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Little Casterton

Dedication : All Saints            Simon Jenkins: Excluded                                       Principal Features : Tiny Norman and Early English Village Church; The “Imp”!

Little Casterton has a population of only about 150 souls. It is a mile or so from where I live in the much larger village of Ryhall. You would call Little Casterton a “hamlet” but for the fact that it has a church and is, therefore, officially a village! Having said that, I drove through it dozens of time before I realised there was a church at all, so concealed is it from the village’s only road. Less than a mile away is the famous open air theatre at Tolethorpe Hall so if you want a diversion on your way to the play then this little church is ideal - but contact the rector first because this is a a church that is not always open.

To be honest, I struggle to find anything to list as its “Principal Features”. So why include it? I certainly have dozens of much more celebrated churches waiting to “written up”. But that’s what I love about Little Casterton: it is small, humble, little-known, rather chaotic - and yet full of curiosities. It epitomises the “secret” churches that (understandably) didn’t make it into Simon Jenkins’s book but which have so much to offer to those who dare to look outside the confines of the “recommended” lists. It is a sort of antidote to overdosing on a diet of its more celebrated cousins and neighbours.

Little Casterton is a mainly c13 church. It has no tower but a typical Rutland bellcote with an Early English style to them. We can be sure that the first church here was Norman, however, for mounted on the north aisle wall is a Norman tympanum, presumably from the original south doorway. Pevsner puts the North arcade at about 1200 and its

 southern counterpart a few years later. Both have round arches so are in the Transitional rather than Early English style. The north arcade has hefty stiff leaf capitals more in the Romanesque style whereas the south arcade has roll moulded capitals that were, I suppose, felt to be in the more a la mode by the time it was built. The clerestory is c15 Perpendicular (I am tempted to add “of course!”). The roof with its pretty unpainted bosses date from this time too. Both chancel and north aisle were rebuilt in around 1810 by the delightfully-named Rev Richard Twopeny and his architect brother, William. The two westernmost lancet windows on each side are believed to be the original Early English ones. The east window may be the reused Early English ones from the c13 chancel. The piscina is a delightful little gem amongst an otherwise plain church architecturally.

Plain it may be, but there is much to enjoy here. There are some delightful roof bosses, some entertaining carved figures - including a mystery on the north wall (see below), coffin lids fragments of wall painting, as well as the tympanum and piscina. If you are in the area and want a change from the rather grand aisled and towered churches around Rutland then call in here (and nearby Essendine with its gorgeous Norman south doorway) for a total contrast and to celebrate the little joys that it has to offer.

The view to the east end. Note the narrow aisles with their deeply-splayed east windows.

The North arcade with its roll moulded round arches and its capitals that are typically late Norman; a piece of Transitional architecture.

The view to the west with its Early English lancet window. The chancel arch, too, is EE.

The somewhat later South arcade has more “sophisticated” plain capitals but still has rounded arches. It rather seems that, unlike many of his contemporaries, the architect favoured keeping symmetry between the two arcades rather than indulging himself in the new-fangled Early English pointed arches. Here’s to him!

Although the capitals on the north arcade owe more to the Romanesque than to the Early English style, the decoration are rather unusual - very unusual in the case of that pictured left - demonstrate the architectural upheaval that was occurring at this time.

The preserved tympanum is a simple and unsophisticated one with a “Tree of Life” centrepiece flanked by spoked roundels.

The c15 roof is delightfully rustic and decorated with bosses and angels. At the centre here is Christ wearing his Crown of Thorns.

Right: A praying Angel.

The double bellcote. Compare it with that of nearby Essendine which dates from around the same period.

Another sequence of bosses. The Church display claims this as Christ in Majesty. His crown, however, is distinctly secular and the face is unbearded so I must admit that I rather think that this is the King of England at the time the roof was constucted.

The figures along the edge of the roof are cheerful-looking souls, mostly clutching shields. The lady on the left, however, is holding something quite different. I have seen it described as a “clarion” - a type of trumpet - but I have been unable to find a picture of one to verify it. Right is the figure of Christ in His Agony.

The piscina is the only thing in this church that one might term “ostentatious”. It would grace any church. It clearly post-dates the main structures of this church. It is equally clearly too old to be contemporary with the c19 chancel restoration so perhaps this was constructed in c15 and moved eastwards when the chancel was extended?

A couple of fine label stops. I am embarrassed to admit that I cannot remember where in the church they are located!

A burial niche in the South aisle that is reckoned by Pevsner to be late c13. There are two coffin lids set into it, the lower of the two particularly fine and elaborate.

There are several fragments of wall painting around the church although it must be said that it is not easy to discern what they are. Pevsner has a stab at identifying them but I don’t see too much point in describing what could only be seen with much bigger pictures. Note, however, the tall draped figure on the picture right which is probably a female Saint. Note also that the fact that some of the painting is within the recesses of Early English lancet windows points to the paintwork also being early c13. That’s rather older than the painted fragments in some other churches.

Little Casterton has its fair share of monsters and grotesques.

Finally - The Mystery of the Little Casterton Imp

The North side of the church is a little neglected. The Church no longer thinks of the North sides of churches as being “The Devil’s Side” although it is plain that the habit of putting all the grotty bits of the church on that side still lingers on in many locations! This is where you will find the ghastly stone sheds that often pass for “vestries” and the gruesome boiler houses - amongst other monstrosities. To be fair, though, they are better placed here than on the south side where most churches now have their entrances.

The North side of Little Casterton, though, yields a little puzzle. In the extreme north west corner, under the roofline and laid on his side is this cheeky little figure! He’s all on his own. His feet are damaged, but a full length figure like this is not terribly common. When you look closely he has been sculpted inside a cornice so he looks designed to be located in an angle somewhere. He fits quite snugly here for all the world as if this has always been where he is - but why would there be only one carving and why would it be laid on its side? The North aisle was rebuilt in 1810 so it seems possible that he was moved here at that time, perhaps because he was seen as a bit of fun - but that doesn’t explain where he came from.

What is he doing? Is he dancing? Kicking a ball? You choose. His face is crude, almost primitive - but just look at those beautifully carved fingers on his right hand. From what period does he date? Is he, like the tympanum, a remnant of the original Norman church? The Early English period didn’t see much carving of this kind. I suppose we will never know, but maybe he is the more fun because of that.

I have decided that he is the “Little Casterton Imp” and every bit as much fun than his more famous cousin in Lincoln!