Please sign my Guestbook and leave feedback

Recent Additions

Little Gidding (Cambridgeshire)

Little Barford (Cambridgeshire)

The Late Mary Curtis Webb (revised)

A Trio of Tympana (Cambridgeshire)

Temple Balsall (Warwickshire)

Minster in Thanet (Kent)

Marown Old Church + St Patrick’s Chair and The Braaid (Isle of Man)

A Dawdle in Derbyshire (Six Churches)

Hexham Abbey (Northumberland)

Little Gidding

Dedication : St John      Simon Jenkins: **                                                 Principal Features : Stuart Era Chapel built by the Ferrers Family

Little Gidding Web019

If you feel you have vaguely heard of Little Gidding Church but can’t quite work out where, then it could be because it was immortalised in T.S.Eliot’s “Four Quartets”, one of which was indeed “Little Gidding”. That in itself ensures a stream of visitors to this out-of-the-way spot in rural Cambridgeshire. For my part, it is a pleasure to write about a church that is, to say the least, “different”; because the present church dates only from 1714.

The story starts from around 1618. Nicholas Ferrar, the son of a wealthy merchant returned from studying medicine in Padua and Leipzig and devoted himself to a life in business and politics, becoming MP for Lymington in Hampshire.  He was in every way a successful man. Described by Pevsner, however, as “a man of mystical bent” – denoting commune with God through meditation, abstinence and devotion –  Nicholas opted out of  worldly society and in 1624 he bought a large house at Little Gidding and founded a religious community of thirty or forty people.

It was a quite austere community, demanding three church services a day for adults but only two meals! It was, however, communal and not monastic: it demanded no vows. You might imagine it as being a somewhat cranky and beyond the religious pale but in fact the community was visited by the Bishop Williams of Lincoln (who had a Summer residence in nearby Buckden) and on no less than three occasions by the ill-fated Charles I, including once on

1 May 1646 shortly after the disaster at Naseby and not long before his final arrest at Stamford in Lincolnshire. Ferrer was ordained as a deacon in 1626 by Archbishop Thomas Laud, no less.

Ferrer’s mother found the original church, of which we know next to nothing, in a state of disrepair and used, amongst other things, for storing hay! You have to bear in mind that both Great Gidding and Steeple Gidding also had churches. She set to work clearing and restoring it to use. It is known that it was much larger than the existing chapel.

In 1641 the community became the subject of a pamphlet that represented the community reasonably accurately but which via its commentary implied Catholic influences despite Ferrer’s himself regarding the Pope as “the Anti-Christ”. Bishop Wlliams himself advised Ferrer on the removal of artefacts that night have given rise to misunderstanding. Charles I visited the community in 1642 and it seems that even he needed – and received -  proof that the allegations were false.

Sadly, in 1646, in the fevered atmosphere following the execution of Charles and the triumph of Puritanism, the unfortunate community was declared to be “Popish” and the whole community was sacked. I don’t suppose the support they had received from Charles I and Laud helped their cause much. With friends like those they had no need of enemies, it seems! It was all over by the sixteen fifties.

In 1714, however, John and Thomas Ferrer rebuilt the church as we see it today. It is much smaller than the original church on which site it was built. It has only a nave and chancel. You arrive via a stone fašade at the west end. Pevsner suggests that the style is perhaps reminiscent of Hawksmoor. The rest of the church is brick. Onec inside the big surprise if the orientation of the seating – there are rows of benches facing each other across the breadth of the nave. We don’t know if this tradition goes back to Nicholas Ferrer’s time because, as Pevsner observes, we don’t know the dimensions of the church at that time.

The walls are panelled in wood. Everything seems to be of wood, in fact, apart from the brass chandeliers and lectern. The latter is the only mediaeval survivor: Pevsner says it is of an East Anglian type and that the same moulds were used to cast lecterns at other places including Urbino Cathedral.

Overall, this is a fascinating place. Historically it informs us of a time when new religious ideas were emerging on all sides, sometimes to the peril of those that embraced them. Physically, it is unique and an antidote to Mediaeval Church Fatigue that even the most ardent church crawler must feel sometimes – myself included! It is a place of which the Arts & Crafts Movement would, I feel, have heartily approved two hundred years later.

Little Gidding Web021
Little Gidding Web001

Left: Looking west along the length of the church. Lined almost completely with timber, as soon as you enter the church you are aware it is unlike any you have visited before. Note the seating arranged so that members of the congregation face each other. Right: Looking towards the east end and its impressive chandelier. What has never been clear to me is why this church was arranged in the way it was. The altar is at the east end in traditional fashion and so it would be visible ony with some difficulty by the majority of the congregation. What is more, the lectern and therefore the preacher would be wholly invisible to those on the north side of the church. The liturgy used here cannot have varied much from the common post-Reformation usage without bringing down the wrath of the Church upon the community’s head and it is inconceivable that Bishop Williams would have supported anything seen as what we would now call “Non Conformist”.  I’ve looked for an explanation for the church’s layout but have seen none proffered. It is, however, Puritan in tradition. It is interesting to think that Charles I was interested in the Ferrers community despite persistent public suspicions that he was sympathetic to Roman Catholicism.

Little Gidding Web011
Little Gidding Web005

Left: The east end compounds the mystery of the church’s layout. It is comparatively long so the priest would be considerably detached from the congregation and there is no sign of provision for a choir. Were the little bays to north and south used for seats, perhaps by the community’s leaders? Right: The lectern and the metal light fittings add some relief from the overwhelming use of wood.

Little Gidding Web010
Little Gidding Web022
Little Gidding Web002

Left: Another view to the west end. Centre: Another view to the east. Please note that the use of telephoto lens exaggerates the length of the church. You can see this in the lengthening of the floor tiles in the foreground. The exterior pictures give a better guide to the dimensions here which are actually very small. Right: The lectern is the oldest item in the church. It is later fifteenth century.

Little Gidding Web006
Little Gidding Web004

Left: The vestry is, unusually, on the south side of the church. The north side is the overwhelmingly popular side for vestries due to the centuries old tradition of locating all that is ugly on the “Devil’s Side”. Churches do it to this day although I think that now it is due to a pragmatic understanding that many north sides are beyond redemption visually after such long periods of neglect. It is clearly a lter addition to the church here. Right: The stalls in the nave gave a rare opportunity for a bot of “creative photography” here achieved by use of a telephoto lens.

Little Gidding Web007
Little Gidding Web013 Little Gidding Web009

Left: The alms box. Centre: One of the turned spindles that flank each of the nave stalls. Note the carved undersides of the adjacent arches. Right: The plainer timber arcading within the chancel. The planks underneath look too narrow to be seating.

Little Gidding Web015
Little Gidding Web016 Little Gidding Web017

Left: This was purported to be the arms of Nicholas Ferrer but the website for the Kershaw Family (I don’t know why this is of particular interest to them) claims them to be the arms of the unrelated Ferrers family of Fiddington in Gloucesterhire! Note, however, the use of the three horseshoes on the crest is also on the arms of the Fiddington Ferrers as well as on those of Nicholas Ferrer’s father. This is a play upon the traditional English trade of the farrier who shod horses. Oakham, the county town of Rutland, has a very long association with a Ferrers family (originally de Ferriers) which dates from the Norman Conquest. Oakham Castle which is a rare Norman survivor is adorned with decorated horseshoes given by the monarchs and aristocrats of England over the centuries, similarly playing on the word “farrier”. The stained glass windows at little Gidding were installed only in 1853 by William Hopkinson who, as Lord of the Manor at the time, restored the church. It seems that he made a mistake! Centre: These are Hopkinson’s own arms. Right: The Hawkesmoor-line west door of 1714.

Little Gidding Web018
Little Gidding Web020

Left: Lovely barley sugar twist turned wood on the west door. Above: The church from the north east. Note the absence of windows in the north wall of the chancel. Note also the bell cote on the west end. The rectangular cut-outs appear to be purely ornamental.

Footnote - TS Eliot and Little Gidding

I don’t claim to be an affficionado of Eliot’s work, although I have read “Little Gidding”. It was the the last of the poems that became known as the “Four Quartets” and was published in 1942. Eliot (1888-1965) wrote it while recovering from illness. There is a theme of fire used as for cleansing and purgation of the soul. At a time when British cities were being bombed by Nazi Germany this would have had particular resonance. Although an avowed Anglican, Eliot’s beliefs flirted with Catholicism and this surely informed his preoccupation with the idea that fire was spiritually cleansing - a belief that was a bedrock of Roman Catholic belief in Hell and Purgatory for many centuries. It is a long poem with several changes of meter and structure and it is written in reasonably accessible language. You will have no difficulty in finding it online, as well as lengthy critiques and interpretations.