HOLME : CHURCH OF ST GILES
Church Post Code PE7 3PB
Opened by arrangement
It was a beautifully sunny Saturday, mid March 2022, and I was on cycle, re-shooting some Cambridgeshire churches, ending the day at the Giddings; the furthest south that this site covers. The church of St Giles, Holme, was the fourth church visited. I made my way in from neighbouring Yaxley, on a dead straight road in a dead flat landscape; field to either side with black fenland soil.
Holme is a pleasant village which can be found some seven miles south of Peterborough in the flat Cambridgeshire fens. One claim to fame that it has is that Holme Posts, which can be found in the parish, is the lowest point in Great Britain, at 2.75 metres below sea level. A short distance off to the south west is RAF Glatton, a World War II airfield which now operates as Peterborough Business Airport. At the time of the 2011 census, the population was 636 a drop of eight from what it was 100 years earlier! There was also a floating church…but more of that later.
I had visited this church before, with David, for a candlemas service, which celebrates Jesus being presented to the temple, 40 days after His birth. It was a dreary February day back then; the welcome at the church was brighter than the day was and this was the awaited return trip to see the church in better lighting.
When I first saw this church the immediate reaction was that it was Victorian; and it is to be fair. However, there is much in the church grounds that predate this, which made me think that something had happened to a previous structure here. The base of a medieval churchyard cross, immediately to the west of the south porch also hints at an earlier structure.
The old St Giles dated back to the 12th century in parts. This was pulled down in 1862, with a new church being built in the same spot. The structure that we see today consists of nave with bellcote to the west end, north and south aisles and clerestories, south porch and chancel. There is an uninterrupted view of the church from the south; this wasn’t always the case as a large tree used to stand in the church grounds, which was taken down a few years ago after safety concerns.
There is a pleasing symmetry to this church from the south, with nave, clerestory and chancel all having steeply pitched tile roofs. There are three, three light windows in the nave and four round clerestory windows, each having tracery forming an internal quatre foil design. The south porch has an empty image niche; this no doubt being in homage to what was here in the previous structure, where I daresay there was an image niche which at one point, pre reformation, had held an image.
There are two bells hanging here, with both from the time of the previous church. Starting with the oldest of the two, this comes from the Stamford bellfoundry, and was cast by Thomas Norris in 1670. The second bell is a curiosity! If you said to someone interested in church bells that it was cast in Peterborough then the name that would spring to mind would be Henry Penn. Not so here though as this one was cast in 1835 by a Mr Stanley, who had an ironmongers shop in Long Causeway in the city.
He passed away in 1856, and the Stanley Recreation ground was named after him. North, in his superb series of books detailing church bells in the area, suggests that this bell might be unique to Stanley. Perhaps the quality might not have been too good as it was marked down as being cracked by the time that North's study was undertaken in the 1860's!
Okay, I mentioned earlier on about a floating church, which appears on the village sign. This is a depiction of the Floating Church of Holme, dedicated to St Withburga, which was famous here in late Victorian and early Edwardian times.
The floating church was the idea of the Revd G Broke B A, who was the Rector of Holme and the idea of a floating church was supported by the Bishop of Ely, who sanctioned the idea in the 1890's. The idea was simple, to get a church in to areas of the fens which were difficult to reach, and where the people who lived were unable to worship.
The boat was dedicated in April 1897. The vessel had no bell but it used to display two flags, the flag of St George and the flag of St Andrew which could be seen at good distances across the Fens. Between April 1897 and October 1904 seventy-four baptisms took place, and a special card used to be issued to those who had been baptised on the floating church.
Apart from its altar, font and cross the floating church had a lectern also used as the pulpit, a harmonium, even a small vestry and, of course, a bilge pump. The vessel was 30 feet long and about 10 feet wide and could accommodate up to 50 worshippers. The congregations were usually very well attended.
It had several large windows which could be folded upwards to allow people on the bank to hear and take part in services. A Floating Church choir was made up from three families and bible classes were held on the vessel and needlework classes for girls......and for any animal lovers out there, the name of the horse that pulled the boat along was Boxer!
In 1897 this fascinating church featured in an article in the Strand magazine which stated "the Floating Church of the Fens is unique, being the only one in the world." Fascinating!
I had arranged to collect the church key for which I was very grateful. There are four bay arcades to north and south, with seemingly some of the arches and piers still in situ from the previous church.
There is obviously, much evidence of the Victorian hand at work here. The reredos has a carving of Christ crucified; with John to the right of the cross at we look at it, hands either at prayer of clenched in anguish. Mary Magdalene is at the foot of the cross in despair whilst Mary the mother of Jesus stares up at the body of her son. A third female figure is likely to be Mary of Cleopas. The scene is flanked at either side by angels at prayer.
The pulpit has carvings of the four evangelists and the font is plain and octagonal, with the latter also predating the present structure.
There is a single stained glass design here which is of interest. As I approached it I thought that it was the parable of the sower and the seeds judging from the left hand panel of a man sowing seeds. This is not the case though; the text below reading ’But when the fruit is ripe immediately he putteth in the sickle’. This one sent me to Bible Gateway and this is the parable of the growing seed (my spell checker did not care for the word putteth!)
This is from Mark chapter 4 versus 26 – 29. These verses read “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.”
The parable is about a farmer who plants seeds and can do nothing about how things turn out until harvest time. This shows that once the seed of the word of God is sown; only time will show how a person’s faith will grow and develop. I can’t recall seeing this parable depicted before; an unusual choice perhaps and fascinating to think that this parable meant something special to whoever chose this back in the early 1860’s.
It made me think of Wirksworth church in the Peak District where the stained glass in the east window is not what you would expect; no crucifixion, resurrection or ascension but rather, the parable of the talents in the holiest part of the church. This obviously was special to the person who paid for this window and perhaps the same can be said here.
The church grounds were a mass of colour with primroses in flower, particularly off to the North West. As mentioned earlier, several of the gravestones here predate the present church, with a few finely carved from the mid 18th century; with a chest tomb and table tomb each having a Grade II listing.
This is a lovely church in a pleasant village. It was time to hit the road again; with Glatton being the next point of call. I had seen several poster advertising a craft fayre in the village hall opposite Glatton church. I had hoped for refreshments there, and was not disappointed; a mighty slab of lemon cake possibly negating the benefits of the cycle ride!
If you would like to visit some neighbouring churches, please click on the photographs above. To visit the church of All Saints, Sawtry, please click on the photograph above left. To visit All Saints, Conington please click on the photograph above centre. To visit St John, Little Gidding, click on the photograph above right. All pages will open up in another window.