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Little Barford

Dedication : St Denis      Simon Jenkins: Excluded                                  Principal Features : Quintessential English Rural Church

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Little Barford is a tiny village that for all practical purposes has been absorbed by the fast-growing town of St Neots. It is a single-street community that, to my eyes, is badly blighted by being on a 60mph  “rat-run” from the A1 to the St Neots Bypass, itself a part of the A47 route to Cambridge. As if that’s not enough, it also has its very own gas-fired power station that although smaller and less obtrusive than its previous coal-powered incarnation is surely one of the ugliest structures ever devised by man. At least cooling towers have a certain serene majesty about them!

I lived in the St Neots area for over twenty-five years, arriving in about 1979 and I still have immediate family living there. Yet it took me until 2016 to visit the church here. Even then it also took me half an hour to find it! The Churches Conservation Trust manage it now and I take my hat off to them for all of their work. If anyone from the CCT is reading this, however, I have to tell them that their directions on their website  are abysmal! So if you intend visiting, do read my footnote below.

There are lots of “Littles and Greats” around here: the Paxtons, the Giddings, the Gransdens, the Staughtons all come readily to mind as well, of course, the Barfords. In the case of Barford, the name is believed to derive from “Beorcford” – “Birch Ford” in Old English, later Berkford.

The church is dedicated to St Denis, the patron saint of France. This is all you need to know in order to deduce that this church has Norman origins. It is first recorded in 1178 in a document by Pope Alexander confirming it as belonging to Ramsey Abbey, also in modern Cambridgeshire. There is a simple Norman south door of 1160-70 with a now-blank tympanum. Nobody seems to know whether it was originally decorated, and the whole doorway seems as if it has been modified at some time. This leads into what I presume to be a Norman nave, although this is a matter on which both the CCT and Pevsner seem strangely reticent. Perhaps they believed it to be patently obvious! The exterior of the church shows two phases of masonry. The lower course is as one with the south doorway itself so I presume that this denotes the limits of the Norman church. The upper course is the clerestory which was added in the late fifteenth century. There is a single aisle to the north. It has a Norman style window in its west end and the CCT believes that it was at that time a part of the nave and was subsequently “separated” from the rest by the insertion of an arcade in the fourteenth century.

The chancel was also rebuilt in the fourteenth century and a west tower added. The chancel we see today, however, dates only from 1869-71 when it was rebuilt again. I presume that there was a Norman chancel here originally. A chapel was also built south of the chancel in the fourteenth century. The arch remains but the chapel itself was demolished in 1834 to make way for a vestry and organ chamber. The roof of the chancel is rather beautiful, being lined with wooden panels painted with angels on a starred background.

The CCT don’t exactly make this an easy church to visit. Why, in the name of St Nicklaus Pevsner and the Blessed Simon Jenkins do they not have a b****y signpost up? Don’t be put off, though. As with so many churches there is something indefinably lovely about this church. The CCT needs your support morally and financially. Who knows, if the donations increase they might be able to afford a signp…well, you know.

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Left: The church from the south east. It is a surprisingly large structure for such a small village. Note the Norman south door. Right: Looking west from the altar.

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Left: The chancel with choir stalls to left and right. The reach to the right leads to the nineteenth century vestry. The east window in the Early English style dates only from 1834. Centre: The Romanesque south door. The inner decorative course has clearly been restored at some point and nobody has taken the trouble to make the geometry consistent which is a pity. The tympanum is blank stone but one can’t help feeling this was not always so. Right: This Romanesque-looking window has clearly been moved here from elsewhere. The decorative moulding is consistent with the outer decorative course on the south doorway. The stone frame and the label stops, however, are clearly later. You can see a filled-in window space to the right. Is this where the window originally sat?

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Left: The altar. The chancel dates from 1869-71 and was by Arthur William Blomfield. The mosaic and tiled reredos and floor tiles are tastefully done and the overall effect of the chancel is very pleasing. Right: The chancel roof is also very attractive. The painted angels cover only about half of the roof but the pretty painted lining continues throughout.

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Left: The north arcade is fourteenth century but the shallow aisle beyond it is palpably Norman in origin, despite the Gothic windows in the north wall. Was there a Norman arcade originally? It’s not impossible because the nave has clearly been heightened by the addition of a clerestory. Would you bother to replace an existing arcade, though? More likely is that the aisle was simply a part of the original nave. Right: For my money this is the biggest curiosity in the church: a box-like piscina that has been designed to project from the wall with openings to the front and to the right. It’s fifteenth century and quite prettily decorated. It must have been used in the original south chapel that was demolished in 1843 and re-located to the vestry where it now is.

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Left: The east end of the north aisle. The window is clearly Norman and houses (later) glass representing St Denis. The octagonal font is from about 1300. Centre: The church’s fifteenth century rood screen survived the Reformation but not the Victorians! It was demolished and a short length of it is preserved here between the vestry and the organ room. Right: The west window is, according to the Church Guide, by Kempe. It was made to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Jubilee in 1887 and shows the Archangel Michael. I couldn’t find Kempe’s trademark wheatsheaf motif but I’m sure it’s there somewhere!

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Left: The Norman north west window. Right: The west tower.

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Left: The church from the north west. Right: This is the path I should have used had I been able to find it from the road. The bullocks to the right are those I braved when arriving cross-country from the right. They were friendly. As you can see, this really is a very pretty location and a very pleasant place to visit.

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Left: As you go down to the path to the road you see this grand-looking house on the right that is New Little Barford Manor. It dates only from the nineteenth century and seems in  a parlous and unloved state. Right: And this...ta the entrance to the path from the road. It looks private but apparently you can use it to access the church..

Footnote  -  How to Get There

Finding the road is a breeze. On the A428 St Neots Bypass as you come from the west heading east  towards Cambridge you will arrive at a traffic roundabout with a Tesco Superstore to your left and a Peugeot dealership to your right. Take the third exit (ie right) that will take you past the Peugeot garage. The power station monstrosity will be visible on your left. Go past said monstrosity and you will quickly arrive at the straggling single-street village of Little Barford. The church is behind the row of buildings on your right (or the left if you are coming from the northbound A1). You can’t, however, see it from the road! Nor is there any signpost or obvious place to park your car. And cars are whizzing past you at 60mph or more so you have no time to dawdle.

My advice is to look for a broad drive on your right hand side as you enter the village that leads to some derelict-looking commercial premises. It is festooned with the “Keep Out There’s a Hidden Minefield” signs that make English towns and villages such a joy but ignore all that malarkey and park there anyway. Then walk around the derelict buildings until you see a field with a gateway. From there you can see the church a couple of hundred metres off at about 10 o’ clock. The gate has a “Bull in Field” sign. I confess I took no notice and crossed the field anyway because I couldn’t work out the official way to it but there were bullocks there (less worrying than a bull, of course) and it’s a reasonable bet that there might be bulls there at times so don’t follow my bad example because I’m going to tell you the proper way.

Leave your car there. Then walk up the road for a hundred metres or so. You will see a driveway (I’ve put in a picture below). Walk through that private-looking driveway and follow it round until you reach a nice fenced pathway that leads all the way to the church with cows, bullocks, bulls, heifers and all the rest peacefully ruminating on either side of you.

The “path” is clearly designed for vehicle access so you might prefer to go back to get your car and just drive up it. I didn’t because it was only on the return journey that I realised which was the right drive. Armed with this photograph you might even have the confidence to turn straight into the drive. It’s up to you.





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