Upwell, Norfolk – St Peter

In Wiggenhall church I purchased a Church Trail. It is trail 2, “Tailors and Tank Engines”. Are there other trails? I look at the Diocese of Ely website, searched for “Church Trails”, no results found. No results for “tourism” either. I can find nothing on their website about visiting churches. I get very frustrated – actually, that’s the polite word. The trail starts at Welney, but we joined it at Christchurch. Henry Sayers, father of Dorothy, was rector here from 1917-1928. Dorothy was an adult by this stage, so only visited her parents here. The church was built in 1864, and was locked. We drove beside the Sixteen Foot Drain, north into Upwell.

St Peter’s church Upwell is in the middle of the village, beside the A1101 and the River Nene (old course) – grid reference TF 506027. It has an impressive noticeboard, and we walked across the road to get the key. We were welcomed into Joanne’s Pantry, a lovely village café. I had a bacon, sausage and egg roll to be proud of, and my wife was chatted up by old Fenland gents. We borrowed the key and went for an explore. They have a church website – not as good as the noticeboard.

Before we go inside, we had better look at the Village Sign. Church on one side, and a tram engine (and, to be honest, a disappointing one) on the other. Let’s have Toby the Tram engine. To quote the Reverend Wilbert Awdry, who was Vicar of Emneth (a little nearer to Wisbech (a church locked when we later went to have a look)),  “Toby is a Tram Engine. He is short and sturdy. He has cow-catchers and side-plates, and​ doesn’t look like a steam engine at all. He takes trucks from farms and factories to the Main Line, and the big engines take them to London and elsewhere. His tramline runs along roads and through fields and villages. Toby rings his bell cheerfully to everyone he meets.” He was a locomotive on the Wisbech and Upwell Tramway, and there are lots about the line at various websites – kingslynnforum, LNER  and a blog. You can watch a lovely eight minute film from the East Anglian Film Archive at their website. This is C. Reginald Dalby’s illustration, a photo from somewhere on the line, and a photo of the main depot at Upwell (just to the south of the church).

The rather glossy guidebook says there was a Roman settlement, and probably a Roman house church here), then a small Benedictine priory was founded in the late C7, but it only lasted for a few years. In 969 the Abbey at Ramsey was founded, and as part of its endowment the land on the east side of the river was given to the Abbot by King Edgar. It seems likely that the first church here was built soon afterwards. A C13 church was built on the same site – the lower two stages of the tower date from this period. A new church was started a hundred years later, and completed in stages from the west end. The stone would have come up river, the village being an important inland port. A charter for the holding of a weekly market was granted by King John in 1202. As late as the C14 there were still sea-going ships based here. As the church is one the east side of the Nene, it was part of Norwich Diocese until 1919. There were two religious houses in the parish – the Augustinians at Thirling Priory and the Gilbertines at Marmont (see the recent blog about Sempringham for more about St Gilbert). These lasted until the Dissolution. The Victorians added battlements, and demolished a spire. The gates came from the precincts of Peterborough Cathedral and are fine examples of C17 and C18 ironwork – makes you wonder whether Peterborough gave them, or someone ‘borrowed’ them! The faces on the west end are lovely, and the key I’d be given fitted the door.

You go inside and are greeted with a pleasant church. The font is C15, slightly restored, with a 1998 limed oak cover, and some nice Vicar photos nearby. One photo is apparently of William Townley, Vicar from 1812 – until a new church was built in Nordelph in 1865, the population of that part of the parish came to church by horse-drawn barge every Sunday morning at his expense. The barge was known as “Mr Townley’s Packet”. The Townley family also produced the gilded coat of arms. The wooden coat of arms is Victorian. The lectern is made of latten, a yellow alloy. The guidebook suggests it is an eagle with a cock’s comb, a link to St Peter – I’m not convinced!

The pulpit is rather splendid – I want one! I looked into the Nave, looked down on my wife, and then went into the Chancel. The East Window was installed in 1912 – it replaced one which went in in 1842 and then was “accidentally smashed by gunfire” – we won’t ask.

Two other lovely windows – with Michael defeating the dragon, and some WW1 soldiers and sailors.

There are three lovely brass plaques – how do you get that many words on a plaque?

The angels are C13. They feature in Dorothy L. Sayers’ novel The Nine Tailors and are absolutely glorious. It is a novel I always enjoy, with its East Anglian links and verses from the psalms. Psalm 18 “He rode upon the cherubims, and did fly * he came flying upon the wings of the wind” is just one of them. Whenever a Nine Taylors psalm comes up, I have a little smile to myself. You can imagine (spoiler alert) the servants’ gallery, and a convenient hiding place. I have just found these websites – roof angels and wayside art. More to read. We start with a non-angel in the Chancel. I climbed into the galleries and flew! So close you could almost touch them. I make no apologies for so many photos.

We left the church, I was certainly feeling up-lifted, and I took the key back to Jenny’s Pantry. I then chatted to the owner of this narrowboat. He asked where he could get the key to the church, and I had to tell him Jenny’s Pantry had just closed. He said he was there overnight as high winds and high tide meant that the link from the Nene into the Ouse, which is tidal, was not navigable. We had a chat, I showed him some photos of the church, and told him he must get inside. I hope he did – and if, Mr Navigator, you read this blog, do say “hello”. It is 35 years since we last had a narrow boat, and I think Julie’s days of leaping on and off one are probably over, but I read the piece here and dreamed! Perhaps I could get a boat, and tow a butty for all of Julie’s books … (And if I ever come into some money, I’ll remove the power cables in Upwell that spoil the view).

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