Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Duxford, Cambridgeshire part 1

I have now found out exactly why I have a problem with so many Cambridgeshire churches and it is due to the fact that so many were first vandalised by Dowsing and his cronies during the Commonwealth and then subsequently re-vandalised by over zealous Victorian restorers. More often than not the Victorians were worse than Dowsing. In addition to this I generally don't particularly like the architectural style, - that's obviously a generalisation since some of the churches I've visited have blown me away - finding it dour and stolid.

My eyes were opened at St John which is simply extraordinary.

The village of Duxford, with its two ancient churches less than a quarter of a mile (0.4 km) apart, has grown up around what is now the B1379, near where the River Cam forms the eastern border of its parish, which extends some 3% miles (5.6 km) to the south—west.

A third mediaeval church building, the Free Chapel of St John the Baptist, stands about a mile (1.6 km) to the north-east, near Whittlesford railway station, but in Duxford parish. Both St Peter’s and St John’s churches possess Norman craftsmanship dating from the 11th century or earlier. St Peter’s became the parish church in 1874, when the two livings were amalgamated.

Since that date St John’s has not been in regular parochial use and, as the ‘poor relation’, has escaped restoration and possible transformation by the Victorians.

It has survived as a rare and refreshing example of a rustic and unspoilt country church.

Although St John’s has not been in use since the 1870s, it has not been neglected. Considerable repairs were carried out in 1949 with a grant from the Pilgrim Trust. Later the Friends of Friendless Churches facilitated further work and, since the church was vested in The Churches Conservation Trust in 1979, a continuing programme of repairs has been taking place. The wall paintings are being carefully conserved over a long—term period.

The atmosphere of this largely unspoiled church interior is unforgettable, with  striking vistas from many angles and a variety of craftsmanship from carving of great sophistication in the north chapel to humble and rustic work in the benches of the nave. The floors, mostly of brick and pamments, punctuated by old and worn burial slabs, further enhance the church's charm.

St John’s contains a very important collection of wall paintings which date from the l2th century onwards. Gradually these fascinating images are being uncovered and conserved; many still await discovery and protection.

In the Middle Ages the walls of most churches were decorated with paintings such as these. They depict Christian iconography: biblical scenes, and episodes from the lives and deaths of the saints, together with various religious symbols and motifs. These images were a means for their creators to exhibit their talents in an expression of their faith. They also functioned on a more pragmatic level as visual aids which taught the Faith to ordinary, mostly illiterate,worshippers.

At the apex of the eastern tower arch is a central roundel containing the Lamb of God, flanked by hovering angels. Interesting lozenge patterns decorate its borders, together with the soffit of the western tower arch. This imagery
probably dates to the early 12th century.

Yet to be fully uncovered, the south wall of the chancel contains two tiers of subjects; probably a series of scenes from the life of Christ. For example, there is part of a scene depicting the angel announcing the birth of Jesus to the Shepherds.

On this wall and in the spandrel areas of the arches leading to the north chapel, l4th-century painters also added curtains hanging from rails.

There appear to be four tiers of 13th-century paintings on the west wall of the chancel. In the first tier at the top are two devils with a wheel. Beneath are scenes of the Crucifixion: a
soldier piercing Jesus’ side; Joseph of Arimathea asking Pilate for the Body of Christ; the removal of Christ’s body from the Cross; and the Tomb with sleeping soldiers. On the north side of the third tier down, there is a female saint, possibly St Catherine, who is strung up by her hair whilst her breasts are brutally pierced by swords.

Finally, in the lowest tier is a row of heads being subjugated by figures wielding forks or sticks. This may be another scene from St Catherine`s story illustrating her dispute with 50 philosophers.

In the north aisle a series of 15th—century paintings once decorated the north wall. Three of these are now visible. The westernmost image shows two bishop saints; one holding a staff, the other carrying what looks like a rod attached to a circle. Their symbols are as yet unidentified: the staff may belong to a pilgrim saint; the other accoutrement could be St Leonard’s manacles or St Eligius’ blacksmith’s equipment.

Further east is a male figure wearing a strange garment around his waist and holding a staff with a cross at its apex. He is blessing a crowned female figure. It is possible that the male figure is Jesus and that this painting thus depicts the
Coronation of the Virgin.

The easternmost painting shows a wheel, a griddle and other mediaeval implements. This could be part of a painting of ‘Christ of the Trades' and thus suggests that there was an altar dedicated to a Trades Guild nearby. It could also be a ‘Warning to Sabbath Breakers’, which told people that the use of tools on the Lord`s Day inflicted wounds on Christ's body.

Throughout the church many other interesting fragments of paintings are visible. These include l3th—century patterns and the remains of the frame of a 17th—century text on the east wall
of the nave.

ST JOHN, Duxford Green. Deserted but not yet ruinous. Norman arch between nave and crossing tower. Triple shafts, .plain abaci and billet decoration. Norman also the arch from the crossing tower into the chancel. The upper parts of the tower c. 1300, see the bell-openings. Norman finally the S doorway. Tympanum on two corbels. It is decorated by a rosette in the middle of a painted cross of that many-stepped type with arms of equal length which occurs in Early Anglo-Saxon rather than Norman art. The chancel has a lancet window on the S side, a C17 looking big E window of four lights, a niche with a nodding ogee arch S of it, and a N chapel with Dec windows. The chapel is separated from the chancel by a C14 pier without any capital. N and S aisle arcade and windows Perp, crossing S window (set into the transept arch) Perp, S porch Perp, W windows Perp.

DUXFORD. Its crowning beauty is dying of old age; it is the great church of St John’s, enthroned above the village street like a ship at high tide but weary with the centuries, its days of worship over. Its tower rises proudly enough with its battlements silhouetted against the sky. There is an attractive 15th century window and a priest’s doorway with a rough little door and the big lock that has turned for the priests of so many generations; but the crumbling walls have been condemned. It is pathetic to see the old tower, which begins with Norman work and ends with 14th century work, crowned with a crippled spire, bent not with age but by the putting up of a flagstaff for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee.

This small neighbour of Cambridge will miss St John’s, but happily it has St Peter’s safe and sound after 500 years, also with a Norman tower mounted by a small lead spire, and with a row of grotesque animal heads outside and a wide low arch inside. High up at the clerestory are eight old stone corbels looking down on the nave, lions with open mouths among them. There are two deeply splayed tower windows, an ancient piscina, l5th century arcades, a crude 13th century font of immense strength, a Jacobean pulpit, an ancient door on the south, and at the east window of the north aisle two niches borne up by winged angels at prayer.

From that excellent observation post, the railway, the traveller to Cambridge has long looked out for these two old towers, and the day will come when St John’s will disappear; but St Peter’s will remain to let the traveller know that he nears the towers and turrets and domes of the university city without a rival in the country (or perhaps in the world).

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