BARNACK : CHURCH OF ST JOHN THE BAPTIST
Church Post Code PE9 3DN
normally open to visitors
Put simply, the church of St John The Baptist at Barnack is one of the most important churches to be found within the catchment area of this site. It is a beautiful example of a Saxon church which very easily made its way in to Simon Jenkins' 1000 Best English Churches. I suspect that this number could have been reduced considerably and it would still have been included!
I first visited Barnack back in 2006, armed with a very basic digital camera. I made the return trip on a beautiful Sunday early evening in late Summer 2013. As we wandered around the large church grounds the sun was starting to set and it really was a glorious sight. The light quality was lovely and there was a real sense of Autumn in the air. Even though it was early evening, the church was still open to visitors
It is thought that there may well have been a church here since the seventh century, but the oldest surviving part of the present structure is the lower two sections of the west tower, which date from around 1000. The belfry and the spire date from around 200 years later. On the south side of the tower, just underneath the clock, there is a vertical band of Saxon carvings, with a depiction of a bird sitting on top.
Just about the whole of the church was built using local Barnack stone, or "Barnack Rag" as it was called, which was dug up from a quarry on the edge of the village. This had been used since Roman times. Barnack Rag was used in many churches throughout the area, as well as private dwellings, but most of the better quality stone had been taken out by 1460. Today the quarry is still there, and is a protected area, known as the Hills and Hollows.
Today, six bells hang in the belfry, but there was only five here at the time of North's mid Victorian study of Northamptonshire church bells. A quick listing shows that the oldest of these was cast in or around 1540 by Richard Seliok, from his foundry at Nottingham.
Two were cast locally in Stamford by Tobias Norris I. The first of his two is dated 1608 and has the name Robarte Wilkinson, the Rector of the day, inscribed on it. The second Norris bell is dated the following year. The only other bell of any real age here is dated 1715 and was cast by the well known Peterborough founder Henry Penn. This has inscribed on it the name John Sissons, churchwarden. Penn is an interesting character and a few years before casting the bell at Barnack, he provided ten bells for Peterborough cathedral. In 1987, one of Penn's bells was exported to the United States and became Pittsburgh's city bell. Today, there is a Henry Penn walk, near to the river Nene,
The other two bells are of no real age of historical interest. Both are from Taylor of Loughborough, one being dated 1897, the other being cast in 1998.
Moving inside, which considering that it was after 6pm on a Sunday was an added bonus; the nave is large and spacious, and there are north and south aisles. The north aisle dates from 1190 with the south aisle being added ten years later. There are intricate carvings on some of the capitals in the north arcades. Human figures peer out from between masses of foliage. The chancel dates from 1300. The font dates from the early 13th century.
One of the most important features of the interior of the church here is a carved figure of Christ in the act of Benediction. This was found buried under the floor of the north aisle in 1931. Experts are divided as to the age of this carving. Some suggest that it dates from the 11th century, whilst others favour the 13th century. Christ sits, wearing a long robe with one hand raised in blessing. Originally this would have been coloured, and some trace of pigment can still be seen in places.
The visitor, walking from the nave in to the chancel will see a carving of the crucifixion; Christ crucified with Mary and John to either side. The reredos here is the most beautiful mosaic depicting angels; with some playing musical instruments with others being at prayer. Exquisite!
There is lots of stained glass here with nothing of any great age. Most will date from Victorian times and is of very high quality. The fine east window in the chancel depicts Christ in glory at the top, Christ is crowned King of Heaven and holds a globe. The crucifixion is depicted below; here Mary Magdalene joins The Virgin Mary and John at the cross and, as usual, Mary Magdalene is the most visibly upset of the three.
A carving at the east end of the south aisle is of great interest. This depicts the annunciation. The Virgin Mary, wearing a full length robe with shawl, kneels at her prayer desk, prayer book open in front of her. Three figures in the clouds are crowned and are all with nimbus. I am assuming that this is the Holy Trinity. The Holy Spirit in the form of three rays, connect the trio to Mary. This is an interesting depiction of the annunciation as Mary would normally be pictured being visited by the angel Gabriel.
Fairly high up on the north wall of the chancel is a monument to one Francis Whitstone, who died in 1598. The deceased is pictured kneeling at a desk on which there is a Bible. Behind him are his seven sons. It is interesting to see that his hands are oversized, this symbolising his piety. Opposite Whitstone is his wife, who is also kneeling at a desk with her Bible in front of her. She has three daughters behind her. Sadly, the daughters have not aged well over the years. One of the daughters is missing her head, with another missing the whole top half of her body. Interestingly, four of the seven male children are carved as one would expect, but three are painted on instead! A tiny carving of a skeleton at the top of the monument holds the gravediggers tools of pick and shovel whilst carrying an hourglass, all of these being symbols of the mortality of man
A return trip in June 2016 on Cambridgeshire Historic Churches tour day saw an interesting talk about this church. It was pointed out that there is a stone seat at the west end of the nave, along with what could have been an aumbry, for storing sacred vessels. This could point to the fact that there may have been an altar at the west end of the church at some point back in time. It was a Roman custom for the altar to be at the west end, and this practice was carried on in places in Saxon times.
The church grounds here are of great interest. On entering from the south, the visitor is immediately greeted by some medieval stone coffins, with head cut outs. Fragments of several coffins can be seen to the north of the church as well. There are some very well crafted gravestones here and one table tomb, with the initials WT is dated 1629. It is fascinating to think that this stood here during the English Civil War, through the plague years and through the years of destruction from the commonwealth iconoclasts.
I said on another page that, although the churches are important to me, part of the joy in doing this is meeting the people and the animals that all help to add to the pleasant memories. So it was here. David and myself were doing some long distance shots of the church from the north west when we were photo bombed by a young brown horse; who proved to be very friendly and great company!
This is a very beautiful and important church. It was great to see it again. In pre covid days it was always open and welcoming. I did pop my head in when covid restrictions were lifted and it was open to visitors then.