LITTLE GIDDING : CHURCH OF ST JOHN
Church Post Code PE28 5RJ
Church is usually open to visitors.
I mentioned on another page that, as I have got older, those times when we can escape to a place of peace and calm are more and more important. This page is being rewritten in late March 2022. Covid is still very much with us and those times of peace have been few and far between for many of us; so therefore to be treasured when they happen.
During the pandemic year of 2020, when the UK was locked down for several months; things that we possibly took for granted were taken away for a time. Perhaps we only really appreciate things totally when they are taken away from us. I got to thinking on more than one occasion in those days where I would have preferred to have been locked down if I had the choice; a place that I couldn’t visit at that time as this liberty had been temporally taken away. There were a few that sprung to mind, one of which was Little Gidding.
The church of St John can be found at the end of a lane, off the main road which runs from Great to Steeple Gidding, at the very southern end of the catchment area of this site. The church is surrounded by trees and open countryside, with sheep and lambs often to be seen. There is no traffic noise, just the sounds of birds; a place to sit with a book and a pack up and to be a peace whilst the world hurries by at a distressing speed, with all the fears and uncertainties that come with it.
Little Gidding itself is just a large house with some surrounding buildings, now a Christian retreat and the church of St John the Evangelist. This tiny hamlet can be found some nine miles north west of Huntingdon. Great Gidding is around a mile off to the north; Steeple Gidding, which is only slightly larger than Little Gidding, is a few hundred yards off to the south. . Hamerton, with its wildlife centre, is a roar away on days when the wind is in the right direction.
This is a very small church, but there is a wealth of history associated with it. Nicholas Ferrar was the son of a London merchant and he succeeded his elder brother John as company director, handling the day to day running of the business. Financial problems in 1624 led to John being made bankrupt and to the family having a rethink on life. They felt that they should renounce worldliness and live a life of godliness instead.
Nicholas and John's widowed mother bought the manor of Little Gidding as part of a deal to rescue John from his bankruptcy and the whole family, which numbered some 40 people in total, moved to Little Gidding in 1625, their move being hastened by an outbreak of plague in London in that year.
When the Ferrars arrived, the house that they were to live in needed extensive repair, and so did the medirval church, which was being used as a barn. The village at that time was near deserted to a previous outbreak of the plague. The church was rebuilt and the Ferrars started their lifestyle of godliness, living their Anglican lifestyle on High Church principles and using the Book Of Common Prayer. The family were particularly noted for their prayer, they always had someone at prayer, all day every day. They tended to the health and education of local children, and Nicholas and his family produced harmonies of the gospels that survive today as some of the finest in Britain. Nicholas Ferrar died on 4th December 1637, but the family continued their way of life without him, and the religious life only ended in 1657 on the deaths, within a month, of John Ferrar and Susanna Collett.
The fame of the household was widespread, and they attracted visitors. King Charles I visited Little Gidding three times, including on 2 May 1646 seeking refuge after the Battle of Naseby. The year after Parliamentary soldiers ransacked the house and church and the Ferrars were forced to flee for a while.
Another famous visitor in more modern times was poet TS Elliott, who visited in May 1936. Elliott produced a series of poems entitled "Four Quartets" one of these poems being called "Little Gidding".
The church was rebuilt in 1714; the existing structure had a tower which was taken down at this time. The north transept was also taken down at this point, with the nave and chancel being rebuilt. Entrance is through a door at the west end, and there is an inscription over the door which says..."This is none other than the house of God and the gate of heaven". The date of rebuilding can be seen on two pinnacles at the west end.
The table tomb of Nicholas Ferrar can be seen close to the west end of the church; this having a Grade II listing in its own right. Slabs surround the tomb and lead to the entrance, it is suggested that these might be gravestones to other members of the Ferrar family. A single bell hangs in a niche over the doorway, which comes from an unnamed 17th century foundry.
The church here was always open to visitors’ pre covid. This was my first visit since covid restrictions had been listed and it was good to see that the church was open to visitors. On several visits previously, the only time that I had seen the church here closed was due to building works.
Moving inside, the visitor is struck by how narrow this church is; so much so that the pews run west to east, running along the north and south walls. Moving into the chancel, this is panelled in oak, this dating from the 1714 rebuilding. The three light east window is of clear glass; the reredos dates from the 1853 restoration, and has brass plaques containing the 10 Commandments, the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer.
There are several stained glass windows to be seen in the nave, which date from the mid 19th century restoration. One of these depicts the coat of arms of Charles I with a crowned golden lion, with impressive tail, which is as large as the rest of its body, tongue exposed and eyes darting off to the left. I involuntarily thought of fundraiser Hercule Van Wolfwinkle, whose pet portraits had kept the country amused during bleak covid times!
Another features the coat of arms of Bishop Williams of Lincoln, who was a friend of the Ferrar family; with the Diocese of Lincoln having a palace as far south as Buckden, not too far away from Little Gidding. Latin text at the foot of this panel reads ‘Auxilium meum a Domino’ which translates as ‘My help is from the Lord’.
One further features the coat of arms of the Ferrar family, curiously though, this is the arms recorded for another unrelated family, the Ferrers family who came from Fiddington in Gloucestershire.
One further depicts the coat of arms of the Hopkinson family, William Hopkinson was a solicitor from Stamford who bought the manor of Little Gidding and restored the buildings in the nineteenth century. This work included the installing of these four windows.
The Eagle Lectern is interesting. This is Flemish and dates from the 17th century. When the church here was sacked in the mid 17th century, this lectern was removed from the church and thrown in to nearby woods.
Out in the church grounds a helpful sign advises visitors to watch their feet due to rabbit holes. "T.S" signed his initials on to the south wall in 1849. There are a few gravestones in the well tended grounds, but not many, but then again there are not many people here. The census for 1971 showed a population of 17! On the west side, the church grounds lead down to thick undergrowth with a body of water to the south west.
This is a small, exquisite church with a wealth of history; on this March afternoon, each of the churches at Great, Little and Steeple Gidding were open to visitors. All are well worth a visit if you are in the area.
The two photograph below were taken on a previous visit, when David and myself attended an evening prayer service here. The long distance shot shows the west end sticking out above the trees with the Ferrar Centre to the left of shot. The photograph below right was taken from the Ferrar Centre itself after the service, as refreshments were being served.
Please click on the photograph above right, to see the page for my visit to neighbouring Steeple Gidding. The church there is cared for by the Churches Conservation Trust. This page will open up in another window.