This tour starts at the main entrance to the church via the south porch and proceeds anti-clockwise around the church.
Of uncertain date, the south porch is built of brick with a covering of render incised to simulate ashlar stone. The arch is a copy of that which surrounds the south door. The south doorway as a whole was originally sited in the south wall of the nave until reassembled in its present position at some time after the tower was built. A painting of the church of 1839, however, shows a quite different porch with a steeply pitched tiled roof and a shallow three centred arch. The porch was restored in 2003.
The first of the two aisles to be constructed, it comprised only the two easternmost bays when built in the early 13th century. The roof was then about eight feet lower, having been raised to its present height after the tower was built. The westernmost bay also post-dates the tower and is similar in detail to the chancel arch. The fine oak pews were designed by the eminent architect Sir Albert Richardson and given in memory of the Lennox Boyd brothers of Henlow Grange whose memorial tablet can be seen on the south wall.
The beautiful east window portrays the Presentation of our Lord in the Temple and retains original Perpendicular tracery. The Victorian altar was formerly situated in the sanctuary until a new High Altar was given by Mrs Gurney of the Grange in the 1920s.
To the right of the altar, set in a 14th century niche is a much older pillar piscina. It is possible that this dates from the 11th century and was moved to this position from the chancel after it was extended in the late 1300s.
To the left of the altar is the doorway to the rood loft stairs. These were built at the end of the 15th century and gave access to what must have been a substantial gallery above the rood screen at the east end of the nave. The painting ‘The Preparation for the Passover’ is by the amateur artist Frederick Shields after an unfinished water colour by the Pre-Raphaelite painter D G Rosetti. The ancient Parish Chest is also to be seen in the South Aisle. Notice the three iron hasps and staples for the padlocks. The chest could only be opened by the Vicar and both church wardens together! However, look closer still and you will see a single central keyhole filled with a slip of oak. This would appear to indicate that the chest was made before the office of church warden came into being in the 13th century and that the three hasps are a later addition.
Notice, too, the Tilley Memorial Plaque and the Howland Spoon, gifts of the Pilgrim John Howland Society and both indicative of our links with America through the Pilgrim Fathers.
The western half of the Chancel is possibly part of the early 11th century Minster Church although only small sections of the walls remain. The wide four-centred chancel arch replace the original when the rood screen was erected at the end of the 15th century. The Chancel was extended to its present length at the end of the 14th century by William de Cheriton, Prior of Lanthony-by-Gloucester. Lanthony Priory held the advowson and provided clergy for this church from the 11th century until the Dissolution.
The east window contains good quality Victorian stained glass depicting the crucifixion and Jesus the Good Shepherd. The furnishings of the chancel and sanctuary are of 19th or early 20th century craftsmanship when much fine English oak was employed. The reredos behind the High Altar contains carved panels of the symbols of the four evangelists. Notice also the small Orthodox icon of the Mother of God and the infant Jesus. The square headed window on the south side shows, in rich and glowing colours, the resurrection of our Lord. In the upper lights of this window are painted glass roundels depicting the Phoenix rising from the ashes and the Pelican feeding its young with its own flesh - traditional symbols of the Resurrection and Eucharist. At the foot of the window are the much altered sedilia (seats for the priest and sacred ministers during Mass) and the piscina (for draining water used for rinsing the sacred vessels), both of these being contemporary with the chancel extension.
In the Victorian restoration the floor level of the chancel and sanctuary was raised and paved in Minton encaustic tiles in accordance with Ecclesiological principles of the day, resulting in the extremely low position of the piscina in relation to the floor. The small single light window on the south side shows the Ascension of Christ.
To the north is the archway (circa 1900) to the organ chamber. The organ is by J&A Trustam of Bedford and has two manuals, pedal board and ten stops. From within the vestry can be seen the blocked tracery of a 14th century window. Peep behind the curtain on the left of the organ to see the large quoin blocks of the original aisle-less church.
Added to the church in the late 13th century and probably contemporary with the westward extension of the nave, the north aisle originally had four bays and a roof about eight feet lower than at present. When the tower was built in the 15th century the nave and aisle were shortened to accommodate the structure and the western arch of the north arcade was completely filled by a buttress. The walls of the north aisle were rebuilt from sill height upwards at this time. The two tall windows in the north wall contain modern reticulated tracery with crocketed ogee arches. The stained glass in the central window is of this century but that on the right contains a small Flemish glass panel depicting the Crucifixion.
The unglazed window at the east end contains perpendicular tracery from the 15th century rebuilding and the stone panelling immediately below is contemporary with this. The colourful panelling below the gradine belongs to the aisle’s original construction and was for many years hidden by timber wainscoting, an outbreak of dry rot forcing its removal in 1911.
The narrow window at the west end of the north aisle appears to contain tracery from one of the redundant clerestory windows (put in back to front!) and cuts through the recently discovered stone arch if the north doorway.
The eastern two-thirds of the nave formed the body of the original Minster Church. This was extended westwards in the 13th century and shortened again when the tower was built. The clerestory was added in the 15th century but its windows were soon enclosed when the aisle roofs were raised. Notice the eastern clerestory opening on the north side which incorporates the eyes and nose of a man. A curious device to overcome the problem of misaligned stonework, perhaps?
The western clerestory window on the south side is totally different from the others in shape and design and is thought to be a 13th century window re-used after the tower was built.
Next to this window, and in a corresponding position on the north side, can be seen two thin lancet openings. These date from the 18th century when a gallery existed right across the west end of the church for the singers and ‘orchestra’ that accompanied them before organs came back into general use.
The flatness of the four-centred chancel arch is most noticeable from the nave. This arch was, in fact, not designed to be seen, being covered by the massive Rood Screen and loft with the great Rood or Crucifix, the figures of Our Lady and St John either side, mounted on the Rood Beam above. The marks where the beam and loft abutted the walls can still be discerned in the plaster. Notice on the south side, between the eastern arches, the mutilated carving of a (female?) head.
The font is of modern origin but only the marble step is dated and inscribed. The fate of this font’s predecessor is undocumented.
Turn to the west to see the massively proportioned tower arch framing the glazed screen to the Tower Rooms. Through this can be seen the perpendicular west window, the plain 18th century antique glass admitting the golden glow of the setting sun at Evensong in Spring and Autumn, now rendered all the more glorious by a stained glass window depicting St Cecilia installed in 2013 in memory of Philip Rogers.
During 1994 the latest major development to this ancient church was completed. The existing vestry screen was moved eastwards and crowned by a beautifully constructed screen of glass. A floor and staircase were inserted and a WC installed. Wardrobes for the choir gowns and fine blue carpeting complete the Tower Rooms which were dedicated by the Bishop of Bedford, the Right Reverend John Richardson.
In grateful recognition of the generous gifts of the Pilgrim John Howland Society the ground floor is named the Elizabeth Tilley Room. Elizabeth was the wife of John Howland of Fenstanton and was baptised in this church. Together they sailed to America on the Mayflower and the rest, as they say, is history.
Within this room you will see a framed copy of the Pilgrim Charter kindly presented by the Society. The first floor is known simply and appropriately as the Upper Room and a glorious view of the interior of the church can be had from here.
— James E. Burgess, 1998. Printed copies of this tour are available at St Mary's.