Having had our week near Stansted we headed north. I wanted to visit three churches north west of Huntingdon.
Barham is a little village just off the A14. Many years ago I was the Baptist Pastor of Perry, just beside Grafham Water, a few miles south of here. I said to Andrew, the Vicar of Barham and various other villages that I would love to preach at Barham church. “We only have a service once a month and only get half a dozen, but you’re very welcome.” In the next hamlet was a hospitality house for the USAF run by the Southern Baptists. They had never had anything to do with the Anglicans. Andrew wrote in the village magazine that I was coming, and they decided to come too – it was the biggest congregation (and collection) he had ever had.
Just down the road is Leighton Bromswold. It can be seen for miles. A chancel and aisled nave was built around 1250, but it was derelict by the beginning of the C17. Rebuilding started in 1606, but stopped for lack of funds. According to Izaak Walton, for 20 years the church was “so decayed, so little, and so useless, that the parishioners could not meet to perform their duty to God in public prayer and praises.” In 1626 George Herbert (1593-1633) was presented with the Prebendary of Leighton, whilst he was a don at Trinity College, Cambridge. He was not even present at his institution as it is recorded that Peter Walker, his clerk, stood in as his proxy. George needed to raise about £2,000 to get his church rebuilt. He asked Nicholas Ferrar (of whom more anon) to help rebuild the ruined church but he was fully occupied with his community. Nicholas suggested that his brother, John, should supervise the rebuilding whilst George should try and raise the money amongst his influential friends – he succeeded (though much of the expenses he probably paid himself). Indeed, his mother was concerned about how much he spent, summoned him to London, and advised him to abandon the whole project. He is recorded as having replied to her, “Mother, I ask you to allow me at the age of 33 to become an undutiful son, for I have a vow to God that, if I am able, I will rebuild Leighton Church.” In 1630 George Herbert moved to Bemerton near Salisbury – he may never have seen his Huntingdonshire church completed.
A few miles further north is Little Gidding. Drive down a narrow road (one of those with grass down the middle) and you come to a manor house and small church. When Hannah and Gareth were little (in a pre-Harry world) we loved exploring. There was a religious community here, with wonderful cakes at tea time. The community has been through some difficult years, but seems to be established again – see their website. In 1625 Nicholas Ferrar came to live in the, then pretty derelict, manor house. At the age of 18 he had been elected a Fellow of Clare Hall in Cambridge, travelled extensively on the Continent, and was a Member of Parliament. He came to Gidding to find peace – here he was joined by his brother and sister and their families, and by his mother, and they founded a community based on the Book of Common Prayer. In May 1936 T.S. Eliot visited Little Gidding. A few years later, in the midst of War, he wrote the fourth and final poem of his Four Quartets, a poem called Little Gidding. It includes the line “a place where prayer is valid”.
On this Monday in January Barham church was locked, Leighton Bromwell church was locked, Little Gidding church was – yes, you’ve guessed it – locked. OK, each had a phone number so I could have made some phone calls and asked someone to come and open up, OK, a Monday in January is not prime tourist season, but can we really justify these buildings if they are locked except for an hour a week (or even less)?
Julie and I are giving a talk about Little Gidding in Ponteland Church Hall on Wednesday 26 February 2014 at 11 am (repeated at 7.30 pm), so I had hoped to get decent photos. It was not to be. We hit the A1 and continued north – rather depressed.