WITTERING : CHURCH OF ALL SAINTS
Church Post Code PE8 6DZ
Key available from Pheonix shop
You wouldn’t know it to look at the exterior shots, but I visited the church of All Saints at Wittering on what turned in to a gloriously sunny and hot September morning in 2023. We were part way through an unexpectedly warm start to the autumn, with the temperature reaching or approaching 30 degrees on six successive days; this culminating in the usual thunder storms that weekend.
I arrived here just after 9am, after borrowing the key from a local shop, and the sun was some way off burning through the early morning fog.
Wittering is a large village which can be found at the side of the A1, a couple of miles south of Stamford, close to that confusing area where Cambridgeshire, Northamptonshire, Lincolnshire and Rutland all seem to merge together. The outskirts of Peterborough are some ten miles away to the south east.
The village itself is probably best known for RAF Wittering, which has been in use since 1916. This was once the home of the Harrier Jump Jet which used to frighten the living daylights out of me on a regular basis as they flew over my village when I was a child. The population of the village at the time of the 2021 census was 2,675 with much of this accounted for by those associated with the air base, and its housing estates.
I had visited the church here several times before, regularly visiting the village in those long gone sepia tinted days when the village had a bus service. This was a stop off on the Kimes service from Peterborough to Nottingham; then Centrebus took over, then Delaine in a limited fashion then suddenly there was no service at all; going the way of many village shops and pubs in recent times!
The church of All Saints can be found to the south of the village and consists of west tower, nave with north aisle and north chapel, south porch and chancel.
The church here is probably not as well known as it should be. If you were to ask people with a passing knowledge of churches locally to name a Saxon church in the area around Peterborough I daresay that the majority would name Barnack before Wittering. In All Saints Wittering though, we have a substantially unaltered Saxon chancel, with the chancel arch described as ‘unequalled’ amongst the small Saxon churches to be found in this country.
Very rare and to be treasured! It is said that the church was unaltered over the centuries due to the poverty of the village itself with there being no funds to upgrade with the times.
The church here was built between 950 and 981, making it older than Barnack, which has its oldest surviving parts dating back to around 1000. As a place of worship though, Barnack more than has the edge, with a church there possibly as far back as the 7th century.
That first church was a basic structure of nave and chancel to which a north aisle was added between 1140 and 1150. A north chapel was added around 1320, at which point the west tower and spire were also added. The spire was originally taller, with some being lost after it was struck by lightning in 1866. The last major work on the building came about in 1969 when the north vestry was added.
With regards the church bells here, when Thomas North published his study of the Church Bells in Northamptonshire, which was published in 1878, there were three bells in the ring here. The first and third of the ring were each cast locally, by Tobias III Norris of the Stamford Bellfoundry. Each of these is inscribed ‘Tobie Norris Cast Me 1681’ and the third was also inscribed with the name T Hanes.
The second of the ring in North’s time was not attributed to a particular founder and is still marked as unknown in the National Church Bell Database. It is said to be 14th century though and is inscribed ‘Laus Tibi Domine’ which translates as Praise to you O Lord’.
These days the situation is different with six bells hanging here, with three being added by Taylor of Loughborough in 1974.
I took a look around the exterior, being slightly careful of underfoot conditions; taking note of the Wildlife at Work warning sign. My only company was a solitary Ring Necked Dove, perched up on top of the chancel roof. The early morning fog was stubbornly refusing to clear but we work with what we have and we were good to go.
The church here is of pleasing proportions, with tall nave and chancel each having a steeply sloping roof; here are no clerestory windows here. The three stage west tower is heavily buttressed with broach spire rising up with irregularly placed lucarne windows. A bricked up doorway can be seen in the north aisle.
Saxon long and short stonework can be seen separating nave from north aisle at the east end, with evidence of a previous roofline above.
Moving inside, it was pleasantly light inside given how dull the start to the day was. The visitor enters in through the Victorian south porch and it through the south door which dates from around 1300. We enter in to the nave and looking to the east, we are immediately struck by the magnificent Saxon chancel arch.
Some time ago I was at an evening prayer service at another church which can be found within the catchment area of this site. The church warden said that the walls there echoed with a thousand years of prayer. Well that sprung to mind as I was putting this piece together!
The substantial roughly hewn chancel arch stands 14 feet high and has a span of seven feet. It is regarded as being one of, if not the finest, surviving Saxon chancel arch in the country. The arch is semi circular with a moulding of three rolls; the capitals are plain and massive. This is not a work of great subtlety but it is a work of great beauty!
The two bay north arcade consists of circular piers with square capitals with scallop carvings and finely carved arches with some zig zag design.
A doorway high up at the east end of the nave reflects back to pre reformation times when there would have been a rood loft stretching across the arch, which would have contained a carving of the crucifixion, with Mary and John standing alongside the cross. These were hated by the reformers and destroyed as being idolatrous. A little reminder of how things would have been here before the reformers changed things so dramatically!
The stained glass here is of interest. The east window of the chancel is by Kempe and depicts the scene of Easter morning when the Risen Christ, wearing a blood red cloak with wounds visible in hands, side and feet sees Mary Magdalene. Mary looks shocked as she recognises her Lord, having previously mistaken him for the gardener. Kempe has included a garden spade to acknowledge this. ‘Rabboni’ (teacher) she says as Mary of Cleopas and Salome look on. A fine window from a fine craftsman and Kempe has left his trademark wheatsheaf in this design on the left hand of the design, close to what appear to be bluebells!
In the north aisle we have a, ‘I Am’ window which shows Jesus as the Good Shepherd and the Light of the World. The only other stained glass to be seen here is modern and is in the east window of the north chapel; this being erected in tribute to the RAF.
A couple of wall mounted monuments each contain the deaths head; a depiction of a human skull, a memento mori symbol reminding the onlooker that Man is mortal and will die. Therefore, live a good life and be at peace with God as, in days of low life expectancy, you did not know when your own time would come; and it might be later than you think!
One of these has the hand of God pointing down and the other sees the skull shown with wings which symbolises the flight of the soul to Heaven. A close look at this one shows a scallop shell incorporated in to the design, this being an often used Christian symbol.
A selection of stone heads kept an eye on me as I looked around the interior; including a female wearing a wimple and a male figure with curiously irregular ears!
Moving back outside. the sun was close to breaking through the clouds and the fog had all but gone. There are some interesting and finely cared gravestones in the grounds here. One has the human skull with crossed bones below, with the message being the same as on the wall monuments inside. One further stone, which is hard to decipher due to a coating of orange lichen, shows an angel holding a palm leaf and blowing a trumpet. The palm leaf was a symbol of victory and the trumpet was an often used symbol of the resurrection. Taken together, this stone can be read as victory over death; and a testimony as to the faith of the deceased.
A fine church; it was great to finally be able to see inside it. Well worth taking a look at. A perhaps slightly overlooked jewel! If you are on a tour of Saxon churches then Barnack is in the same benefice as Wittering a short distance away to the north east, across the fields on the other side of the A1. It was time to hit the road again, with Rockingham the next point of call; the sun shining brightly as we reached there.