CHESTERTON : CHURCH OF ST MICHAEL

Church Post Code PE7 3UB

Closed to visitors

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Confusingly, there are two Chestertons in Cambridgeshire, the other being part of Cambridge itself. The Chesterton that we are concerned with here is a small farming village some five miles west of Peterborough.

The church of St Michael, can be found set back a little from the main road, accessible via a gravel path. Those walking down this path from the main road will be rewarded with a lovely sight; the church gradually coming in to sight through the trees.

The church of St Michael consists of west tower, with spire, nave with north and south aisles and clerestories, south porch and chancel. The nave here dates back to the 12th century. The south aisle and lower stages of the tower date to the early 13th century. The chancel arch and north aisle are from 1300, with the spire and clerestory dating from the mid 14th century.

The west tower is of two stages and is topped by an octagonal broach spire. A corbel table of carved heads runs across the top of the tower. The cockerel on top is a fairly modern creation, replacing an older one which had several bullet holes in it which, urban (or rather rural) legend states was courtesy of some American troops who were camped outside the church grounds for a time during World War II.

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There is a stair turret to the south west corner of the tower and a very ancient bricked in doorway, with semi-circular arch, set in to the south face of the tower. The nave is battlemented and windows on both nave and chancel are decorated in the same manner as the ancient bricked in doorway on the tower.

Those making their way to the church from the gate to the south will note the base of a churchyard cross with a small section of octagonal stem still attached. This has a Grade II listing in its own right and the base dates back to the 13th century. Interestingly, there was a talk in the church a few years ago by an archaeologist who suggested that the base might have originally come from a Roman villa.

A glance over to the left, close up against the wall of a cattle shed is a stone Roman coffin. This was unearthed during an archaeological dig back in 1849 and brought back to church grounds. The area here is rich in history and there are Roman stone coffins also to be found at nearby Water Newton and Castor.

Much of the archaeological work in the area was undertaken by Edmund Tyrrel Artis, who is buried at Castor, close to the south porch, with a Roman coffin standing close by.

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This is my home village church. I was christened here many years ago and was distressed, on looking at the christening roll recently, to see that the names and dates of my era had faded through age and had to be re-written.  Fond memories of reading a lesson at a Christmas service when I was around 10 years old; less than fond memories of both parents funeral services and this was the place that I spent many hours in covid lockdown, sat on a bench with a book and a cold drink, listening to the birds as the horrors of 2020 panned out.

The exterior photographs here are from an extremely snowy January day in January 2021. The interior shots are from December that same year as I helped out in preparation for a Nine Lesson and Carol’s service. The church here, as with most others immediately to the west of Peterborough, is normally kept closed to visitors.

Moving inside, past a carving of a human head at the south door and a little graffiti on the frames, we see a very pleasant interior. There are four bays to north and south leading up to an 18th century chancel screen.  There is no stained glass at all here and it is bright and welcoming inside.  Standing at the chancel and looking west we can see a tall, elegant tower arch.

There are three bells hanging here. One is from Tobias Norris I; which is inscribed ‘OMNIA FIANT AD GLORIAN DEI’ which translates as  “Let all things be done for the glory of God” The second was cast by John Walgrave, who operated out of London in the first half of the 15th century. Having said that, many founders were itinerant and set up shop so to speak where they were required, so it might be that the bell was cast on site.

The other bell here was attributed to John Michell in Owen’s Victorian study of the church bells of Huntingdonshire. I can’t find any mention made of him though on the bellfounder database.

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A monument to Robert Beville and his son Robert stands at the east end of the north aisle. Both Roberts are depicted with their wives, each couple facing each other, kneeling with hands raised in prayer. The hands are a little oversized, and sometimes large hands were used as a symbol of piety.

Underneath the couple are the children. There are three male and eight female children on the right hand side as we look at it, with seven female and two males on the left. As with their parents above, the children kneel on cushions with hands raised in prayer.

 The three female children at the far left of the monument are of interest. One head appears behind her sister; could this have been twins? I have seen it suggested that the ‘ghostly’ image of this head could refer to a child who had died. The figure far left looks outwards towards the onlooker. Is there any deep symbolism in this, or did the stonemason start to run out of space and have to reposition this figure in order to fit her in? A fabulous monument!

At the top of this monument is a carving of a human skull, with hourglass close by. These are both symbols of death; the mortality of Man and the passing of time. Close by are upturned torches, which symbolises eternal life.  Yes, the sands of time have run out for the deceased, they have passed away, but they have lived a good Christian life and will move on to eternal life in Heaven.

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A memorial to William Beville is set against the north wall of the nave. This dates to 1487, and the grave slab has Latin script carved around it. There is an arch over the top of the memorial  with a crudely carved head at the apex which has looked out across the nave for well over 500 years.

 Beville’s will stated that he wished to be buried close to the altar of the Lady Chapel at St Michael.  The Lady Chapel here would have stood where the monument to Robert Beville is today. Fascinating to think what these churches would have looked like in centuries past.

Lady Chapels were chapels built in the honour of the Virgin Mary. Many were taken down during the reformation of the 16th century which forbid any form of religious decoration; these decorations being seen as idolatrous.

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A grand marble monument to John Dryden, the first cousin of the poet of the same name stands at the east end of the south aisle.  This monument stands behind railings, with much of the script being in Latin.

Again, the symbolism on the monument is worth noting. As with the monument to Robert Beville, there is the human skull and flaming torches. This time the flaming torches are pointing downwards, but are still lit. Torches which are lit, whether facing upright or pointing downwards were often used symbols for eternal life. When the torch is pointing downwards but with the flames extinguished, it is a symbol of mourning.

Also present here is the hourglass, human bones and scythe, all symbols of mortality but here we also have a book at the foot of the monument, which is liable to be the book of life, in which the deeds of the deceased were recorded.

The font is from the 18th century, small and to be fair, uninspiring, which is possibly one of the kindest things said about it in my research for this page. I was christened over this font in 1965, so I have to be kind.

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A delightful and historic church set in picturesque surroundings. This is where I spent much of the first covid lockdown of 2020; alternating between the bench outside the south porch and the shade of the trees when that got too warm. A little peace and calm in troubled times!