Friday, 26 November 2010

Duxford Chapel, Whittlesford, Cambridgeshire

The small chapel of St John the Baptist is sited beside one of the main river crossings of the Icknield Way over the river Cam. This was a major route for travellers in central and southern England, linking the Ridgeway track with internal ports on the Cam and the Ouse rivers and the coastal ports of Norfolk and Suffolk. It was built as a hospital and chapel for the poor and sick, many of whom would have been travellers. The founder was Sir William de Colville (died 1230), who inherited an estate in Duxford by marriage. The chapel is believed to have been a Knight’s Templar preceptory from the time of its foundation and while the exact date of construction is not known, in 1236 the prior was recorded as the first master of the chapel. The remains of the priory buildings, together with their fishpond and a burial ground, lie between the chapel and the river. In 1286 the Hundred Rolls record the chapel with lands of 30 acres (12 hectares), a watermill and the right to hold a fair

By 1308, when the preceptory at Duxford was dissolved and all holdings of the Knight’s Templars in the country were confiscated, the chapel had fallen into disrepair. In 1324 the estate was passed from the Crown to the Knights Hospitalers, and the chapel was rebuilt in 1337 as a free chapel, that is a small isolated chantry chapel, at which time the right to appoint a priest to the chapel lay with the Bishop of Ely.

In 1547 Edward VI’s Act of Dissolution of Colleges and Chantries pensioned off the priests and left chantry chapels redundant, although at the time of dissolution it was said that the chapel at Duxford was already in decay and no services had been held there for seven years. The following year the chapel was sold to Thomas Tyrell of London, along with 38 acres (15.4 hectares) of land, meadow and pasture, for £46 I0s.

For many years the chapel served as a barn to the adjacent Red Lion Inn. The construction of a new brick bridge in 1795 would have seen an increase in the amount of traffic on the turnpike road and a corresponding increase in the importance of the inn, though this was to decline after the construction of the London to Cambridge railway in 1847 that cut across the former chapel grounds to the west.

The chapel fell into further decay until it was eventually purchased by James Binney of Pampisford Hall in the 1890s. In 1934 it was scheduled as an Ancient Monument and in l947 the chapel was taken into the guardianship of the Ministry of Works, who undertook a programme of major repairs over the following eight years. Further repairs were carried out in the l980s. In 1967 the chapel was listed grade II* in recognition of its architectural and historic interest. Today the chapel is in the ownership of the Binney Trust, and is managed jointly by English Heritage and South Cambridgeshire District Council.

The original 13th-century hospital was rebuilt as a free chapel in the first half of the 14th century on the existing foundations. In the walls of the chapel there are areas of undisturbed masonry, particularly below the moulded string-course on the south wall, that possibly date from the 13th century building.

The plan of the chapel is a simple rectangle, with an undivided nave and chancel, measuring approximately 20m by 6.5m. The building is now truncated at the west end, but may have continued for another bay (the distance between the trusses within the roof) and terminated with a parapetted gable similar to the east end, but possibly also containing a small bellcote. There were most probably other buildings attached to the chapel on the south side, such as the domestic quarters of the master or warden. The chapel is divided into irregular bays by three tie beams. The easternmost tie beam was the Rood beam and divided the chancel from the nave. It is carved with a decorative moulding, as are the cornice timbers to the chancel. The tie beams to the nave are more simply decorated with stopped chamfers.

The two matching niches in the south wall of the chancel feature two-centred arches. The niche to the right contained a sedilia, a seat for the priest; and to the left was a piscina for washing communion vessels. The window between the sedilia and piscina has a lowered ledge to provide additional seating for the altar servers or clerk. The niche on the north wall is thought to be an Easter Sepulchre, where the consecrated hosts would be kept from Good Friday to Easter Sunday. On the east wall to the left of the altar is an aumbry or small cupboard, which would have been fitted with a door and used to keep safe the sacred vessels and bible. It has the remains of a projecting shelf of clunch (chalk used as a building stone).

There are three similar doorways, each with moulded two-centred arches; the doorway on the north side is a modern copy replacing the 18th-century barn door. All the windows are damaged, but enough evidence survives to indicate the details of their original form. The east window is set high in the wall to allow for a reredos, or wall hanging, behind the altar.

CHAPEL OF ST JOHN's HOSPITAL, W of Whittlesford Station. Plain, very fine C13 chapel, of chancel and nave only, without structural division. No exact dating is possible. The hospital is first mentioned in 1286 but then called established ‘ab antiquo ternpore ’. The W wall brick, the tall E window bricked up. Very plain doorways. The side windows are on the outside straight-headed with a curious cusping like the upper half of ‘Kentish tracery’. Internally they are nook-shafted and have very depressed two-centred arches. One of the windows on the S side is flanked by the plainly cusped Piscina and Sedilia.




WHITTLESFORD. There was a welcome for travellers here seven centuries ago in the Hospital of St John, and there is a welcome today by its ruins, at a timbered inn with quaint carvings on its rafters. It is thought that the inn may have been part of the hospital in its later days, and we may still see close by the lancet windows of the 14th century chapel, with the ancient piscina and the recess in which the priest would sit.

Flickr set.

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