EYE : CHURCH OF ST MATTHEW

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Church Post Code PE6 7UU

Closed to visitors - open by arrangement.

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Summer had edged in to autumn; the summer of 2022, with its record breaking heat had gone and this revisit to the church of St Matthew, Eye was on a day of changeable weather. The exterior was shot in brilliant sunshine, but it was dark and threatening over Bill’s mothers, who obviously lived towards Thorney! It was dark enough when shooting the interior a few minutes later that the lights had to be put on. An hour later Peterborough bus station was flooded and the sandbags were out; leaving this an even more depressing place than normal.

Eye is a village of some 4500, which can be found some five miles north east of Peterborough.  It has illustrious neighbours in the Abbey villages of Crowland and Thorney, a few miles off to the north and east respectively. The church of St Matthew sits alongside the main road which runs through the village; with some delightful old buildings off to the west, with one of these boasting a large arch which would have allowed access to horses and carts back in the day.

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At the south west of the church grounds is the old Eye fire station, a simple one cell building which dates back to 1826. It was a little quieter in the vicinity of the church than on my previous visit; the busy motorcycle dealership having moved, replaced by a funeral home.

   There was a church in Eye long before the present structure was built; the foundations of today’s church being set down in May 1846. There was a place of worship consecrated here in 1543. It is thought though that it was only consecrated at that time so that the local inhabitants had the right of burial there. It is thought that the structure itself might date from 200 years earlier. It was known locally as the 'chapel of Eye' a visual of which appears on the village sign.

Local legend states that the previous church had been burned down. However, it is suggested in other places that the real reason is that the church was replaced due to it being too small to accommodate a growing population. The local history booklet notes that no contemporary press reports were seen detailing a fire.

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The church that we see today is cruciform in structure; consisting of west tower, nave, north and south transepts, south vestry and chancel. The three stage tower has angels at the four corners, with a parapet of repeated ‘x’s running along the top. The church clock is in the traditional colours of blue and gold and looks out from the west face.

The church is buttressed throughout; and a look at the exterior from the south west shows how short the chancel is! There are no aisles or clerestories here. There is a paved area in the church grounds to the south of the church itself and I wondered if this was the site of the original church here!

   The present church was designed but not built by George Basevi ; a noted architect who sadly did not live to see the first stone laid. He was killed in an accident at Ely Cathedral in 1845 after he fell through an opening in the bell chamber whilst inspecting ongoing work.

   A spire was added some 10 years later and was visible from far away due to the flat nature of the surrounding landscape, which took the total height of the church to 125 feet.  This spire did not last all that long sadly and a storm in 1895 damaged the spire and the roof. In the 1950's some serious defects were found in the spire and despite being fixed the spire was taken down in the early 1980's after large cracks were found running through it.

There are two bells in the ring here. One of these was courtesy of Peterborough founder Henry Penn in 1712. This bell is inscribed ‘Henry Penn Fusore 1712’. The Latin word Fusore is translated as a founder, a caster and a melter! The second of the ring is from John Warner in 1865.

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The church here is normally closed to visitors, but I had arranged to have the church opened and was very grateful for the help to see inside. Moving inside and the lights were necessary, with a little light rain starting to fall as we made our way inside. Two rows of Victorian pews lead up to a wide chancel arch. Each transept is very large, with the north side taken up with the church organ and the south transept having an altar set up against its eastern wall.

In the chancel itself, the east window; which I will look at in a few moments, is of stained glass. On either side of the window are boards on which are the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer and the Creed. The reredos takes the form of the village War Memorial for those who fought, and who were killed, in the First World War.

The panelling of the reredos continues on to the north and south walls of the chancel, and is built around a pre reformation piscina, in which the holy vessels would have been washing during Mass. This is one of the few surviving features of the previous church. This is where it is supposed to be; on the south wall of the chancel and would probably have the sedilia; the seating for the clergy at the side of it. However, this piscina is not in situ, it was found in the vicarage garden in 1895 and was built back in to the church at that time in its proper place.

Standing at the chancel arch and looking west there is a balcony which runs across the length of the west wall; and my eye was caught with a very appetising display of homemade jams; once again proving that churchcrawling and food are strongly linked!

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The east window of the chancel is a delight; and is one of my favourite to be found within the catchment area of this site. According to British Listed Buildings it was made by Gibbs. The window is dated 1863 so this would make it the work of Alexander Gibbs who worked out of premises in London.

There are seven scenes from the life of Christ; or prior to the life of Christ to be honest with the first scene on the left depicting the annunciation, with the nativity below that. On the right at the top we have John the Baptist baptising Jesus and below that we have Jesus at prayer at Gethsemane prior to crucifixion. Running between these are three panels detailing, from bottom to top, the crucifixion the resurrection and the ascension. A fabulous piece of work; the Gospels in a single window!

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There is a lot of stained glass here, of really good quality, and it was good to spend a little time looking around it.

The other glass here includes a beautiful depiction on the south wall of the nave of Simeon holding the baby Jesus, with beautifully vibrant colours in Simeon’s robe.  A window depicts the calling of Matthew, after who the church id dedicated, shows Jesus choosing Matthew, a tax collector, one of the most hated people in the Jewish society. Alongside him on a table is a bag of money, seal and quill.

There is another depiction of St Matthew close by, alongside St Luke, with each holding a Bible whilst dressed in golden robes.

In the north aisle there is a depiction of Mary and Joseph attempting to find lodging as they arrive for the census. A heavily pregnant Mary sits on a quite nonplussed donkey while Joseph, who faces away from the onlooker, tries to find shelter.

Stained glass in the south transept shows another depiction of the resurrection.  The risen Christ emerges from the tomb, wound visible and hand raised in blessing. The Roman soldiers have their swords in their hands but are asleep; Angels with vibrant multi coloured wings are at prayer off to one side.

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There is little to be seen from the old church; but the font does have great age. This is heavily damaged, with the top half dating from the 14th century. Why this font was effectively cut in half across the middle, I am not sure.

When Revd Sweeting compiled his study of the parish churches in the Peterborough area, which was published in 1868, the church here was a little over 20 years old. He described the church grounds here as being ‘small and very overcrowded’. He noted that several of the gravestones had been laid flat for paving.

Things are very different today.  With the exception of a couple of chest tombs there is nothing standing in the church grounds. A few stones are laid upright against the perimeter wall of the churchyard on the west side; but quite few to be honest and I suspect that the majority of the stones here will have been destroyed over the years. The churchyard here has been closed to burials since 1866.

There is little of interest in what remains to be honest, but a human skull is just still discernible at the foot of one of the gravestones; reminding the onlooker that Man is mortal and will die.

To the east of the church are a couple of impressive chest tombs, each of which predates the current church. One of these is dated to 1773 and features the tools of the trade for a butcher.

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I enjoyed my time here very much. This is a beautiful church with much of interest and plenty of history; some of which has been lost in the mists of time. It just goes to show that a church doesn’t have to have hundreds of years’ worth of history for it to be worthwhile looking around. Worth taking a look at if you are in the area.