by Steve Cunningham
Layers of remarkable ancient history are being lovingly uncovered as part of an extensive programme of continuous modernisation by St Peter’s Church in Oundle for the benefit of the local community.
It is all part of a series of six building phases – costing approximately £200,000 – which is designed to develop, improve and enhance the church building as a place of worship but also as a major venue for local events. A fascinating glimpse into its past is also being unearthed which has shed greater light on the town’s former residents and the history of local schools.
The ultimate aim of the St Peter’s Parochial Church Council (PCC) is to continue to navigate through, and negotiate with, Church of England and English Heritage (as well as other interested heritage societies) building regulators. The PCC have jumped over bureaucratic hurdles frequently during the past decade. But more patience will now be required to achieve the possible construction of other community facilities, such as a kitchen, within the footprint of the church building. The plan is in keeping with the mission to attract and support local residents and organisations as they use the building more often for all types of occasions. Raising money for this project will, in time, become a priority.
“To be a Church Welcoming Everyone is at the heart of who we want to be at St Peter’s,” said the vicar Revd Stephen Webster. “This is what drives our desire to ensure that our building meets the needs of people in the twenty-first century; a building which helps us to serve everyone in our community, including those in our steadily growing Church family.”
Physical space to accommodate everyone is certainly an issue. With an increasing number of people from Oundle and the surrounding villages becoming Christians, much thought is being given to how to cater for them in the future. Some of the services in the run up to Christmas 2016 had attendance in excess of 500.
“Our church is such a busy community so, in a sense, finding more room within the existing layout is such a lovely challenge to have”, Stephen continued, “I feel sure that providing improved kitchen facilities in the future will be among our priorities as well as additional meeting spaces for all the various groups who use the Church building.”
The recent phases of building work began with the installation of stylish and robust wrought iron gates at the west door. This was followed by the transformation of the main entrance to include welcoming automatic glass doors and a brand new ramp for wheelchairs and pushchairs. The ancient Lady Chapel was then re-ordered to give a much needed multi-functional space. Next, cutting edge technological equipment was put in to provide a modern audio-visual system for the building.
Phase Five is now in progress to re-configure the interior of the west end including the building of a choir balcony, crèche and toilets. The latter was becoming a vital requirement; one annual community event hosted in the church is a massive wine tasting event by a local firm to which more than 500 people are invited to sup – with just one loo cubicle currently available for necessary visits thereafter.
The Friends of the Parish Church have donated funds for this current project as have East Northamptonshire District Council whose vital £20,000 contribution underlines their recognition of St Peter’s as a growing and significant community space. The St Peter’s Church PCC even received a personal note of congratulations from the Church of England’s Diocesan chancellor who was responsible for rubber-stamping the project.
He emphasised how good working practices with all the authorities had resulted in a sensitive solution being reached, given that the modern toilet facilities needed to blend into the historic fabric of the building.
“This was particularly pleasing for us because it had taken us three years to get the final go-ahead for the toilets to go in”, commented the PCC’s project manager Malcolm Winder. “All that time and yet we were given to believe that this had been a ‘fast-tracked’ project”, he added with a smile.
The work at the west end is being carried out by the Newark-based company Kirk and Bills which specialises in church building restorations.
Encouraged, the PCC has pressed ahead with plans for Phase Six; to modernise the medieval ‘Parvis’, or Priest’s Room, situated above the church’s main south entrance. Believed to have been constructed in the 1480s, the room – accessed via a tiny, narrow spiral staircase – deteriorated steadily across the centuries and had, in effect, been completely mothballed owing to its instability.
“The tiny door to the staircase is so cute…like an opening into Narnia” said one church member. “The stairs themselves are so narrow and steep that it must be assumed that its users over the centuries, including the priests, have been young, fit and thin!”
As the cobwebs were parted, experts were greeted with a time-capsule which needed immediate forensic investigation. Specialists from both Leicester and Nottingham Universities were called in to assess the timber in the room which, it is hoped, will be transformed into a modern meeting space and office for church clergy. They discovered that ‘Death Watch’ beetle had been responsible for much of the decay. Further investigation revealed burn-marks on the fireplace lintel which were inscribed, it is thought, in a pre-reformation practice designed to ward off evil spirits. The lighting of fires may have helped in this regard but the experts believe that one has not burned there for 300 years.
Dendrochronologists analysed the tree rings and discovered that they ranged in age from the sixteenth century to the 1720s. It has even been possible to identify the exact woodland in the nearby village of Apethorpe from which the timber was extracted. The traditional hallmarks of the original joiners have been uncovered – as well as graffiti, some as recent as the 1960s. The room’s two windows are so small that any new artificial interior lighting would be a priority.
It is widely accepted that the porch was originally built by Robert Wyatt and his wife Joan who added the extension to a structure on a site whose history dates back to 709 with the foundation of a monastery on the site by St Wilfrid.
Settling on a precise timeline has been challenging but this so-called Priest’s Room was also to become the town’s very first – or certainly one of its earliest – school rooms. Local lad William Laxton was educated here in the 1500s before, in classic Dick Whittington fashion, he headed south to become eight times Master of the Worshipful Company of Grocers and Lord Mayor of London to boot. The subsequent Laxton Grammar School and today’s independent Oundle boarding school are his legacy.
“As and when we get permission to transform this room, we have some very unusual factors to consider” said Malcolm Winder. “How, for example, are we going to decorate a space with furniture that cannot be got up the stairway? I suppose, we may well have to lower stuff into the room by crane before the roof is rebuilt!”
Watch this space.