Holidays In Northamptonshire and Cambridgeshire
Like Larkin, I am not a churchgoer but have to be more generous than him when I visit one now that there are no Irish sixpences. For some, the only way to address the Big Question is to build and these are among the best results in the country.
An excellent example, and only four miles away, is St Peter's, Oundle. On the foundations of the original Saxon monastery, the nave was constructed in the 13th century. Two hundred years later they added the tower and, still not satisfied that this was monument enough for the town, the tallest spire in the county was finished in the 1630s. As it turned out, this was just in time as 15 years later such extravagance might have been life threatening. From miles around this spire eloquently informs the observer of the power of the church in these times. It probably galled the tithepayers who paid for it but you can enjoy its majesty as soon as you walk behind the trees behind the cottages.
Fotheringhay. Stunning church that was part of an abbey that was pulled down in revenge for it being where Mary Queen of Scots was beheaded. That's what the locals say, anyway. They also say that the staircase in the Talbot in Oundle came out of the castle.
Little Gidding. If you can, go on a bright, freezing mid winter day or in May when the hawthorn is blooming. As Eliot said, 'There are other places which also are the world's end, some at the sea jaws, or over a dark lake, in a desert or a city- but this is the nearest, in place and time, now and in England.' Read the whole poem and go quietly to this beautiful place. Four Quartets
Peterborough Cathedral. Dates from the 12th century but sadly surrounded by inner Peterborough which is a monument to '60s urban planning. What was going through the minds of these people when they destroyed so many fine towns and cities? Read Mark Haddon's 'A Spot of Bother' to get a feel for what it must be like to live in this City. But do visit what is a very fine cathedral; you will learn something about ourselves when you emerge full of wonder and look upon McDonalds and all the other monuments we have built to our age immediately outside it. In the words of Theodore Dalrymple, the pen-name of prison psychiatrist Anthony Daniels, 'Peterborough is essentially a sublime cathedral surrounded by a festival of British modernist architectural incompetence and brutalism sponsored by a council planning committee that was both without taste and - let us at least hope, for it is the only charitable interpretation of what the committee has wrought - corrupt'. I would never say anything like that but do understand where he is coming from.
St Matthews, Northampton was an important centre for art in the 1950s. Still contains the best painting by Graham Sutherland and an iconic Henry Moore sculpture. It is one of the last examples that I know of where the/a church was a driving force in the arts. Cannon Walter Hussey was the second vicar of St Matthews, his predecessor being his father; nepotism might be unfashionable but it allowed a great man to leave an indelible cultural mark on the town before he did the same for Chichester Cathedral. You can see his personal collection at Pallant House.
"When I came into this church for the first time in my life, which was yesterday evening - coming in by that South West door over there - I wanted to go down on my knees. For this is the sort of church which brings you to your knees. These soaring vistas of pale stone arches, the superb proportion of window to wall space, the delicacy of much of the detail from the profound, primitive simplicity of Henry Moore's Madonna and Child, to the lace-like tracery of this beautiful wrought-iron chancel screen, the way the genius of Holding, the architect, leads your eye to the high altar there below the flashing jewels of the East Window, that altar where the Greatest Mystery in the World happens Sunday after Sunday, and where, as we who try to be Christians try to believe, the Creator of the world, of the universe, of the trees and birds in the road outside, of the stones which Holding used to build the church, of the bones which help you sit upright in your seats tonight, where the Maker of our souls and minds, our very selves becomes present to hear our needs and answer our prayers in accordance with His Will - as I thought of all these things I did indeed want to fall on my knees and thank God for the beauty which man has made to the Glory of God in St. Matthew's".
(John Betjeman in a sermon in St. Matthew's Church, Northampton, 5 May 1946)
You may not share all the sentiments but this ought at least encourage a visit.
Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Northampton. Romanesque Round Church dating from the 12th century but with many additions.
Kings College Chapel, Cambridge. It is hard to believe that this is a college chapel. It is magnificent as is the rest of Kings.
Any other Cambridge college chapel is worth looking into. An interesting comparison is to walk round Kings and then visit Peterhouse, oldest and smallest of the Colleges.