TANSOR : CHURCH OF ST MARY

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Church Post Code PE8 5HN

Normally open to visitors

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It was 13 years to the day since I did my first churchcrawl. On that first day, in late September 2006, I picked up a brand new cycle on the Saturday morning and cycled out to Elton, Fotheringhay, Tansor, Cotterstock and Nassington. Of these only Nassington was open to visitors, with the normally open Fotheringhay being off limits due to a wedding.

I thought that it might be a nice idea to replicate that route 13 years later. This coincided with one of the nicest late September days weather for years. Light conditions were among the finest that I had ever photographed in.  Before I get to write up my visit to Tansor, all five churches were open this time, albeit Cotterstock was only open as a lady was in there preparing for a harvest festival.

Tansor is a small village in East Northamptonshire. The population was 172 at the time of the 2011 census. There is a church and a village hall and a phone box which now houses a defibrillator. One my first visit back in 2006, there were also lots of chickens, several of which were pecking their way through the church grounds. The church of St Mary sits at a crossroads in the centre of the village, on very slightly raised ground. Cotterstock is a mile or so off to the north east, with Oundle a couple of miles further on from that. Two miles off to the south is the famous Fotheringhay, with its Richard III and Mary Queen of Scots connections.

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I have a great deal of love for this part of East Northamptonshire, and for the church here. This may not a well known church compared to some. It will not feature in many people’s bucket list I daresay. To my mind though, this is a very much underrated little gem of a church.

The church that we see today dates back in part to the 11th century, with work ongoing through to the early 14th century. The church consists of west tower, nave with north and south aisles, clerestory, north and south porches and chancel.

  The west tower is small and square, and looking from the east, the tower is only just discernible above the chancel. It contains work from the 11th 12th and 13th centuries. It is of five stages with a two light window on each side at the belfry stage. A crudely carved, square headed, lichen encrusted, gargoyle with mouth pulled open and five ferocious looking fangs in his lower jaw, looks out to the south. It is thought that the bottom section of the tower dates from the 11th century and is probably a survival from an earlier stone structure which stood on this site. The tower is of five stages but these stages are only realty identifiable when looking at the tower from the west.

Three bells hang here, all of which are of great age and interest. Two are dated to the 15th century, one cast in London by Balcombe Shield, who was active between 1487 and 1500. The second is from Newcombe of Leicester. The third was cast more locally, by Tobias Norris of the Stamford bellfoundry

The nave clerestory windows, three to north and south, are square headed two light windows. The exterior is pretty much without ornamentation. This is a plain exterior, but interesting nonetheless. Just a single grotesque looks out at those approaching the south porch, a human face grimacing, and exposing a mouth full of rotten teeth.

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When I first visited here, the church was closed to visitors. Now, however, the church is kept open to visitors, a sign in the church ground proclaiming that fact, Entry is through the south porch. It was bright and welcoming inside, no doubt in part to the fact that all of the stained glass here is at the east end of the church. The sun was streaming in through the clear glass windows and the light quality inside was glorious.

    There is a five bay arcade to the south and a six bay arcade to the north. The two western most bays to the south and the three western most bays to the north date from the 12th century and have a beautiful rounded arch. The underside of these bays is painted with a leaf and scroll design. These appear at first glance to be medieval, but were, in fact, added in the 19th century. The remained of the bays have pointed arches, and are later in date.

    The western tower arch is an interesting thing. As with the western bays, it has a 12th century rounded arch. However, a 13th century double chamfered pointed arch in built inside this original archway.

    The fine east window in the chancel depicts Christ, having just risen from the tomb, hand raised in blessing and crucifixion wounds visible; shimmering light radiating from Him. The glass in the south lady chapel depicts the adoration of the magi, given in 1902 to commemorate Rev John Richards, Rector of the parish for 14 years.

    The font is octagonal and rests on five shafts. There are four ballflowers, which to be fair are pretty poorly carved, to the extent that one of them resembled, at first glance, an upside down skull. It was great to see a retired grotesque leaning against a wall, mouth pulled wide open and long, narrow tongue stuck out in a medieval gesture of insult. Originally, this would have sat high up on the church, doing its best to help repel evil attacking the church. Always fascinating to see these at eye level and this is a particularly fine one.

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The church here has a connection with the churches at Hemington and Lower Benefield in that all three are home to some wonderful bench ends and misericords that used to be housed at Fotheringhay church.  This wonderful and historic church was drastically reduced in size after losing its chancel during the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century. The carvings here are thought to date from 1415

There are two sets of three seats to north and south chancel walls. On the north chancel wall there is a single larger seat in addition. Two of the misericords to the north depict angels with flowing locks playing what I think are lutes. One of the figures is full bodied, the other is top half only. Each figure has damage visible to the nose, evidence possibly of damage inflicted during the reformation. The two other misericords to the north are a rose and birds feathers, possibly ostrich.

To the south, two of the three misericords feature falcons, whilst the other, my favourite of the lot, is an exquisite depiction of a woman wearing a horned headdress, the fashion in the 15th century. On the armrests of the seats are carvings of figures, some at prayer, with the facial features worn down by thousands of hands over hundreds of years.

Fabulous carvings, of the highest quality, as one would expect considering where they have come from. A page for Fotheringhay can be found in the Northamptonshire section of this site, for anyone wanting to take a look.

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The church grounds are of interest and beauty. Over to the south west, the church grounds fall away to the river Nene. There are some beautifully carved Georgian gravestones, especially clustered over by the south aisle wall. It looks as if these may have been repositioned at some point as they are joined together in a line, almost forming a wall.

One 18th century gravestone, script weathered away and beautifully aged with orange lichen, features the scallop shell at the top. The scallop shell was often used as a symbol of Christian pilgrimage, and is also a symbol associated with St James The Greater and is also used as a symbol for baptism, with water from the font sprinkled over an infants head using a scallop shell.

    It was quiet and peaceful in the church grounds. The main road through the village runs close by, but there was very little in the way of traffic. A narrowboat made its way lazily towards Fotheringhay. The sun was shining, the sky was cloudless and all was well in this picturesque part of East Northants. Sometimes it all comes together. The right place at the right time in the right conditions.

   It was time to move on and I mounted back up and peddled off towards Cotterstock a mile distant. Thirteen years had taken their toll and my average speed was considerably lower than on that first days shooting. Who cares! It was just great to be out with the sun on my back. The church of St Mary was open to visitors and is a little gem!

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