STILTON : CHURCH OF ST MARY MAGDELENE
Church Post Code PE7 3RF
Normally closed to visitors
The village sign on the approach to Stilton says it all. It has a depiction of a man rolling a cheese down a hill. Stilton is most famous for the blue cheese of the same name. A cream cheese was said to have been sold in Stilton as far back as the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Author Daniel Defoe, in his book "A Tour Through The Villages of England And Wales" which was published in 1724, made mention of the village's association with cheese.
However, the history of cheese in the village goes back further than that, with a well preserved Roman cheese press being found here.
Stilton is a fair size village, with the population topping the 2,000 mark in the early 1990's, this being more than double than that of twenty years previously. Stilton can be found some 12 miles north of Huntingdon. The village sits alongside the busy A1M but the village centre itself, with its beautiful wide main street, was peaceful and calm on this sunny mid March Saturday morning in what was to turn out to be a seven church crawl by cycle.
Stilton has always been an important place geographically, situated at the side of a major Roman road, Ermine Street, and the area around Stilton and Folksworth was also the site of a major Prisoner of War Camp from Napoleonic times. This camp, called the Yaxley Barracks by some, held several thousand prisoners of war over a number of years. Some gravestones here have French sounding names including one for Jean Marie Phillippe Habart, who was robbed and murdered in 1863.
The church of St Mary is a mixture of old and new, with a modern function room to the north of the church being set against a structure which dates back in places to the 13th century.. The church was open when I arrived, with an event on during that morning, with a wedding following on during the afternoon. It was nice to spend a short while chatting to a lady working in the church, who told me that it was going to be a particularly busy time for weddings this year; a backlog caused by Covid 19 being worked through!
There was no church mentioned here at the time of the Domesday Survey in 1086. The earliest parts of the present structure are the parts nave arcades, which date from the 13th century. Most of the rest of the building dates from the 15th century. Much restoration has been undertaken here over the years, with rebuilding going on in 1808 and 1857. Further work to rebuild the east wall of the south aisle came about in the late 1880's and the south aisle was rebuilt again some twenty years later.
The structure that we see today consists of west tower, nave with north and south aisles and clerestories, north and south porches and chancel.
The tower is of four stages, buttressed to half way up, with the lower three stages being plain. There is a single two light window at the belfry stage, with some much worn gargoyles sitting high up, central on each of the four sides.
This is a lovely setting, with the tower picturesquely surrounded by trees as you enter the village from neighbouring Folksworth. On the subject of the tower, when Owen produced his study of Huntingdonshire church bells in 1899 it was noted that the tower here was unsafe.
Two bells hang in the tower here, both of considerable age. One is dated 1639 and was cast locally by Thomas Norris of the Stamford Bellfoundry, who were prolific founders throughout the 17th century.
The second is attributed to the Oldfield's at Nottingham and is 16th century. This latter bell has an engraving of the Virgin and Child on it. Owen's Victorian study of the church bells of Huntingdonshire notes that there are pits here for three bells, a third bell used to hang here but was cracked and was sold.
A quick look at the National Church Bell Database shows that there are two other bells listed under this church, with each being disused. These are two bells that used to hang at nearby Denton, with this church now being a ruin. The first of these is of real age dating back to 1380; with there being no identifiable founders marks on it, just a shield with the initials ROS on it. The second is another from Thomas Norris, this one being cast in 1671.
Looking at the exterior from the south, the nave appears to be quite short, with three small clerestory windows of a trefoil design. These will not let a lot of extra light in, but the two large three light windows lower down on the south aisle would more than make up for that. The nave roof is steeply pitched and the north aisle extends out to the far east of the structure. A pleasing church to look at, and better photographed during the winter when there are no leaves on the trees.
There are north and south porches here, but entry to the church was through the north porch. Moving inside, a doorway leads in to the modern rooms to the north, moving in to the church itself it looks as if the church here has extended off to the west.
There are three bay arcades to east and west with the two most easterly bays having rounded arches, these dating from the 13th century, the most westerly bay to north and south has a pointed arch, dating from the 15th century, when the church was rebuilt and enlarged. The royal coat of arms of George II hangs in the north aisle, over the bays, with this being dated 1753.
The chancel has a war memorial plaque on the north wall; the altar is plain and simple, a curtain runs along the east wall as a reredos. The east window has a three light depiction of the ascension. Jesus, flanked by two angels, rises above the disciples, hands raised in blessing with crucifixion wounds visible. Eleven disciples are below, including Peter, who holds the key to the Kingdom of Heaven.
The other stained glass depicts Jesus carrying His cross. He is depicted golden haired and wearing the crown of thorns and to be fair not looking as if He had been scourged! His golden nimbus partially obscured the cross. A female figure kneels before Him, which I assume if Mary the Virgin as she is dressed in blue. She is depicted without nimbus. A Roman soldier looks on sternly. This glass dates from 1897 and was put in to commemorate the 60th year of Queen Victoria's reign.
Moving outside, there are a few items of interest in the spacious church grounds. The first of these is an elaborate chest tomb, which dates from the very late 18th to mid 19th century; carved by Andrews & Sons of Wisbech. It is suggested that this might be a tomb for a wealthy family connected with the Yaxley Barracks, mentioned earlier.
Central to the design on the east face is Old Father Time, who is tipping an effigy of the deceased, which appears to be a young female, from a broken hour glass. Tempus Fugit, time flies, and the sand of time have run out for the deceased.
Bottom right is a human skull, an often used symbol of the mortality of Man. Old Father time has his foot pressed down on the skull. Often the skull was trodden down on, pressed down on by hand or leaned against. This appears to have been a way of symbolising that death has been beaten; victory over death if you like, with the soul moving on to eternal life in Heaven.
At the top are two sets of crossed torches. These are still lit and symbolise eternity; which fits in nicely with the above. If torches are unlit and pointing downwards it symbolises death and mourning. Over to the bottom left, a plant is starting to bloom; new life in the midst of death.
A fabulous tomb, one of the finest in the churches in or around Peterborough and this one has a Grade II listing in its own right.
This tomb has the wow factor, but close by is another, plainer tomb, which has great interest given its age. This one is inscribed ‘Here lyeth the body of William Randol late of Stilton who departed this life the – day of September 1613’. I can’t think of any other tomb in any church grounds to be found within the catchment area of this site, which has an earlier date.
It was good to see inside this church again. The only previous time that I had been inside here was a dull December morning a few years previously when my own church did not have a service. The welcome we received was warm and the congregation was large! This gives the impression of being a thriving church and that is great to see. It was time to move on and I peddled off in the direction of neighbouring Yaxley; the spire of St Peter dominant in the flat Cambridgeshire fen landscape.
If you would like to see two more churches in the Stilton Group of Churches benefice, please click on the photograph immediately above left to be taken to All Saints, Elton. Please click on the photograph immediately above right to be taken to St Mary, Haddon. Each page will open up in a different window.