CASTOR. CHURCH : ST KYNEBURGHA
Church Post Code PE5 7AX
Normally open to visitors
The church pf St Kyneburgha, Castor is one of my favourite churches visited; and it was also my first church visited. Those who know me, or who have visited my original website, may know that I started churchcrawling as an aid to fight against depression.
The church was open to visitors, and I sat there on my own, enjoying the quiet, looking around at the building and really noticing the inside of a church for the first time! The real inspiration for this site, and a love of church photography in general, was set that day!
This church has grown to mean a lot to me and I have visited regularly over the years. Fond memories of a Christmas Eve morning communion on a gloriously sunny day, watching the clouds of incense billowing in the sunlight streaming in through the clerestory windows. Also memories of sitting on the bench against the south nave on a bitterly cold December afternoon, watching the fog roll in; my only company being a solitary wood pigeon with feathers puffed out against the cold.
The church here stands on high ground in the centre of the village, and is a prominent landmark, which can be seen from miles around. It is visible from the top of the hill in Chesterton, some three miles away and from the main road heading towards Elton, which might be a little further still.
The church is built in the courtyard of what was the second largest Roman Palace that has ever been excavated in this country. The whole area is covered in Roman history, and was excavated in the 1840's by Edmund Artis, whose grave still stands today near to the south porch, with charmingly a stone Roman coffin resting nearby. Which he may have excavated himself.
Castor Junior school, which is situated immediately to the South of the church, had Roman Baths in their grounds. It has been suggested that there was a Roman Temple within the palace, making this site a place of worship since the 4th Century!
The Roman palace was abandoned in around AD 450, and 200 years later St Kyneburgha, who was a daughter of Penda the King of Mercia, founded a convent in the ruins. This was excavated in 1957 and evidence was found to suggest that the convent had been sacked by the Vikings at some point in the ninth century
This church is quite rightly famous for its beautiful Norman tower, which is built in three stages. The first stage is plain masonry; the second consists of three sub divided round arches on each of the four sides. The third stage consists of five sub divided round arches. Each stage is separated by a corbel table featuring some unusual carvings. The tower is magnificent and nearly 1000 years old. The tower was dedicated by the Normans and there is an inscription above the priest’s door in the South wall of the chancel, with Latin abbreviation, which reads "The dedication of this church was on the 17th April AD 1124". There is an image niche immediately below this dedication which was empty when I first visited but which in recent years has obtained a new statue of St Kyneburgha
Also worth noting is a Saxon Carving of Christ in Majesty, which can be seen above the South porch. This must have been moved here and re-set in to the porch at some point. In this carving, Christ holds His hands up in blessing, whilst surrounded by the Sun and the Moon, as the High King of Heaven.
The church that we see today is cruciform in structure, with central tower, nave with north and south aisles, north and south transepts and chancel, which runs seamlessly from the transepts when looking from the exterior. There are usually sheep to be found at work in the church grounds, keeping the grass down.
In pre covid days, the church here was usually open to visitors. When restriction were lifted the church was open to visitors albeit in limited hours with a steward on duty. I am not sure of the situation after that but I would be confident that the people here would only keep their church closed if they had no other choice.
Moving inside, entering through the south porch, there is a real sense of peace and calm in here; fond memories of that first visit back in 2006 where I sat in the nave and enjoyed the peace when so much was going wrong around me. Just a single bird chirping, apart from that it was good to be at peace!
In the North aisle there is a shrine built to St Kyneburgha. This has her effigy; she stands, tall and proud, with long braided hair. Close by is an eighth century carving of St Mark. This is set in to a wall in the shrine. I believe that this carving was work buried when work was being done at the church in the past.
The wall painting in the north aisle depicts three scenes from the Martyrdom of St Catherine. She was reputed to have been a niece of emperor Maximus who, after discovering that she was a Christian, ordered her philosophers to convert her. She ended up converting them to Christianity instead. The philosophers were put to death by Maximus and Catherine was ordered to be broken on the wheel. This is the origin of the Catherine Wheel! The painting was discovered in 1842 and restored in 1986. A helpful plaque is put up close to the painting, helping the visitor to identify what they are seeing.
Apart from pieces of Roman stonework used in the exterior walls, the oldest thing in the church is the base of the Saxon Cross. This has been safely inside the church since the 1930's. It is thought that this was originally a Roman alter which has had its top cut out so that the Saxon Cross could be fitted in. The carvings on the base are Saxon.
There are some superb carvings on the pillars which support the crossing tower. Probably the finest that I have seen on my travels, with the possible exceptions of those at Oakham and Wakerley. The carvings consist of the following scenes... A boar hunt (with one hound sliced in half by a boar!), a man harvesting with a sickle, two men with shields fighting over a woman, Green Men, two Dragons fighting and a man with a basket picking grapes. By the way, it has been suggested that the woman that the two men are fighting over is St Kyneburgha.
In 1450 a new roof was added to the church. The beams of the new roof were carved with a number of angels and other figures. There are 12 winged angels in the nave, grouped in pairs. These have been repainted at some point. They have golden outstretched wings, and several of them are wearing what appears to be golden chain mail. Several are playing musical instruments, one holds a shield and one other is holding the keys to the Kingdom of heaven.
In the north aisle we see similar, but the figures are a little smaller and wingless. Several are playing musical instruments and one holds a cross with one hand, its other hand raised in blessing.
The church grounds are large and interesting. Those with an interest in history might recall that Time Team did a dig here a few years back. There is some fine quality gravestones to be seen here without there being anything of great importance. A couple of finely carved Georgian gravestones, which appeared to be being guarded by some of the sheep, to the north east of the church grounds have a carving of a human skull on them, designed to remind the onlooker that Man is mortal and will die.
Leaving the church grounds to the east and heading across the road, there is a section of Roman wall, which is incorporated in to a more modern wall. A glorious church! An absolute must visit if you are anywhere near!