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Fletton

Dedication : St Margaret                         Simon Jenkins: Excluded                          Principal Features : Anglo-Saxon Carvings and Cross

You may have heard the name “Fletton” but probably not in the context of its church. Fletton is part of the distinctly un-lovely city of Peterborough (although its cathedral is one of our greatest and most beautiful Norman buildings). Fletton’s fame lies in its now-defunct brickworks that gave its name to a type of cheap brick that is still manufactured in nearby Whittlesey. Five million homes in the UK are built from “flettons”.

The church is set in a pleasant green oasis amongst a rather densely-populated township. It is not a place that would see many “just happened to be passing” enthusiasts, that’s for sure!  Even from the outside, it is distinctly ordinary, although not unpleasant, to look at. As with so many English parish churches, however, it has some wonderful surprises. Moreover, the very detailed Church Guide reveals a fascinating architectural history. The Guide is also candid in its admission that its views vary from those of the “experts”. I found the Church Guides well-argued and I will go with its conclusions - especially as, in many cases, the “experts” on churches are plagiarising the estimable but occasionally unreliable Pevsner guides.

The church was mentioned in the Domesday Book of AD1086 and some of the fabric undoubtedly dates from this time. The belief is that the original church comprised no more than the present chancel and, unusually, what is now the vestry on its north side. the Church Guide suggests the possibility that it was originally two-storied with a priest’s room on an upper floor.

fWhilst at the church (on an open day) I also heard a theory that it was a dormitory or pilgrims on their way to visiting Peterborough Cathedral.

In 1165 the nave and north aisle were added. This aisle extended along the chancel as well as the nave producing the five-bay arcade that we see on the north side. The chancel arch has scalloped capitals similar to those of the aisle; and although the arch has since been changed to a gothic pointed profile those capitals strongly support the idea that the the arch and  the nave were part of the 1165 changes and not parts of the original Norman church. Externally, we see evidence of the Norman period in a undecorated corbel table and in Norman buttresses at the east end.

The south aisle (which extends only along the nave) was added in 1300. The arches are high and wide and supported by thin pillars, contrasting greatly with the Norman solidity of the north aisle. The tower with a broach spire (which has endured three lightning strikes in the last 100 years!) was added at the same time. The Guide claims that the east windows of both aisles are also from this period in “Early English” although 1300 is a little late for Early English: but we must keep reminding ourselves that the styles did not reach all corners of the kingdom overnight. One slight mystery is the gothic arch at the west end of the south arcade. The pillars are Norman and the width of the bay is the same as for the others. Why was the round arch replaced by a pointed one and, stranger still, made the same height as its southern counterpart rather than its fellows on the north side? Was it just an error of judgement? The clerestory was added in in c17 and the square headed windows of the south aisle also date from this time.

Victorian restoration was carried out in 1872. The present porch dates from that time, replacing the c14 one that had collapsed. The east window was “restored” - the Victorians could rarely resist tampering with east windows, although it may have needed it in this case. The north aisle was widened.

I’ve kept the best to last. Behind the altar is a series of Anglo-Saxon carvings that are reckoned to be early c9. It is something of a mystery why they should be here. One theory is that they were put here after Peterborough Cathedral was damaged by fire in 1116. The pink hue of the carvings appears to be fire damage. There are, however, carvings at Breedon-on-the-Hill in Leicestershire that are of a similar style and not obviously fire damaged. This rather weakens the Cathedral theory in my view. They were actually mounted on the east buttresses of the church until quite recently when they were moved to their present position for the sake of their preservation.

The excitement doesn’t end there. In the south chancel wall are two more carvings. One is St Michael and the other is still unidentified. Prof Rosemary Cramp of Durham University (the acknowledged expert on Anglo-Saxon churches) claims these of being of that period not of the Norman period as originally thought. She believes they were used in individual altars within an Anglo-Saxon church on this site. This ties in with the theory that the vestry had accommodation for pilgrims and is supported by the presence of the Anglo-Saxon frieze carvings.

Finally, there is a stone cross at the west end of the church. It may be c12; it may be Anglo-Saxon; it certainly is no later. Its base, however, is inscribed with the name “Radulph Filius Wilelmi” It looks for all the world like a Roman inscription but is obviously much later than the cross itself. Who was he?

Left: The chancel with its Norman north aisle and its Victorian east window. Note the narrowness of the aisle at this end of the church. Right: The view to the west end. Note the strong contrast between the Norman north arcade and the southern one of 1300. An aesthetic disaster!

Left: The north arcade showing a slight elevation to that at the east end.  Right: The chancel arch is pointed and it is not obvious why the original round-headed Norman one was replaced. The north eastern arcade revealing an extremely shallow north aisle.

Left: The Anglo-Saxon frieze carvings in their new position behind the altar. Nobody knows what proportion of the original frieze these fragments constitute nor whether they should be mounted in this sequence. Centre: The figure of St Michael in the south chancel wall. Right: The unidentified second figure of an evangelist. Note the pink hue on these carvings that matches that of those in the frieze.

The Anglo-Saxon Frieze

The frieze is an odd mix of haloed saints and angels and of fantastic figures. We can’t know what they represent. The faces of the human figures are uniformly shaped and we can assume the work of a single carver. There are undoubted stylistic similarities with some (but by no means all) of the carvings at Breedon-on-the-Hill, itself a known outpost of the Medehampstead Abbey that became Peterborough Cathedral. Surely Fletton was another?

Left: The west end of the north aisle. This was probably an external wall in the original Norman building  Centre: The remarkable (and original) cross-shaped window.  Right: Filled in Norman window space on the south side of the chancel.

Left: The rather extraordinary Anglo-Saxon churchyard cross at the west end. The top would have been a circle enclosing a cross but the top section has been lost and someone has placed a rather bizarre top stone. I think it looks like something one might buy from a garden centre!  Centre: The lower section of the north face. This looks lihe a pair of birds placed back to back - a common device in church iconography. Right: The lower section of the west face has what may be an image of a wild boar.

Left: There is an almost graffiti-like inscription on the upper west face.   Centre:  The east face is difficult to photograph, being so close to the church wall, but thus is clearly a beast of some description.  Right: The south face is the most weathered and it is difficult to discern anything,

Left: The beast on the east face. Pevsner suggests an agnus dei, but I can’t see that myself, and such figures are normally horizontal. Right: The mysterious - and of course, not original - base stone with its inscription.

When we visited it was an open day and the church had produced its parish records (right) . Above we can see in close up the marriages and burials of 1663. Charles II was king and this was the year that Robert Hook proposed that living organisms were composed of cells.

Left: The tower from the north. Centre: The view from the residential street. Right: The east end. The buttresses and string courses are Norman.

Footnote

We visited Fletton Church on one of its Open Days on 8 September 2012. This was because in 2010 the Peterborough Evening Telegraph was reporting that the church was to be closed! When we said this to one of the churchwardens she was thunderstruck and knew nothing about it! So it seems Fletton had been saved - but the newspaper evidently think that as newsworthy!

 

 

 

 

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