Burrough Green sits in the high country on the Suffolk border, the church itself amidst the sort of woodland rare in poor denuded Cambridgeshire. By dint of its location on the edge of the Suffolk hills, it gets the best of both worlds: the gentle rolling countryside of the east, with the magnificent skies of the Fens. The day we visited – early spring in 2004, I think – we caught the church in late afternoon, with the sunset limning the bare trees with gold and the light filling the church like a prism.
St Augustine is an odd mediaeval dedication – unique in Cambridgeshire – and this is an odd church. The main core is 13th and 14th century, built of flint with occasional patches of doughy clunch or brick. The modest little tower – remarkably unadorned and with neither buttresses nor battlements – survives more or less unscathed from this period. However, the rest of the church has had a chequered history. To start with, the nave (though at core early Perpendicular) has peculiar 17th century aisles, composed of three gabled bays. The lower part of each bay is filled with a large and very severe window, the gables above plastered in a rich ochre colour and pierced by pairs of tiny windows. It’s pretty, in a ramshackle sort of way, but was clearly put up in a hurry. Inside one can see the original Perpendicular nave arcades, so I assume that one (or maybe both) of the aisles collapsed, and had to be replaced quickly.
The chancel has also suffered. It was once flanked by two chapels, but nothing of them survives save the communicating arcades - ghostly clunch shapes buried within flint walls. There was clearly also a structure to the east of what now survives, since there’s a big blocked-up brick arch. Precisely what was there is rather difficult to determine. The arch is decidedly much later than the rest of the chancel. Pevsner thought that it must have been an 18th century apse or chapel which has now gone, though he doesn’t explain his hypothesis and I’ve never come across anything else of the sort in the county. The plot thickens yet further because there is a reset early Y-traced window of three lights in that blocked arch. It seems most unlikely that it would have been kept in an 18th century extension – that was, after all, an era characterised by great disdain for anything gothic – but in that case, where was it moved from?
Inside, there is yet more evidence of a rough history. Most noticeably the chancel arch has gone, leaving only the responds (now topped with incongruous jaunty little urns). In consequence the long flat roof is unbroken along the whole length of the church. In combination with the big bare windows in the aisles, this gives the interior a rather boxy, inelegant feel.
Within this battered casket, however, there are lots of fascinating treasures to be seen. The east window is gorgeous, and is matched by a contemporary set of triple sedilia and double piscinae in the south wall. These are the oldest surviving features in the church, dating from the turn of the 14th century. Opposite them, occupying the whole of the north wall of the chancel, three big canopied niches contain medieval effigies of the local De Burgh family. The effigies themselves aren’t especially exciting, alas. The central niche contains a knight (Pevsner says he lies on a bed of pebbles, but I must confess that I didn’t notice that) with a lady, both from the late 14th century, and the niches on either side contain more knights from the start of the 15th. The figures aren’t particularly well-carved, though I suppose it’s remarkable that they’ve survived at all, [Mark adds: Especially as Dowsing was here: "Barrow Grene, March 22. (6 s. 8 d .) We brake down 64 superstitious pictures and crucifixes, and Joseph and Mary stood together in the glasse as they were espouzed, and a crosse on the top of the steple, which we gave order to the church-wardens to take downe". On the matter of the niches, Austenites will be mildly thrilled to learn that this was a chantry founded by one Lady Catherine de Burgh…]. The niches themselves are much more interesting. Originally, they would have been open on each side, linking the chancel and the lost north chapel. The earliest, lowest and most richly carved is the centre one –an especially voluptuous ogee, within which are many minor cusps carved with densely packed leaves in the spandrels. Below the niche is a somewhat broken frieze of blind arcades and shields. The later niches on either side are less elaborate – with plainer lines and carving less crisp - but they are enlivened by big quatrefoils decorated with painted shields, and tall crocketted spirelets which soar upwards into the blank and damp-marked wall above.
There are other bits and bobs in the chancel, but nothing as interesting as the niches. The floor contains the shadows of many brasses, metal long gone so that only mute outlines remain. There is also a bit of the base of the roodscreen lurking behind the pulpit, the screen itself is gone. The rest of the church has been stripped almost entirely bare (though I did like the old pews in the nave, especially with the golden light pouring across them from the big aisle windows). One final survival is a pair of effigies now sitting in the east end of the north aisle. The workmanship on these is much better than the earlier figures round the corner in the niches, even though this pair is also badly weathered. They are John Ingoldisthorpe and Elizabeth De Burgh (who died a year apart in 1420 and 1421 respectively). These presumably originally rested in the north chapel. Their faces are almost completely obscured now, but the details on their clothing are interesting, and the lion guarding their feet still has some character.
St Augustine of Canterbury is kept locked, but the keyholders live nearby, and also wrote the excellent guidebook.