February 2014, and a four church crawl of the Huntingdon area started off with a visit to the church of St Mary. The weather was lovely, which was unusual in itself in the damp and dismal English winter of 2014. From St Mary, I ended up walking to neighbouring Godmanchester, then moving on to Hartford, where the church appeared to be in danger of becoming part of the River Ouse. From there is was back to All Saints Huntingdon, where I was pleased to take communion with the faithful before heading off back towards Peterborough.
There is a great deal of history assiciated with this church, with Huntingdon Priory, an Augustinian Priory, being founded on or close to this site in 973AD. At the time of the Domesday Survey of 1086, there was already a substantial church here. St Mary was referred to as the 'Mother church' of Huntingdon. At one point there was no shortage of churches in Huntingdon, with four ancient parish churches in the town. Sadly, St Benedict and St John The Baptist were both badly damaged in the seventeenth century during the English Civil War and were pulled down, leaving just the two that we see today.
St Mary stands in the centre of Huntingdon, a short distance away from All Saints. The church is surrounded by trees on its south side, with winter being a good time to photograph it from this direction, once the leaves have fallen. The view of the tower from the west was particularly attractive, as was the fish and chip shop which was at the back of me as I took the photo. Nothing remains of the earliest structure here, but there are some small remains dating from the 12th century. The chancel, nave arcades and the south aisle were re-built in the 13th century, with the west tower and south porch dating from around 1385. The celeastiory was added around 1500.
In 1607 part of the tower collasped, causing the north aisle and clerastory to be destroyed. This was re-built between the years 1608 and 1620, with much of the original stonework being re-used.
There were two big periods of Victorian restoration here, with the first coming in 1869, the second in 1876. There was also more minor work completed here in 1913.
Today, there is a ring of eight bells, all of which were cast by Taylors of Loughborough in 1876. Owen, in his late Victorian study of the church bells of Huntingdonshire, goes in to some depth about these bells with two inscriptions being of particular note. One inscription reads 'The two smallest bells in this peal were presented by Matthew Edis Maile Church Warden 1876'. Another inscription reads 'The six largest bells were given by Matthew Edis Maile 1876 in the place of a former smaller peal'.
Carruthers in his 1824 History of Huntingdon goes in to a little detail about the peal that hung here prior to 1876. The tenor bell was one of the earliest by celebrated founder Joseph Eayre of St Neots and has a Latin inscription, which when translated reads 'Labour itself is a pleasure. Let what is useful be united with what is delightful'. There was also a bell here by Thomas Norris of the Stamford bellfoundry, dated 1659. No more details given on the other bells but Owen showed 'great regret' that a peal of six decent bells went in to the melting pot to help cast the new ring of eight.
Still on the subject of bellfounders, an entry in the parish registry from 1729 states 'Henry Penn stranger buried'. Penn was probably the most famous local bellfounder but at the end of his career he had been involved in a legal dispute with the church at St Ives who said that he had shown little care in his dealing with their bells. This went to court, with the decision going the way of Penn following a lengthy case. Three days after the verdict he collapsed and died at St Ives and was taken to St Mary at Huntingdon for burial.
The three stage tower here is ornately decorated, with lots of carvings, most of which are quite badly worn. One figure appears to be holding a human heart in front of him whilst several green men figures can be seen at various points. A crouched, bearded gargoyle on the south side of the tower sits alongside a corbel string containing grotesque faces and beasts, some with tongues stuck out in medieval gesture of insult. A very weathered winged creature, talons still just discernible, has looked out over the town for the last few hundred years!
The church was closed on my first visit here but I returned on Ride And Stride day 2014. I was given an impromptu tour by the helpful man on duty and spent an enjoyable time with some lovely people. This revision is being typed in September 2014, and the church here was due to be restored with heating being improved and the place being decorated.
As with neighbouring All Saints a few hundred yards away, there is some fine quaility Victorian stained glass to be seen here. The pillard in the south aisle lean at an alarming angle and the roof has its supprts re done in the 19th century so that the tower did not fall through in to the nave.
It was interesting to see the name R Cromwel (not he one 'L' in Cromwel) on a plaque on the north side of the nave, he being one of the church wardens of the day, the wardens being called bailiefs at that time. This was dated 1609 and this was Oliver Cromwell's father Robert.
It was lovely to see the names of those who paid for the seventeenth century rebuilding work carved in to the pillars on the north aisle, with the vicar of the day , Robert Law carved in to the pillar closest to the chancel, along with the date of 1608.
It was good to see inside St Mary, which is well worth a look if you are in the area.