St Wendreda in March is one of the churches I’ve delayed writing about for a long time now. Mark and I first visited in 2003, stopping in on our way up through Lincolnshire to visit Barton upon Humber. I later came back (in 2005? 2006? I forget exactly when) with Susan Bowden-Pickstock to record one of the programmes in our ‘Church Detectives’ series for BBC Radio Cambridge. Unfortunately, on neither occasion did I take notes to enable me to produce an entry. So, despite this being one of the most famous and notable churches in the county, it is also one of the last that I come to write about.
St Wendreda is almost the sole survivor of medieval March. The earliest part of the building is the north arcade, which dates from the turn of the 14th century. Most of it, however, comes from three later extensions. In the mid-14th century the nave was rebuilt and the lower part of the west tower constructed. (Indeed, we can date it quite precisely, because there is a record of a Papal indulgence from 1343 for those giving money for the building). Then, in the early 16th century, the aisles and clerestory were reconstructed in characteristically grand Perpendicular style. Finally, the chancel was rebuilt by one W Smith in 1872.
Over the years, the town of March has migrated north, to cluster around first the marketplace next to the river Nene and then the railway. This has left St Wendreda rather isolated at the very southern end of the main street, almost in the countryside. The location has served it well, though, for – unlike its much younger cousin St Peter, hemmed in by buildings in the town centre – St Wendreda sits respendent in a huge graveyard, surrounded by mature trees and old cottages. It’s a lovely spot.
The building is worthy of its setting, too. Admittedly, the countryside hereabouts is so full of grotty Victorian hulks that almost anything medieval would be a relief. And while St Wendreda is pleasant, the exterior is not nearly so grand as the great Silt Fen churches to the north. But the building is harmoniously composed and built of pretty tawny stone. The core of the building is from the 14th century with a few earlier fragments, but much of the exterior dates from a 16th century extension – so, as one would expect, the grand aisles and clerestory are filled with big Perpendicular windows. The decoration is very rich – at the base of the aisles there is a course of quatrefoils, and both the aisles and the clerestory are topped with elaborate battlements. Unusually for Cambridgeshire, there is also flushwork in the clerestory – maybe the furthest west that I’ve seen flint used in medieval architecture. The chancel is Victorian (though a pretty good attempt – well done W. Smith) but the chancel arch is original, and is topped by a nice sanctus-bell turret. By contrast to the body of the church, the tower is rather plain – the bottom half, at least, dates from the 14th century building. There is a prominent stair turret in the south-east corner, and the cross-buttressed west wall is set into the wall of the churchyard. So, presumably to allow the Corpus Christi procession to circumnambulate the church, there is a low passage running north-to-south through the base. A later spire helps to raise the height of the tower, and balances the length of the nave.
Entry is through a south porch, under the gaze of several cheery gargoyles. Inevitably, the first thing that one looks at is the extraordinary angel roof, which soars above the relatively plain five-bayed nave and clerestory. This is St Wendreda’s real treasure. It is easily the best timber ceiling in the county, and one of the best anywhere – John Betjeman said that it was ‘worth cycling forty miles into a headwind to see’. As it happens, I think that the great Suffolk ceilings are better, but this is still pretty fine. The roof is a double hammerbeam, made of wood which has weathered unevenly so that its rich dark brown is highlighted by rosy patches. It is decorated with angels absolutely everywhere. They support the corbels between the clerestory windows; they float in two rows on the wall boards; they flutter on the ends of each of the hammerbeams, and they even stand in pairs gazing at each other in the apex of the roof. There are 118 in total. The corbel angels are the best, I think. They carry musical instruments – I saw a shawm, an organ, a zither, a lute and a harp – and on their backs they support delicate canopied niches containing statues of saints. Above, the angels on the hammerbeams carry shields depicting the symbols of the passion, and various other bits of religious iconography.
It is all so very rich and splendid that it puts everything else here into the shade. And, indeed, there isn’t really very much to say about the rest of the church. Such a magnificent roof deserves a magnificent building, but by comparison with the other great churches of the county, St Wendreda is a bit disappointing. The 14th century nave is very plain, and surprisingly dark given the number of windows. The tower arch is very tall, but is blocked in at the ground floor level to allow the Corpus Christi passageway, which makes it feel rather meanly proportioned; and the fittings are nothing to speak of.
I did find a few interesting bits and bobs. The chancel is dull and dark – surprisingly so, given that from the outside it works very well. But at least there is some nice glass in the east window, commemorating Mary Green and Caroline Hunt, who died in 1874. In the south aisle is a case containing the largest church Bible in England. And in the north aisle, right up at the east end of the north wall, there is a rather nice memorial, which reads:
Sacred to the memory of the late John Johnson, Gent. Whose death was occasioned
by the accidental discharge of his gun, on the 2nd of April 1829, when he was 33.
Poor John Johnson! But at least his friends from the Doddington Hunt clubbed together to erect this tablet in his memory.
St Wendreda is now kept open during the days.