LONGTHORPE : CHURCH OF ST BOTOLPH

Church Post Code  PE3 6LU

Church open to visitors

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A cloudy and warm July morning 2022, but it was still a welcome break from the heat that had made life uncomfortable in the previous few days. Longthorpe is a village that can be found two miles to the west of the centre of Peterborough. A pleasing mix of old thatched cottages and more modern housing estates.  This was a revisit and I wanted to see the interior again, has it had been reordered since my previous visit here.

There is a wealth of history to be found here. Longthorpe was the home of a Roman fort, and a very early one at that; dating back possibly as far as AD 44 but probably built in reaction to the uprising of the local Iceni tribe in AD48. This fort is thought to have housed soldiers from the 9th Legion; and it was these soldiers from this Legionwho were massacred by the Iceni, under Boudicca in the winter of AD60/61.

Close to the church of St Botolph is Longthorpe Tower, run by English Heritage, which contains one of the most important and complete collections of medieval wall paintings to be found in northern Europe.

Longthorpe is also the home of Thorpe Hall, a mansion built during the mid 17th century. This for a time was a maternity unit and it was here, on a crisp January morning in 1965, that I was born. Evidently, I took one look at the world; found it over powering and started crying. To be fair, I have been doing that on and off since that time.

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    The church of St Botolph sits on slightly raised ground to the west of the village. Beautiful thatched cottages stand opposite. The church here is unusual; or unique even, amongst the churches within or close to Peterborough in that it is open to visitors.

 Back in the 1860's, the Reverend Sweeting compiled a study of churches in the Peterborough area. His book was first published in 1868, and I would image that the exterior of the church here has changed more than any of the other churches visited by Sweeting. I have an original copy of his book, and there are original photographs of the exterior of each church glued inside the book.

    The small bell tower has been replaced with a bellcote and there has been considerable work since Sweeting’s visit to the south side of the church. The church of St Botolph dates back to the 11th century, and was taken down and rebuilt in its present position in or around 1260.

It is thought that the church here was not consecrated until the 17th century. There were no burials here until the late 17th century, when the church was consecrated to allow the right of burial for the inhabitants. In 1683 much work was done here, including the laying of a new floor. The first stone was laid by six years old William Leafield, the eldest son of George. Sadly, two years later, William was the first to be buried in the newly consecrated building!

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The church that we see today consists of nave with north and south aisles; bellcote to the west end, south porch, south transept and chancel. There are no clerestory windows here. According to the British Listed Buildings entry for this church, there are two consecration crosses on the exterior west wall, which I missed on my visit.

    A single bell hangs here. The western bell tower was replaced in the late 1860’s restoration. North, in his Victorian study looking at the church bells of Northamptonshire, notes that the bell was taken down when the new bell cote was built. It was then found that the new bellcote was too small to accommodate the bell, so a smaller one had to be found.  There is no note of who cast this bell and the date.

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It was good to see the church open sign out. As mentioned earlier there has been work completed completed in the interior since my last visit some eight years before.  On that previous visit there was a Victorian chancel screen, with a carving of the crucifixion on top of this. The screen has now gone and the carving now hangs from the ceiling at the entrance to the chancel; not that there is an entrance, with nave flowing seamlessly in to chancel.

There is no chance arch and the removal of the screen has left a lovely open space at the east end. The church itself was spot lit in certain areas and there was a slight smell of incense. There were a couple of candles lit and a real sense of calm. A delightful interior!

The chancel is heavily victorianised, with the three walls being panelled, with the panelling being fitted around the piscina on the south wall. By the side of the piscina is an elaborate priest’s chair.

    There is a good amount of stained glass here, which can make the interior appear a little dark, so the spotlights were appreciated.  The east window of the chancel depicts the Ascension; with Jesus rising in front of the 11 astonished disciples, with crucifixion wounds visible, flanked by angels and with tongues of fire radiating out from Him.

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The east window of the south aisle depicts the annunciation, with the Angel Gabriel appearing to Mary, with the Holy Spirit in the firm of a dive, descending towards her. Gabriel also appears in another window; holding a lily and picking another, with the lily being an often used symbol of purity.

The east window of the north aisle sees Jesus blessing who I am assuming, possibly incorrectly,  is St Botolph. St Botolph is a patron saint of travellers and churches close to city gates were often dedicated to him.  St Botolph is an East Anglian saint and is also associated with aspects of farming. In this depiction, he is portrayed holding a shepherds crook with a horse and cattle grazing in the background.

There is also a two light nativity scene, in which the three wise men present their gifts to the baby Jesus. An interesting slant on this here shows one of the wise men taking off his crown and offering it to Jesus.

Also included is a depiction of the three Mary’s outside the tomb on Easter morning. They are greeted by an angel who points upwards towards Heaven saying ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead?’

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As I mentioned earlier, there was a sense of peace inside. There have been a few times since covid reared its head, that I have visited a church and simply enjoyed the calm and the quiet. A few times the same thought has entered my mind; ‘I could have been locked down here!’  Sat with my Bible and a pack up, a cool drink on a warm day as the world inflicted its horrors around me!

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Moving back outside, the church grounds are spacious and well maintained. The recent warm and dry spell had taken its toll on grass everywhere, and with a rare amber warning for heat issued by the Met Office for the coming weekend it was pretty much a case of what shade of brown it would turn in to after that time…

 To be fair, there is nothing of any great age or rarity to be seen but there are things to note. The oldest dated gravestone that I saw is from 1759, but I suspect that a few of the gravestones propped up against the churchyard walls might date from earlier.

There has obviously been a fairly substantial gravestone clearance here at some point, but it was good to see a large box tomb still standing, exactly where it was shown in Sweeting’s photograph from the late 1860’s.

   One stone depicts a very weathered crown, an often used symbol of victory; with the victory here being over death. Close by is a carving of a scallop shell, which is a symbol of Christian pilgrimage and is a symbol associated with St James.

Close by is a grieving widow design. The widow sits on a coffin, in an attitude of morning, with head in hands. She is framed by a weeping willow tree, which symbolises grief and mourning. Close by, two cherubs appear to be asleep!

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It was good to have been back here again and the church being open was appreciated. An open church can be an important Christian witness; especially in the challenging couple of years that we had come through. The church of St Botolph is well worth taking a look at if you are in the area; open and welcoming, this is one of my favourite churches within the catchment area of this site