. If this was done correctly, its lower part including the arch to the nave would be early C14. The top is Perp. In the chancel clear evidence of its existence at that time too. For the chancel arch is narrower than the present nave and not in line with it, though in line with the tower. What must have happened is that the Dec S arcade was first built, and then the Perp N arcade pushed further to the N than the previous wall or arcade had been, thus achieving more space at the expense of strict symmetry. The S arcade (four bays) has octagonal piers with double-hollow-chamfered arches starting with broaches. The N arcade is typical Late Medieval with a flat projection to the nave, wavy diagonal mouldings and, to the arch opening, a semi-polygonal shaft, the only member with a capital. The Perp chancel arch rests on demi-figures of angels. To its l. a broad squint. Good, originally two-storeyed S porch, all Perp. Perp S and N windows and clerestory. Chancel windows all C19. - ORGAN CASE. Pretty mid C18 woodwork.


Mee misnames the village Great Chishall in my edition (1943):

GREAT CHISHALL. Its old windmill greets its new church tower across half a mile of trees and houses; very picturesque is the mill with its spinning sails, its timbers stout and strong after 200 years, its cap painted green, its wheels still grinding corn. The new tower looks down on a grey flint church of five centuries with a light interior in which a high arcade and a low one contrast pleasantly with cream plastered walls. The little chancel arch has an archway at one side and traces of painting over it. There are fragments of old glass in the windows, ancient beams in the modern roof, and an old font. A stone column rises above a flower garden in the churchyard with 26 names and these lines:

True love by Life, true love by Death is tried;
Live thou for England; we for England died.

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