HELPSTON : CHURCH OF ST BOTOLPH

Church Post Code PE6 7DT

Normally open to visitors

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It was the beginning of spring, 2015, and I had been away on a five day cycling tour of Lincolnshire churches. Being a self employed gardener, I have to take most of my holidays in off peak timeslots. It wasn’t ideal conditions for much of the time, a little snow coming down at one point as I took a call from a customer in the church grounds at Bitchfield; fingerless mittens helping to keep out the cold.

There was bright sunshine on the way home and I headed off home, taking in the churches along Kings Street, the Old Roman road, before heading back home via Castor. The penultimate church visited out of around 40 visited on this trip was the church of St Botolph at Helpston.

There are a few church towers to be found within the catchment area of this site that are very distinctive, and which can be identified easily from a distance by someone with a passing knowledge of the churches in this area. Barnack, a few miles away to the west is one of these; as is Fotheringhay across the border in to Northamptonshire. I would suggest that the tower here could be included on this (imaginary) list!

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Helpston is a very pleasant village with a population of around a thousand. It can be found to the north west of Peterborough, not too far from the Lincolnshire border. The church of St Botolph is on slightly high ground just back from the main road which runs through the village.

The ‘Peasant Poet’ John Clare was born in the village in 1793, and is buried in the church grounds. His cottage, which is off to the south of the church was purchased by the John Clare Trust in 2005 and is now run as a museum. In between the cottage and the church is the 14th century village cross.

The very lovely village sign, which was produced at the turn of the millennium, depicts John Clare in the foreground, sitting on the grass writing, with the church off to the right as we look at it. A train is pictured in between the two; a reminder of Helpston railway station which closed in 1966.

The church here dates back to at least Norman times and perhaps as far back as Saxon times. It consists of west tower, nave with north and south aisles and clerestories, south porch and chancel. The west tower was rebuilt in 1865 and it is said that some Saxon long and short brickwork was found whilst the building work was ongoing.

The tower is of four stages with the lower two stages being square and perpendicular. The upper two stages are octagonal, this giving the church its distinctive appearance. Gargoyles surround the tower; some are human carvings, others beastlike with mouths pulled open in medieval gesture of insult. A small spire sits on top.

The nave and clerestory are each battlemented, and the chancel is large with a steeply slanted tile roof. The church here was open to visitors, as it had been on a couple of earlier visits a few years previously.

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Moving inside, the south door has ‘EG Fecit 1708’ carved on to it, with Fecit the Latin for he/she made. The nave here is quite short, with there being just two bays to the north and south, with the south dating from the early 13th century, the north a little later. The chancel arch bears an inscription, which reads ‘The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof’. This is a part of Psalm 24 verse 1. Standing at the 13th century chancel and looking to the west, we can see an elegant pointed tower arch which is early 12th century.

The pews appear to be Victorian, along with some of the wooden furnishings in the chancel. A quirky upside down head, with long beak nose, looks out from the north wall of the nave. This is a pleasing interior; with sunlight streaming in through the south clerestory windows.

There are two stained glass windows here to mention. The first is the east window of the chancel, where prolific stained glass artist Francis Skeat, depicts Christ in Majesty. Skeat was a well known artist, whose work can be seen in Westminster Abbey. Here, Christ carried a globe, whilst His other hand is raised in blessing.

His crucifixion wounds are visible on the hand raised and also on both feet. Christ in crowned and flames radiate out from around Him.

The other is at the west end of the nave and shows Jesus surrounded by children.  Jesus here looks very much un Jewish, shown with golden hair and beard. The artists of the day tended to portray Jesus to fit in with those looking on.

Jesus, holding a toddler in His arms, tenderly bends down towards another small child who is touching His robe. A small crowd stand to left and right, and there are some delightful characterisations among the crowd.

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Three bells hang here, with at least two of these being cast locally, by the Norris family who worked out of Stamford. The first of the ring is dated 1671 and was Cast by Tobias Norris III. This bell is inscribed ‘God Save The King’.

The third of the ring was cast in 1618, by Tobias Norris I and is inscribed ‘OMNIA : FIANT : AD : GLORIAM : DEI 1618 : R : S; which translates as ‘Let all things be done for the glory of God’.

The second of the ring was recast by John Warner of Cripplegate, London in 1866. This bell was also inscribed ‘God Save The King’ and therefore it is reasonable to assume that this might have been another from Tobias III.

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The church grounds are of interest, with some finely carved eighteenth century gravestones but there is nothing of any great importance or rarity to comment on. To the south of the church, in an adjoining garden there is a beautiful magnolia and some lovely shots can be had of this, with the church in the background, if you can arrive in that small window between the blooms coming out and the late frost which scorches them off!

 The oldest gravestone that I found a date on was back in 1695. A carving of a human skull looks out from the top of this gravestone. Reminding the onlooker that Man is mortal and will die.

One finely carved stone depicts an angel in flight blowing a trumpet. The trumpet was an often used symbol of the resurrection. The trumpet was used on another stone, this time in conjunction with a crown. The crown symbolises victory, with the victory here being over death. The deceased has lived a good Christian life, death has been beaten and he or she will be raised up on the final day. It is

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