Early January 2012 and still the winter had not set in! A gloriously sunny New Year bank holiday and the chance to get out on the cycle for the first time in a little while. A visit to the church of St Botolph at Helpston was the first in what was to be seven churches visited that day.
Helpston, is a delightful village. not far off the A15, to the north west of Peterborough. The most famous resident of the village was the Peasant Poet, John Clare, whose beautiful white cottage stands a little way away from the church. Clare is regarded as one of the most important poets of the nineteenth century. He was born in Helpston in 1793 and died in an asylum at Northampton in 1864, his body being buried in the churchyard at St Botolph. Clare can be seen on the village sign, notebook in hand, in front of the church.
The church here dates back to Norman times, with much of the present structure dating from the 13th century. However, this has been a place of worship for a very long time and Saxon foundations were found in the 1860's during rebuilding work. As with nearby Bainton, the church here is close to the village cross, which dates from the 14th century.
The west tower leads on to an curious short octagonal spire. Some ancient looking gargoyles look out from each side of the tower. Three bells hang here, with at least two of them being made by the Norris family, who ran the nearby Stamford bellfoundry. The first bell in the ring is dated 1671 and was cast by Thomas Norris. This is inscribed "God Save The King". The third bell in the ring is earlier, being dated 1618, This is inscribed with the Latin phrase "Omnia Fiant Ad Gloriam Dei" which translates as Let All Make Praise To God. The second bell was re-cast by Warner of London in 1866. It was, as with the first bell, originally inscribed "God Save The King" as I suspect that this bell was also by Thomas Norris.
This church is always kept open for visitors and those wishing for private prayer. For the most part this is an area that is blessed with open churches and full marks to those who give up their time to make this possible. The eye is very much caught by a modern stained glass window on the east wall of the chancel. This is a representation of Christ in Majesty and was dedicated as recently as May 1983. The artist here was Francis Skeat who was a prolific stained glass artist. His work can be seen today in Westminster Abbey, Portsmouth cathedral and as far away as South Africa where a Rose Window of his hangs in St George's cathedral in Cape Town.
I was very interested to see some fragments of Saxon crosses, which were once used as part of the churchyard wall. These were "rescued" from the wall and brought inside in the 1990's. Fragments of stone crosses, and things such as stone coffin lids were often used as coping stones.
The church has limewashed walls and inside it was bright and very peaceful. Looking around the nave I was pleased to find a "Mason's Fool", an upside down head, pictured half way down on the right of this page. The font dates from around 1350 and is plain and octagonal in design.
The churchyard here has been closed since January 1st 1882, with burials then moving to the nearby cemetry. Church grounds are well maintained and there are a few examples of gravestone symbolism worth noting. There is a single "deaths head" stone to be seen. These feature a human skull and were designed to symbolise Man's mortality to the onlooker in a manner that they could understand, given that most of the population could not read or write. Sometimes these skulls had wings to denote the passing of time. In other instances the human skull is replaced by an hour glass, again sometimes with wings, to denote time flying.
One gravestone here featured grapes as part of the design, this symbolising the blood of Christ. Another grave here has a depiction of ears of corn. According to some internet research ripened corn was used as a symbol of a life lived to old age.
The church grounds are nicely kept and in the summer the grounds here are a delight. Interestingly, the churchyard wall here is a listed structure in its own right. The wall here is thought to date back to the 18th century.
Very much enjoyed my stay here. This is a lovely village to visit if you ever get the chance. John Clare's cottage is open to the public, please check their website for opening hours, and the church of St Botolph is well worth spending some time looking around. Back on the cycle and set off the short distance to neighbouring Bainton.