A return visit to the church of St Thomas A Becket, Ramsey, Cambs. I was previously here a few days after Christmas 2013 and it was bitterly cold in the Fens. A little warmer this time, with the sun shining and the Spring blossom out. We were on our way to an evening prayer service at neighbouring Pondersbridge during the early Spring of 2016 and were pleasantly surprised to find the church open.
The church of St Thomas A Becket is in a very attractive setting. It stands proudly at the end of a lane, just a little way away from the town centre. The ruins of the gatehouse of Ramsey Abbey stand close by to the South, with a well maintained green in between the two. On the North side of the church there is a tree lined green with the town sign on it.
This church started off life as a hospital, or a guest house for pilgrims, with this being founded around 1180. At that time, the faithful of Ramsey would have worshiped in the nearby Abbey. It is thought that the present day church was consecrated in 1237. Also, according to the informative church history booklet that was available, the tower is much younger than the rest of the church and was built from stone taken from the Abbey ruins. There is an inscription just above the main door on the West side of the tower which reads "Take heed, watch and pray, for ye know not when the time is"
Moving inside and the eye is immediately drawn to the number of fibe stained glass windows to be seen. Some fine quality windows to be seen here with some, such as Christ in Majesty, holding a globe hand raised in benediction, being very fibe indeed. Mt eye was drawn to some small panels in the tracery of windows along the north wall of the nave which depicted cherubs playing musical instruments. Delicate, charming work.
Those walking to the chancel and then looking back to the west doorway will see a stained glass panel featuring Christ surrounded by children. Another window shows six female figures, all with nimbus, and all of whom are carrying a scroll on which are the words Purity, Constancy, Courage, Faith, Self Sacrifice and Wisdom, the six characters of virtue.
There is conjecture as to the age of the font. This font is hexagonal and one historian has said that it could be earlier in date than any part of the existing church. Pevsner, however, dates it as 13th Century. At one point the font was disused and was buried under the floor. It was restored in early Victorian times. I was interested to see in the history booklet that the organ here was built in 1903 at a cost of £250. It was restored just under 100 years later at a cost of a mere £45,000!!
Six bells hang here with all six being cast by Robert Taylor in 1810. Two of these have inscribed the names Thomas Pooley and Henry Parker, the church wardens of the day. The tower here was erceted in 1672. Before that date there was a low wooden steeple which contained four bells. Upon building the stone tower a fifth was added. I have not been able to find out who cast these earlier bells.
For me, with my love of stone carvings, the highlight of my visit to Ramsey was to be found in the church grounds. The church here has some of the finest carved gravestones, certainly within the catchment area of this site, and possibly as fine as anywhere that I have ever visited. Human skulls are carved on to several of the graves, along with other images of Man's mortality such as hour glasses which symbolise the passing of time. On one grave a depiction of old father time leans back against a bowl filled with human bones and a skull. On another, two cherubs each hold a crown in one hand whilst one blows a horn and one holds what appears to be a palm leaf. On another, a human hand holds a crown out in the direction of a crudely carved human skull. The crown appears time after time in carvings such as these, symbolising triumph and victory over death. Elsewhere an angel with wings folded up and eyes closed is surrounded by grapes, symbolising the blood of Christ.
Symbols such as these were used to get a message over to those looking on, this done in picture form as most of those looking on would be unable to read. The standard message is that man is mortal and will die but death can be defeated by living a good Christian life, with the deceased moving on to eternal life in heaven.
As mentioned earlier, the ruins of Ramsey Abbey are off to the south, no more than 100 yards or so away from the church. This abbey was founded in 969AD At that time Ramsey was just a small island in the marshes. It became one of the most important monastic houses in England, with as many as 80 monks here during the 12th and 13th centuries. It was dissolved in 1539,
It was a brief stay here, as we had to get to Pondersbridge for their service. It was lovely to be here again though and to see the church open. I am not convinced that the church here is normally open to visitors. Well worth visiting if you are in the area.