The tradition of covering roofs with thatch continues all over the English countryside. Although most buildings are now roofed with tiles, there are still quite a few that have a covering of thatch. The thatch has to be renewed regularly, This is a lengthy and costly business that can only be carried out by the small number skilled thatchers, who operate around the country. Because of the costliness of maintaining it, having a thatched roof is now a conspicuous sign of wealth, whereas once it was not.
SNAPE MALTINGS ON Suffolk’s River Alde is a famous venue for music (mainly) and the other arts. It is the home of the Aldeburgh Festival, started in 1948 by the composer Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) and his partner, the singer Peter Pears (1910-1986). We have yet to attend a concert there, but we have eaten a fine lunch in its beautifully designed River View eatery. From the Maltings, you can enjoy views across the water meadows and if you look carefully enough, you can spot the tower of the Church of St Botolph in the tiny village of Iken across the river.
St Botolph, who died in about 680, is believed to have brought Christianity to Iken in about 654. He is the patron saint of boundaries, and, because of this, also of trade and travel. The present church dedicated to him is curious because its nave has a thatched roof. It was preceded by a minster built by Botolph but destroyed by the Danes in the 9th century. In 870, a Saxon timber church was constructed. This has also gone. It was replaced by a stone edifice, the beginning of what we can see today.
The Norman flint-rubble nave of the current church was built between about 1070 and 1110. The western tower, also with flint and other masonry was constructed soon after Robert Geldeny and William Baldwyn bequeathed money for its construction in 1450 and 1456 respectively. During the Reformation in the 16th century, various changes were made to the church’s interior to conform with the restrained liturgical requirements of the Reformed Church. This would have included whitewashing over colourful frescoes and destruction of stained glass and other decorative features. By the 19th century, the church was becoming somewhat dilapidated. Between 1850 and 1860, restoration works were undertaken. A new chancel was constructed in the style of the early 14th century on the foundations of the original mediaeval chancel. It was designed by John Whichcord (1790-1860) of Maidstone in Kent.
In 1942, during WW2, the whole of the population of Iken was evacuated so that the area could be used for battle training. The church was also closed. It reopened in 1947 after the villagers returned to Iken. During the 1950s, they did much work to improve the condition of their church. In 1968, sparks from timber being burnt nearby set fire to the thatched roof of the church. The nave was badly damaged, but the chancel survived. Today, visitors to the church would not be able to imagine that it had suffered such a conflagration, so well has it been repaired.
Inside the church, several things attracted my attention. The most fascinating is the Saxon cross shaft in the northwest corner of the nave. Covered with bas-relief Celtic-style carvings this 4 ½ foot fragment of a stone cross (possibly, originally 9 feet in length) was created either in the 9th or 10th century. Near to this, there is a lovely octagonal stone font, which is 15th century. It is covered with superb carvings, some of which depict the emblems of the four Evangelists. These are separated from each other by angels. The wooden altar reredos, a panel behind the altar, was carved by Harry Brown of Ipswich and dedicated in 1959. It bears a bas-relief of The Last Supper, which Mr Brown based on the famous painting of that occasion by Leonardo da Vinci. I have mentioned a few of the items within the church that I found interesting but there is plenty more to see, all listed in an informative booklet on sale in the church.
From the boundary of the graveyard surrounding this lovely church, you can catch glimpses of the River Alde, which flows nearby. Visitors to Snape Maltings should spare some time to visit the church at Iken. It is so nearby yet feels so far away.
IF YOUR TRAIN FROM CAMBRIDGE to London stops at Shepreth and Meldreth, you can be sure that you are in for a longish journey because only the slower trains halt at these stations. Over the course of many years, we have been travelling to and from Cambridge by train and as I enjoy looking out of the window, I have always noticed this pair of oddly named stations. Only recently, we visited both places by car and took a look around these lovely villages between Cambridge and Royston and close to the A10 road, which runs from London Bridge to Kings Lynn via Cambridge.
The ‘reth’ suffix in the two villages names means ‘stream’. Shepreth means ‘sheep stream’ and Meldreth means ‘mill stream’. There is archaeological evidence of settlements in both places long before the Romans invaded England. The Romans may have occupied part of the parish of Shepreth and their successors, the Saxons, developed the village of Meldreth. Both villages are listed in the Domesday Book (1086). Little appears to have been recorded in the history books about events in tiny Shepreth. The larger village of Meldreth also played no great role in the history of England but, in the 16th century, Christ College of Cambridge moved to its estate near the village to escape from the plague. Members of the Meldreth Local History Group might disagree with my assessment of Meldreth’s place in British history. Their superb website (meldrethhistory.org.uk/) details many aspects of the place’s past, but most of them are about the village rather than the wider world.
I imagine that the building and opening of railway stations in the two villages in 1851 were major events in their history and development. Currently, the stations are served by Thameslink trains. The villages are popular places for commuters to both London and Cambridge.
Both villages are rich in historic buildings of great beauty. Many features of vernacular architecture can be found including many fine thatched roofs. A particularly charming old, thatched edifice In Shepreth is Corner Cottage, which is close to a more aristocratic looking building, Docwra House. This former manor house was built in the 17th century and then provided with later additions (www.docwrasmanorgarden.co.uk/history.htm). The village sign at Shepreth is suitably adorned with sheep, bales of fleece, a stream, a bridge, a water mill, and a leaping fish. The bridge, which we did not see, was built in the 17th century. It crossed the River Rhee, a tributary of the River Cam, in which sheep were washed, and was used by farmers taking sheep to the market in Cambridge.
At Meldreth, through which flows the tiny River Mel, a tributary of the Cam, we entered the parish church of Holy Trinity, whose construction began in the mid-12th century on the site of an 8th century church. Its square tower, nave, and chancel were all constructed in the 12th century. The church contains some fine brass chandeliers; an elaborately carved pulpit and choir stalls with wooden carvings; fragments of pre-Reformation frescoes; a lovely timber beam ceiling; some heavily whitewashed carvings supporting some of the ceiling timbers; and a mediaeval parish chest. The latter is one of about 150 surviving examples. It was made in Baltic pine with iron bands between about 1400 and 1420 and was used for securely storing valuable liturgical items (e.g., silverware, books, and vestments). In addition to visiting the church, we drove through long village to its station, which up until our visit by car, we had only ever seen whilst speeding through it by train. However, we did not see any mills as suggested by the meaning of the name Meldreth.
We did not spend nearly enough time in the two villages as we fitted them into an already busy day of sightseeing. However, having sampled them, we feel that they merit a longer visit in the future. Once again, these places provide good examples of the wealth of historical features to be discovered in England’s rural areas.