Church architecture in Hertfordshire and elsewhere, art, books, and whatever crosses my path

Tuesday 15 September 2020

Caldecote church, Herts: small but perfectly formed

Caldecote, despite having its own signposted turn off the A1(M), is not only probably the smallest parish in Hertfordshire* but also hardly even counts as a hamlet, consisting as it does of a manor house, farm and just six houses, plus the church. It's always been small, but was a place of some significance and even affluence from the 12th to the early 14th centuries; there were 16 households in 1321, and excavations have uncovered the remnants of relatively high-status pottery. However, it declined during the 14th century; in 1428 it paid no subsidy (tax) as there were fewer than ten householders, and in the 17th century at most only six families lived there. By the end of the century it was largely abandoned.

This doesn't mean that after the Black Death of 1349 all life drained away from the place (which is the usual explanation given for deserted villages). In June 1381 the inhabitants of Caldecote gathered together with those of other parishes against their manorial lords, the monks of St Albans, in the so-called 'Peasants' Revolt'.** In 1485 the people of Caldecote were lively enough to get involved in a territorial dispute over grazing rights with the parishioners of nearby Newnham, during which three Caldecoteans beat up one Robert Tildesley. In April of that year one of the three, Thomas Hukhill, was  in turn attacked by a Newnhamite flourishing an iron pike and what the court records quaintly describe as 'a stick called a club'. Apparently this literal turf war was still raging as late as 1544.*** 

More to the present point, the parishioners were also lively enough in the 14th and 15th centuries to build and rebuild their church. The base of the tower is Norman, and presumably there was a complete church here in those times, but either it became so dilapidated that it had to be demolished and replaced in the later Middle Ages, or it was thought to be necessary to rebuild it in a more modern style despite the declining population, perhaps to keep up with the Joneses in Newnham and Ashwell (where much work was done during this period). 

The church is small, only 51 feet (15.5m) long; it sits on a hummock in the grounds of the manor house, looking like a garden ornament. It has been much patched up over the centuries, the original clunch (a hardish chalk) and Totternhoe stone having to be replaced in many places by red and pale bricks and black and white flints, which to my mind adds greatly to its charm.

Above the north door is a small niche, which probably once held a statue. It's round-headed; could it be a reused Norman window from the original church?

The tower, when seen from the west, has hips and little lean-to roofs about half way up, so that the upper stage is smaller than the lower, a rather odd arrangement. The windows are typical early Perpendicular, that is late 14th century, which gives us a rough date for this part of the building. 

This window on the south must be a century or so later, and proves that even though Caldecote was suffering from depopulation the remaining residents were willing to spend money in order to beautify their church with the very latest fashions. 

I'd guess that this window with its square head, also on the south, is a little later than the previous one (perhaps c.1500). It's really quite fancy and can't have been cheap: note the pronounced mouldings and the little rosettes in the spandrels, and the label stops (now very decayed). The inhabitants may have been down, but they weren't going to go out without a fight (as poor old Robert Tildesley could have told you).

This window on the north, on the other hand, is a crude example of 17th or 18th century cheap and not particularly cheerful patching up; but even so, there were evidently still people around who cared about the church, and it was never allowed to fall into ruin.

The first thing you see when you step through the door is the 15th century font, rather a swagger piece. 

This must surely be one of the half dozen best fonts in the county, secreted away in one of the smallest, poorest churches. There are two tiers of decoration; at the top are eight panels of cusped geometrical shapes, all different. My favourite is in the 4th of the five font photos above, consisting of four tiddly tadpole mouchettes swimming around a central quatrefoil. It looks as if the mason miscalculated and couldn't quite fit in the one on the bottom right, and had to squeeze it in vertically rather than horizontally.

The lower tier has large rosettes and foliage alternating with shields. One shield displays the Instruments of the Passion (2nd photo), another three crowns (3rd). The latter is perhaps the arms of the donor who paid for the font, but the authorities I've consulted are silent on the question on who that might have been.

Apart from the font the church's other great excitement is the 15th century stoup in the south porch. Stoups are still found in Roman Catholic churches; they're situated by an entrance, and hold holy water which a visitor can dip his or her fingers into with which to bless themselves. Most medieval stoups were ejected from English churches after the Reformation. Caldecote's example, although much decayed, is I think uniquely large and elaborate. The stoup itself stands on an octagonal base (though only three sides are visible), which is decorated with quatrefoils (arranged in an alternating pattern). The crocketed and finialed canopy is an extraordinary extravagance; it even has rudimentary vaulting (looking in its present state a bit like a squashed spider). How did such flamboyance find itself in such an out of the way place? We'll never know.

There are two little fragments of stained glass from the 15th century. The geometrical one above, in the east window, and another in a south window which I unaccountably failed to photograph. I shall return soon to rectify this. It shows the kneeling (and now unfortunately headless) figure of the Rector, William Makesey, who died in 1424. I can't be the only person to note that in its present truncated form it's startlingly phallic.

From about the same date is a set of pews, very similar to those in Wallington. It's easy to imagine the small congregation sitting in them (they'd probably accommodate nearly every parishioner), listening to the Rev. Makesey or his successors, raptly attentive, or maybe daydreaming through tedious sermons.

This pleasingly rustic memorial commemorates the death of Francis Squire in 1732. The pulpit, with its single candleholder on a rotating stand (the equivalent of an anglepoise lamp), dates from the same century.

One novelty is a window of transfer glass. This 19th century technique was a way of producing pictorial glass relatively cheaply; unfortunately, as Caldecote's example shows, the results were short-lived. (There is another example, somewhat better preserved, in Hautbois, Norfolk.) The technique involved an engraved metal plate which was inked and then wiped, so that the ink remained only in the engraved lines. Paper was then pressed onto the plate with sufficient force that the ink transferred to the paper. While the ink was still wet, the paper was then carefully pressed onto plain clear glass, creating a monochrome image. The picture could then be touched up, and even coloured, by the addition of enamels. Caldecote's window seems to show biblical scenes, but they're indecipherable now.

Among the minor pleasures of the church are the various candelabras**** and an oil lamp (there doesn't seem to be any electricity). I'd guess that they're Georgian and Victorian, and although they're nothing special individually, collectively they have great character. I especially like the pyramidal one in the middle of the nave. There are also two foot-powered harmoniums, both covered in plastic sheeting on my most recent visit.

Given the steep decline in the numbers of people living there, it's surprising that Caldecote's church lasted as a going concern for so long, rather than being abandoned centuries ago (as had happened to, for example, Chesfield and Minsden in the county). Services must have been very sparsely attended for many years (though occasionally marriages were celebrated there into the 1950s, as the magnificent photo above attests). Eventually the Church authorities gave up any hopes they may have had of retaining the building, and declared it redundant in 1974. 

This must have been a dangerous time for the church (though at least, being so far off the beaten track, it must have been pretty safe from vandals). I'm sure the locals continued to love it, but maintaining it would have been quite beyond them. R M Healey's Hertfordshire: A Shell Guide (published in 1982 but presumably researched over the previous year or two) paints a very depressing picture: he describes it as 'derelict', the graveyard a 'mess of brambles, tottering headstones, nettles, tree-stumps and fertiliser bags'. The 'roof is propped up internally', the stoup 'as green as an alien being . . . liable to dissolve into a heap of beautiful medieval moist chalk.' The church could so easily have been left to slowly collapse on itself.

Very fortunately, this disaster was averted when the ownership of the church was passed to the Friends of Friendless Churches in 1982. A handsome stone quatrefoil plaque, by Lida Lopes Cardozo Kindersley, commemorating this event was placed in the chancel in 1992. (It also commemorates Thomas Inskip, Viscount Caldecote (1876-1947), former Lord Chancellor.) The Friends are responsible for over fifty churches and chapels in England and Wales; together with the Churches Conservation Trust they make an absolutely invaluable contribution to the maintenance of a very significant proportion of our architectural heritage, and I recommend that you support them in any way you can.

I've visited a number of times over the years, finding it locked more often than open. However, on a recent visit there was a notice on the door implying that in future it will be generally open; good news. Peter Robbins' fine 2008 guidebook was reprinted in 2016, and is on sale in the church along with several other much better than average local history leaflets. (There's no price list, however, nor anywhere obvious to leave money.) 

Major - but sensitive - restoration work was carried out in 2009, and now it is in excellent shape, probably better than it's been for centuries. (Of course, that's not the end of the story, because buildings, and especially old buildings, need constant care and attention.) It makes me blanche to think that without the Friends it could even now be mouldering away. It's very much my kind of church: a bit out of the way, often overlooked, small and not showy but with several features which make a visit a rewarding experience.

* It extends over 325 acres. For comparison, neighbouring Ashwell has over four thousand, and even Radwell, which is generally acknowledged as being a small parish, is more than twice as big as Caldecote. (A football field is about one and three quarters of an acre.)

** Now often referred to as the Great Rising, as many or most of the rebels weren't peasants, and it wasn't so much a revolution, intended to turn everything upside down, as a protest designed to win concessions. Whatever we call it, it failed.

*** See Caldecote, Hertfordshire: A History of the Village to 1600 by Christopher Dyer, Caldecote Church Friends, 2010, and The Victoria County History.

**** Strictly speaking, the plural is 'candelabra' and the singular 'candelabrum'. However, insisting on this seems unnecessarily pedantic. When tempted to use fancy foreign terminations I think of the apocryphal story of the maths professor who invited his colleagues to a conference on a Saturday to discuss 'some conundra about pendula'. One of them replied that he and his friends were not going to waste their weekend 'sitting around on our ba doing sa'.

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