St Peter, Empingham, Rutland
Another bike ride in England’s smallest county yesterday. Sixteen churches altogether, which sounds a lot, but churches in Rutland are refreshingly close together, and generally open, although I did find two yesterday that said they were open and weren’t, and one that said it wasn’t, but was.
From Tickencote I headed westwards today towards Rutland Water, catching my 1st glimpse of it after about three miles from a hill top looking down into Empingham, where the tall stone church spire spiked up through boilings of trees and rustic chimney pots as if going for 1st prize in a ‘Typical images of Rutland’ competition. I hurtled down the hill into the long main street of the village, and as usually happens the church today disappeared, hidden by other buildings. Hazarding that the older part of the village might be below the top road (hazarding is always my last resort before bothering to get out my map) I coasted down, the buildings got older, and there was the church.
It looked vaguely familiar, a huge church, its big tower and spire hard against the road, the church beyond opening out into transepts and a tall chancel as it climbed the slope. Overwhelmingly a Perpendicular church which you enter up urban steps through the west door, and the feeling is thus that of a French church (was this the reason for the sense of the familiar?). Inside, the wide open interior is at 1st sight entirely modern, but a homely restoration, no Victorian pomp and grandeur here. All the harsh Victorian pews have thankfully been replaced with modern chairs. There are earlier survivals, including a few fragments of that rare thing in Rutland, medieval glass, in the north transept, and beautiful decorative wallpainting and a Saint in the splay of the window in the south transept behind the organ – I wonder how many people notice that? (I congratulate myself here as compensation for missing the wallpainting of a Saint at Lyddington two weeks ago).
I headed down the hill to the main road ahead of me, which was the A606 between Stamford and Nottingham – aha! This was the road I used to take regularly when going to visit friends in Castle Donington, and turning back I saw again the familiar view of that great tower and spire from the corner, a landmark on the busy road. The traffic rushed though, as I had once, and I remembered thinking to myself that I would visit this church one day. Well, today I had, without realising it.
I headed onto the A606 for a while, then turned off southwards to the road which runs parallel to the eastern end of Rutland Water. This was a busy, climbing road, not particularly pleasant. However, a couple of times there were gateways in the hedges (hedges rather than stone walls in this part of Rutland) which gave spectacular views out over the water. Between the road and the water was the cycleway which circumnavigates Rutland Water, and I looked down on dozens of cyclists in hard hats and fluorescent jackets, glumly pumping away and weaving between the walkers, many of whom were also wearing fluorescent jackets (why?) and I was very glad to be up on the busy road.
Eventually I came down onto the Normanton edge of the Water, with its car parks, cafés, gift shops, and the like. I shouldn’t be snobbish, and most of these people were on their well-deserved annual holidays camping or B&Bing locally, or on enjoyable day trips from Leicester and Peterborough, all contributing to the local economy. But crowds like these are not why I go on bike rides. I joined the weaving cyclists, many of whom seemed to have merely the slightest acquaintance with the Highway Code (‘we pass on the left in this country, mate’) for half a mile to reach what remains of Normanton church.
The sight of the church is so familiar from photographs, stuck out on its peninsula in the water and buried half in the gravel, but is nonetheless dramatic for that. The work of Thomas Cundy pére et fils in the 1820s, an entirely urban Georgian church, an adaptation of their design for St John Smith Square in London. It is as if that church has come on holiday and is going for a paddle.
When they flooded the valley in the 1970s, tiny Normanton was one of two villages lost (the other was Nether Hambleton) but its church survived – just. It actually sits atop the dam, but even so its lower half is below water level and has been filled in with concrete, the windows of the clerestory today forming the windows of the church. A causeway goes out to it. All the burials were removed from the graveyard and cremated with due ceremony. For a while the church was a visitor centre, with a display about the making of Rutland Water, but this obviously didn’t bring in enough cash because the displays have been removed and the structure is hired out as a venue to those who can afford it. It certainly looks classy, if you turn your back on the ice cream hut. You can still go inside if nothing is on, but today they were preparing for a marriage, so the causeway was as close as I could get.
It was barely a mile to my next port of call, the pretty village of Edith Weston. Generally in Rutland, the further west you go the prettier the villages get, as if escaping the influence of puritan East Anglia and submerging themselves in the opulent lushness of the Wolds which are making their journey from south-west to north-east England. And here was St Mary’s church, a delightful church, not over-large but with a tall tower and a short, slender spire, set in a pretty graveyard and looking idiosyncratic – the main view from the south features three crossed gables in a row, the porch, the south transept and a 19th Century chancel chapel.
You step inside to light and late Norman splendour in the arcades and chancel arch. The chancel beyond is late Victorian, but still splendid and idiosyncratic, cross-vaulted in an obvious imitation of the chancel at Tickencote. The icing on the cake is a lovely range of 20th Century glass, from Hugh Arnold through Paul Woodroffe to that finest of 21st Century stained glass artists, Pippa Blackall. The cherry is the splendid and absurd memorial to Sir Gilbert Heathcote which explodes at the west end of the north aisle. Further east in the same aisle is a memorial plaque to the bodies removed from Normanton graveyard. All in all, church of the day so far.
And today I headed west again along the northern perimeter of RAF North Luffenham, in the general direction of Lyndon.
To be continued.