We continued on across the Fens and stopped in Long Sutton. A cafe for the locals did me ham, egg and chips, and the market place is beautifully decorated with hanging baskets. St Mary’s church is at the bottom of the main drag. You come to the west door (locked), try the north door (locked), then find access is easy through the south door!
It won a tourism award about a decade ago – still proudly displayed – but tourism seems to be no longer important. No guidebook, current leaflets of “What’s on” in the area buried in a box under old orders of service, history display boards pushed into a corner, and not a lot on the website about church history either. I think it’s a shame – it is a lovely church (Grade 1, and listed in Simon Jenkins England’s thousand best churches) with a lot of potential (and some of us tourists leave a donation!). Give them their due, they do lots of other things – Pentecost Praise, St Thomas’s Fair, Community lunches, Credit Union, Migrant Workers Forum – so I won’t be too critical.
History says that the church, belonging to the monks of Castle Acre in Norfolk, was rebuilt in the early 1170s by Lady Nicola de la Haye. She was a friend of King John and hereditary constable of Lincoln Castle. He held the castle against the barons rebelling against the King, and continued to hold it after his death at Newark in 1216, now holding it for Henry III. She was granted the right to hold a market here, and was probably responsible for the Early Gothic tower. This was built detached from the church, resting on a set of open arches which may have been used for the market. These were filled in for stability during the C18. The spire is said to be the oldest lead spire in the country. as Jenkins says “When its ground floor was open it must have seemed to float across the Fens”.
Beside the porch there is a hideous modern ashes burial ground, so go into the porch quickely, where are some lovely bosses in the porch.
The church interior is Norman and big – big enough that it didn’t need rebuilding as the population grew in size and wealth. A Perpendicular clerestory was added to the Norman clerestory, so we now have a three tier elevation. Worth looking up at the roof. The aisles were raised too. To quote Jenkins again “This Norman core is like a set of stage props, round which Decorated and Perpendicular masons supplied a theatre.” The Lord of the Manor was John of Gaunt, so money was probably not a problem – O for a John of Gaunt to help out today! Records tell of five altars at Long Sutton paid for by Castle Acre priory and four by local gilds, supporting a total of 18 priests in all. Little of this survives today – though there is some medieval glass in the south chancel aisle. Some nice Victorian glass too.
The Chancel is huge. They have done a good job with an altar in the South Aisle.
There are some lovely tombs in the churchyard, including this one with the thatcher’s tools. We liked the (presumably Old) Vicarage.
All in all it is a lovely little town, and the church should be a jewel. I wonder if they could sell their church hall and use the money for sensible building work at the west end – could there become a cafe and visitors centre? It is easy for me to come up with bright ideas – I’m not in Long Sutton.