ETTON : CHURCH OF ST STEPHEN

Church Post Code PE6 7DA

Normally closed to visitors but open on Wednesdays.

2022 was proving to be a year for tidying up a few loose ends close to home; reshooting churches locally where I wanted to re shoot and attempting to gain access to those which I had never been inside. The church of St Stephen at Etton was of the latter.

I had made a few visits here over the years but had never been inside to photograph or take in a service. That ended on a gloriously sunny and blustery Saturday afternoon in April 2022. This left Wittering, Collyweston and Little Casterton as the only churches within the catchment area of this site that I had yet to see inside.

  Etton is a small village three miles to the north of Peterborough, the tower and spire being visible from the nearby A15. Despite the close proximity of this busy road, Etton itself is quiet and peaceful. Author Daniel De Foe. Who penned Robinson Crusoe in 1719, had ancestors who lived in the village, in a farm next to the church, with his uncle being buried in the church grounds here.

It had been a pleasant cycle ride in, despite the blustery headwind. Coming in from Helpston and aiming for Glinton, the spire of St Stephen came in to view across the fields to the north, with the 140 foot needle spire of neighbouring Glinton dominating the flat landscape to the east.

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The present structure dates back to the 13th century, but there is a record in the Peterborough Chronicle of a church being here in the 12th century. The existence of the sheela Na Gig, which I will talk about in a few minutes, certainly suggests that there was a previous structure here!

The church that we see today consists of west tower with spire, nave with north and south aisles and clerestories, south porch and chancel.

The tower is square with a stair turret to the south west corner. An octagonal broach spire rises up, with two tiers of lucarne windows. A frieze at the top of the tower depicts grotesque human heads and the sheela Na Gig.

The clerestory dates from the 15th century and consists of three windows, quatrefoil in design. A single gargoyle looks out from the south wall, which appears to have been a mouth puller; its face now hollowed out with a more modern spout inserted.

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The chancel is large and impressive, with a fine five light window.  There are the outlines of a bricked up arch, a doorway and a piscina on the north wall of the chancel, indicating that there was once a chapel here. There is also a blocked up north door on the north wall, further to the west.

So, we have a substantially 13th century church, but there was much restoration here in Victorian times. The church here was restored in 1852, with new seating being added, with the chancel being restored in 1893.

    Three bells hang in the ring here, with all three cast by two different generations of the Norris family, who worked out of a foundry in Stamford. The first of the ring was cast by Thomas Norris in 1630; the other two were cast by Tobias Norris I. who founded the Stamford bellfoundry in 1603.

Each of these was cast in 1618; with the second of the ring being inscribed ‘Omnia Fiant Ad Gloriam Dei’ which translates as ‘Let all things be done for the glory of God’. The third is inscribed ‘Non Clamor Sed Amor Cantat In Avre Dei’ ‘Not noise but love sounds in the ear of God’.

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    The church itself is probably most famous for a figure that appears on the frieze. This is a Sheela Na Gig, which are rare, with no more to be found on any church within the catchment area of this site. From memory, the next nearest that I have seen is at Empingham in Rutland.

These are ancient erotic carved figures of women, sexually explicit with in most cases the woman holding open her vulva. These are seen as pagan fertility symbols and would be the female equivalent of the Green Man.

    This particular figure is laid down on her side at the far left of a row of figures and it seems out of place with the rest of the figures on the frieze. It also has a flat head, and it is possible that originally this figure might have been stood upright with something resting on its head. There is a theory that many of the Sheela Na Gigs that are found on existing churches today might have been taken from earlier structures so it is entirely possible that this figure might not be in situ and may have come from an earlier church on this site.

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Moving inside, through the south door, there is a stone lozenge carved in to the door jamb; which has a cross carved in to it. Records state that this included a relic brought back from one of the Crusades, possibly a bone thought to be from a Saint. This was designed to be touched or kissed upon entering the church and it is interesting to see how worn away it is. This is a fascinating piece of history and I can’t recall seeing anything like this before on my travels. In fairness though, if it wasn’t for the lady who showed me around, I would have missed this completely!

As mentioned earlier, this was the first time that I had been inside the church here, and I hadn’t realised just how large and impressive this structure is internally. It is always worth pointing out that churches in medieval times were not built to house the village population. If the population was 150 the church was not built to seat that many; often they were built on a far grander scale so as to lessen the time that the donor  was to spend in purgatory, the religion of the country being catholic in those pre reformation days.

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There are large three bay arcades to north and south. The south aisle has a large commandments board at the east end, which covers up what is thought to be a tress of Jesse wall paintings, a small part of which extends out tantalising from behind the board.

The north aisle ends in an interesting collection of medieval coffin lids, including one which is substantially intact and of huge size.  Standing at the chancel and looking west, the previous outline of the roof, pre clerestory, is evident above the tower arch.

All of the stained glass here is clear, but is edged with bands of colour. A few human heads can be seen throughout; including one female head, who appears to be wearing a headdress and who appears to be asleep!

The chancel is lovely; long and impressive and a mixture of ancient and modern. The triple sedilia on the north wall was seating for the priest and deacons during service. This dates from the 13th century, as does the double piscina nearby, which was used to wash the holy vessels and the priest’s hands during communion. Much more recent is the Victorian reredos, with carvings of St Stephen, the first Christian martyr, after who this church is dedicated and St Margaret, after whom the chantry chapel was dedicated. St Stephen carries stones, symbolising the manner of his martyrdom

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The bricked up door on the interior north wall of the chancel would have led in to the chantry chapel, which was  founded by Thomas Rempston, with full time priests praying for the soul of his wife Margaret, so that she would spend less time in purgatory and be safely taken in to Heaven.  This was demolished around 1538.

The font here dates back to the 13th century and is plain and octagonal, and unusual in design. I had a quick, unsuccessful check for graffiti around the interior, and then headed outside.

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It is always interesting to stand here and think back to how things would have been in pre reformation days. In all probability the windows would have held medieval stained glass; this being destroyed as idolatrous by the reformers.  The Tree of Jesse wall painting at the east end of the south aisle would probably have been matched with a doom painting over the chancel arch, the latter pointing out to those looking on what would happen to them if they did not live a goodly life! These are likely to have been whitewashed over at the same time.

 There would have been the sounds of prayers being said or chanted from the chantry chapel, to help lessen the time that the donor’s immediate family had to spend in purgatory. There would have been the smells of incense and some not so pleasant smells, not that I find the smell of incense pleasant, far from it!

 The medieval church dominated people’s lives; it was a time of superstition with people entering the church touching the lozenge in the door jamb for good luck. Perhaps there would have been a wall painting of St Christopher opposite the south door to wish pilgrims good luck. Fascinating times.

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The church grounds are of interest. The eastern section of the church boundary wall has a Grade II listing in its own right; having medieval coffin lids as coping stones. There is a medieval child’s coffin to the immediate west of the south porch and a hexagonal base to the east of the porch is Saxon.

There is nothing of any great rarity amongst the finely carved gravestone, but one standing close to the south wall of the nave, not in situ as it is facing south, has a date, still legible, of 1691. An angel in flight at the top symbolises the safe passage of the soul to Heaven.

I enjoyed my time here very much. Thanks to those at the church who helped to make this possible. I also appreciated very much the time spent by one of the church wardens in showing me around; noting a few things that I would have missed.