YAXLEY : CHURCH OF ST PETER

Church post code PE7 3LH

Church normally closed to visitors

    It was a beautiful Saturday in mid March 2022, and a return visit to the church of St Peter, Yaxley. It had been a good crawl thus far, and Yaxley was to be my fourth church of the day, in what turned out to be a nine church crawl by cycle.

The church of St Peter is one of my favourite churches to be found within the catchment area of this site. I have visited several times; including a visit in freezing conditions back in 2009, the church grounds several inches deep in snow and icicles hanging from the spouts of the gargoyles. At the opposite end of the scale, I attended a wedding here where the weather was so hot that the church doors were left open; the service being halted for a short time as a swarm of flies descended!

I was here at an evening service on the night before the first covid lockdown was announced. A scattering of people, far less than this service normally attracted. It was a hard night. We suspected that this was going to be the end of public worship for however long it took. The mood on the night was sombre; we sang In Christ Alone but the heart was missing! We wondered how long it would be before we could gather together again!

On this revisit the church was closed, but I have used the exterior shots from that day as the light quality was really good. Interior photographs come from a revisit in August 2022.             

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Yaxley is a very large village, which can be found some four miles south of Peterborough, and close to the busy A1M. When I was young I was told that Yaxley was the biggest village in England. I attempted to Google this, to see if this was indeed the case. Certainly, this is mentioned, but not with any degree of certainty! Yaxley does not appear in the Wikipedia list of current largest villages, but I did find out whilst attempting to research this, that Meopham in Kent is the longest village in England, measuring in at a mighty seven miles in length! I am hopefully that this will turn up as a quiz question at some point in the future!

Three miles away to the north east is Norman Cross, which was the home of the Norman Cross Prison; also known as the Yaxley Barracks. This was the world’s first purpose built prisoner of war camp, holding prisoners taken during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. Building work started on this in 1796 and it was operational until 1816, at which point it was demolished.  During that time, the average number of prisoners housed was around 5,500, which in the early 1800’s was more than the population of Peterborough! Time Team excavated here in 2010, in an episode entitled ‘Death and Dominoes the First POW Camp’.

The church of St Peter commands the flat fen landscape; standing on slightly raised ground to the south west of the village. There had been some delightful views of the church as I cycled in from neighbouring Stilton on that bright March morning; but the church here is a real statement piece from whichever way you care to approach it from. There were a good number of walkers and cyclists out, making the best of what was turning in to a glorious day. I stopped off for a brief while at the Norman Cross memorial, which remembers the 1770 prisoners who died while held there, and then headed on to St Peter.

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There was a church here at the time of the Domesday Survey in 1086; with a church and priest being mentioned.  The structure that we see today dates back to the 13th century; consisting  of square tower, with spire, nave with north and south aisles and clerestories, north and south transepts and chancel.

The four stage, mid to late 15th century tower rises up 160 feet, is buttressed, battlemented and pinnacled, with a church clock set in to the east face. The spire adds another 112 feet to the height and is recessed, octagonal and crocketed. Intricately carved flying buttresses, with a repeated quatre foil design, join pinnacle to spire.

Gargoyles can be seen on the four corners of the tower, and a curious mythical beast with deep eyes and furrowed brow looks out from between the gargoyles on the south wall.

Entrance is mainly through a north door, but there is a south porch which dates to the late 13th century. At this point in time, there was also work completed on the nave as well as the clerestory being added. The porch has three empty image niches, which in pre reformation days would have held statues. On top of the porch are three carved heraldic beasts. I was to see similar on top of the tower at nearby Glatton a couple of hours later. There are beasts positioned similarly on the porch at Cotterstock in Northamptonshire.

To be fair, the number of trees makes this a difficult church to photograph from the south. The nave and chancel are heavily buttressed, with large three light windows running throughout the length. The fine east window is of five light with intricate tracery; dating from 1320. A fine church externally, speaking of the wealth that has been here over the centuries!

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I took an early lunch whilst looking around the exterior, noticing some graffiti inside the south porch. ‘SP’ carved his or her initials in 1736, with the ‘S’ being the wrong way around. Before that, ‘IB’ had visited and left their initials in 1627; this being carved in relief with the area around the letters being chipped away, leaving the lettering itself standing proud of the wall.

On the exterior wall on the West side of the church there are musket ball marks. It is said that these were made by Cromwell's troops, but it is more likely that they were caused by Tudor or Stuart local militia, whose arms were then stored at the base of the church tower. It certainly appears as if it was target practice, with most of the marks clustered in one section of stonework.

It appears as if there was originally a ring of four bells here around 1480, with this being increased to a ring of five in 1721, courtesy of Peterborough founder William Penn, at which time the bell frames were altered to accommodate the extra bell.

  These days, six bells hang here, with the new first of the ring being added by Taylor of Loughborough in 1881. At the same time, two of Penn’s bells were recast by the same founder. One further was recast in 1931 by Gillett and Johnston of Croydon.

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The church here is normally closed to visitors, but I had arranged to photograph the interior when an event was being held in the south chapel. Given that I had visited this church several times, I had never had the opportunity to photograph the interior properly, and I appreciated the chance to see inside very much.

Impressive externally and equally as impressive internally! It was bright and welcoming inside, with the sun streaming in through the south windows.  There are four bay arcades to north and south, with tall elegant arches leading up to a rood screen which dates back to the 15th century. The organ loft can be seen above the screen.

On either side of the rood screen are fragments of a doom painting, which in medieval times would have extended above the chancel arch. These doom paintings were depictions of the day of judgement, with those deemed righteous being taken off to Heaven, whilst those who were condemned were herded off to hell, which was often portrayed as a serpent’s mouth.

The east window from 1320 contains modern stained glass, by Sir Ninian Comper, dated 1949. Christ is central; arms spread wide, wounds visible with tongues of flames radiating outwards from Him. Christ is flanked by a band of angelic musicians. Peter is off to the far left as we look at it, holding the key to the Kingdom of Heaven and Paul is to the right, sword pointing downwards, as always perilously close to his sandaled feet.

Along the bottom of this depiction are five scenes from the New Testament.  Far left sees Jesus help Peter after his attempt to walk on water. Far right sees the risen Christ reinstate Peter after his betrayal; ‘feed my sheep’ reads the scroll.  The middle three panels cover the nativity, with shepherds and wise men all present together.

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There is stained glass at the east end of the south chapel, but I didn’t explore that due to an event being held there. Other glass consists of a depiction of St Peter, holding the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven and a sword; and Jesus cradling a lamb, with a cross below on which are instruments of Christ’s crucifixion.

The sanctuary looked beautiful; gilded angels holding candles covered in multi coloured reflections through the stained glass of the east window. The reredos behind the altar is also the work of Comper, dating to 1945. This features nine painted panels with the crucifixion as the centre point.

As well as the mass being taken in the chancel, there are also signs that it was taken is several other places in the church. Piscina, used to wash the holy vessels used in the mass, are to be found in the north chapel, north transept, south chapel and south transept. Those to the north date from the 13th century; those to the north date from the 14th century. There is also a sedilia; seating for the priests, in the north chapel. This is an indicator as to the importance of this church in medieval times with there being four chantry chapels here in the past!

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Looking at the west wall of the nave, there are the remains of wall paintings; including a small fragment of a skeleton; reminding the onlooker that Man is mortal and will die. In the north transept, there is a wall memorial to William De Yaxley, an Abbot of Thorney who died around 1300. The memorial shows a heart being held aloft and a box said to contain his heart was found behind this memorial in 1842. De Yaxley’s will stated that he wished to be buried at Thorney, but he wished his heart to be buried in the north chantry chapel that he founded!

Still at the west end of the church, the font is 12th century and local legend states that Cromwell’s troops baptised a foal in this. Close by, on the tower wall, there are several interesting sets of initials, with the majority dated. These are mostly from the mid 18th century.

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The church grounds are of interest, and feature a number of deaths heads; depictions of human skull that were designed to symbolise death. This was a message to those looking on that Man is mortal and will die. You will go the same way as the deceased; so be at peace with God, and in days of low life expectancy it could be later than you realise! Symbols were used due to most people not being able to read or write.

Other memento mori symbols are included alongside the skull. On a couple of stones we can see the gravedigger’s tools of pick and shovel. Also included is the hourglass; with one depicted with wings. This is to denote the passing of time; tempus fugit, time flies. Again the message is clear; it could be later than you think!

One other stone depicts Jesus, one hand pointing upwards towards Heaven. He carries an anchor in the other hand, this being an often used symbol of Christian faith. Wrapped around Jesus’ top half is what appears to be an Ouroboros, a serpent with its tail in its mouth. This was a symbol used for eternity. The message here is clear; your Christian faith will lead to eternal life in Heaven.

I enjoyed my time here very much. This is a church full of interest and well worth a look if you get the chance. One of my favourites within the catchment area of this site!

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