GT CASTERTON : CHURCH OF ST PETER & ST PAUL
Church Post Code PE9 4AN
Open to visitors
It was a beautiful, sunny Saturday morning in August 2022, and a return trip to the church of St Peter and St Paul at Great Casterton. This church is a familiar landmark a couple of miles along the main road leading out of Stamford, with the church standing on the south end of the village. There is a great deal of history in this area, with Great Casterton being situated close to a major Roman road, namely Ermine Street. There was a Roman fort here as early as 44 AD with a villa and walled Roman town following.
In 1820, "Peasant Poet" John Clare, who lived in the village for a short time, was married to Martha Turner in this church. Famous visitors to the village include Charles Wesley, who later complained in his diary that a creaking inn sign kept him awake! Another famous (or perhaps I should say infamous) visitor was the notorious highwayman Dick Turpin.
I had visited here back in 2014, watching the harvest being gathered in as I walked towards neighbouring Little Casterton. Well, in this hottest driest summer for many years; the harvest was in early but at a cost. As we approached the village we saw the blackened areas where field fires had taken hold in the heat, including a patch where a combine harvester had been caught up in the flames and gutted.
The structure that we see today consists of west tower, nave with north and south aisles and clerestories; south porch, vestry and chancel.
The tower, which is offset to the north, has four crocketed pinnacles, with gargoyles looking out from the four corners. The rest of the structure is battlemented throughout. High up on the east wall of the chancel is an effigy of a bearded man in a niche who carries a book in one hand and what appears to be a small bag in the other. Some have suggested that this is a representation of St Matthew, whilst others claim that it is St Peter. To the east of the south porch is an arch containing a very badly worn recumbent figure at prayer.
It seems that there was a church here in the 11th century as a priest was mentioned at the time of the Domesday Survey in 1086. In the 12th century, the church here was a simple construction of an aisleless nave and chancel. Most of the present structure here was built in the 13th century, being added to that earlier structure. Around 1250 a north aisle was added with a south aisle following shortly after. The nave was also extended at this time, with the clerestory and porch also being added. It is suggested that the work here took around 40 years to complete.
There was originally a bell cote at the west end of the church but this was taken down in the 15th century, being replaced by the elegant tower that we see today. The tower is home to a ring of six bells. Five of these were cast by Peterborough bellfounder Henry Penn in 1718, with none of the five being inscribed. All of the bells were restored by the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in 1990, and they cast another bell as well, making for the ring of six that hangs here today.
The church here is usually open to visitors. Inside it is bright and welcoming; with whitewashed walls and the light streaming in through the south windows,
The aisles are relatively short, with just two bays to north and south. In the north east corner of the north aisle there is the red ochre remains of a medieval wall painting; this taking the form of a repeated pattern of flowers. Those taking communion here will walk past a stained glass window on the north wall of the chancel, which depicts Jesus as the good shepherd.
There are altars set up at the east end of north and south aisles, with a piscina, in which the holy vessels used in the Eucharist would have been washed, to be seen alongside the altar in the south chapel.
There are two single light stained glass depictions on the east wall of the chancel. To the north side is St Peter, carrying the keys to the kingdom of Heaven. As always he is portrayed with receding hairline. To the south is St James the Great, who is the patron saint of pilgrims. He is depicted with staff and with the scallop shell attached to his hat.
The altar is plain and tasteful, with just a couple of candles on either side. The reredos shows Christ crucified at the centre. This is flanked on either side by shields which include symbols of Christ’s passion. These are, from left to right, hammer and pliers, crown of thorns, ladder hyssop stick and spear and Christ’s garment with dice.
On the south aisle wall, hemmed in somewhat by chairs, is a recess containing an effigy of a priest, clothed in Eucharist vestments with hands raised in prayer. A coat of arms at the west end of the interior is surrounded by the instruction to the faithful "Fear God Honour ye king".
The font dates from the late 12th or early 13th century and has an unusual design of diagonal lines. The wooden font cover is more modern and is dedicated to a former Rector who was here in the 1860's and 1870's.
The church grounds are well maintained and there are many very well preserved and well carved Georgian gravestones. One of these merits special note though. This is a depiction from the Old Testament, the book of Genesis Chapter 22 verses 1 - 18. In this, the Lord tests Abraham's faithfulness by asking him to sacrifice his own son. As Abraham was about to do this, the Lord said not to harm the boy, and a Ram was provided instead to sacrifice. In the carving Abraham is about to sacrifice his son, with a ram visible to the right of him.
Close by a gravestone from the early 1800’s remembers Edward Sharp and his wife Susanna; who each lived to a good age. He lived to be 82 years with his wife living to 91. The symbolism here includes a ripened ear of corn, which was a symbol used to denote a life lived to a full age. Below this is the skull and crossed bones, used to remind the onlooker that Man is mortal and will die.
As I was preparing to leave for Little Casterton, I took a few shots of the church from the north. The grounds here have been left to go back to nature a little, which is good for the wildlife and I daresay has taken a little pressure from the faithful who look after the church. A lady shouted over at me; expressing her views on the state of the grounds (of which there was no problem to my mind). She then expressed her opinion of me for stating that there was nothing wrong with it, before heading west with her dog, under a cloud of righteous anger and indignation. I feel a letter coming on from her to the local paper!
Little Casterton can be found a mile or so off to the north; a pleasant village with some beautiful old stone cottages. The church of All Saints is tucked away behind some houses, a little away from the main road which runs through the village. Tolethorpe Hall, known for its open air Shakespeare performances, is a few hundred yards off to the north east. A friend of mine who lives in Stamford drove through here for several years without realising that there was even a church here!
The church of All Saints sits in picturesque surroundings, and is one of the smallest churches in Rutland. The church consists of west bellcote, nave with north and south aisles and clerestories, south porch and chancel. I have fond memories of a mid winter visit here some years previously; on a bitterly cold and sunny afternoon, in some of the best lighting conditions that I have ever shot in.
All Saints dates mainly from the 13th century, but has earlier Norman origins, as can be seen in the tympanum in the north aisle.. The north aisle was added in the late 12th century. The south aisle, bellcote and chancel all date from the 13th century. The clerestory dates from the 15th century and a look at the eastern side of the bellcote still shows evidence of the pre clerestory roofline.
The chancel was extended and the north aisle was rebuilt between 1810 and 1811 and the south porch was rebuilt in 1837, with the date carved on to one of the buttresses.
There are two bells here. The first is blank and from an unknown founder, but is thought to date from around 1700. The second was cast locally, by Tobias Norris I of the Stamford bellfoundry in 1608. This bell is inscribed ‘Cum Voco Venite’ which translates as ‘Come When I Call’.
This church is normally closed to visitors, but the key is available from a house close to the church, with keyholder notice pinned up in the south porch. Entrance is through the south door, with the visitor being greeted by a male and female figure on either side of the door. A quirky lock mechanism involves inserting the key in upside down in order to gain access!
There are two bay arcades to north and south. Glancing over to the north, the church organ is housed in the most western bay. Hidden away is a re-set Norman tympanum arch, which was really difficult to photograph due to things being stacked in front of it. There is a simple altar at the east end of the north aisle.
Over to the south, there is a tomb recess close to where the south altar would have stood. There are two elaborate stone coffin lids in this recess. Given that these burials were close to the altar it is reasonable to assume that these were burials for people of great importance for the early church here. There is a piscina on the south wall, indicating that communion was taken here.
Much of the chancel dates from the periods of Victorian restoration. Commandment boards flank the east window. The three light east window is of stained glass; with Christ in majesty central. Christ is seated, still wearing the crown of thorns, holding a globe with crucifixion wound visible on the hand that is raised in blessing. Flanking the risen Christ is St Hubert, the patron saint of hunters; who is at prayer after seeing a vision of the crucifixion and St Francis of Assisi.
There is an elaborately carved piscina against the south wall of the chancel. There looks to be great age to this, and it could date back to the 13th century; if this is true it would have been moved to its present position when the chancel was lengthened in 1810.
The 15th century roof features some very interesting carvings. Ceiling bosses include a crowned male figure and a wonderful and powerful depiction of Christ crucified; who looks down through sightless eyes, wearing the crown of thorns. There is a display of photographs of the carvings and it is claimed here that the crowned figure is Christ in majesty. I really don’t think that this is an image of Christ.
At the north and south sides of the roof are various angels, some holding shields, others at prayer. One figure appears to be holding a trumpet, which is Biblically connected to the resurrection.
Throughout the interior are several grotesque heads. One human figure looks out across the nave, with tongue stuck out in medieval gesture of insult. Close by, a human figure with one large ear and one ear missing looks to be in anguish. This one appears to have lost an arm at some point back in time.
A small beast with sunken eyes shows a fine set of teeth, smiling at the onlooker in a manner that absolutely is not to be trusted. I often wonder what was going through the minds of those who wanted these quirky carvings made, and what message they were attempting to pass over to those looking on.
There are some finely carved 18th century gravestones to be seen in the church grounds here; but to be fair there is nothing of any great interest or rarity.
This is a small church but one that it full of interest and history. I enjoyed my time here very much. Both of the churches covered here are well worth taking a look at if you get the chance. I left in the direction of Tinwell, but my mind was already starting to turn to thoughts of lunch and Stamford tea rooms!