Yesterday, I made my second East Anglian excursion of the year, this time to Cambridge. It was a bitterly cold day and, although it was dawn by the time that I reached Peterborough, the light remained subdued by one of those swirling mists that often accompanies sub-zero winter days. I did not enjoy the cold (it was impossible to get warm, even by wearing a coat on a heated train), but I was delighted by the mist, as it enhanced the jolt of surprise that Ely Cathedral always springs when it sails suddenly into view. Not for nothing is it called the ‘Ship of the Fens’ and yesterday it truly looked like a huge galleon that had just weighed anchor on a white-capped sea.
Whilst Ely is one of the country’s oldest cathedrals (parts of it date back to the seventh century), the Fens as a whole are famous for their beautiful churches. When I was a child, every shopping expedition to Peterborough included a visit to Peterborough Cathedral. It was here that I first learned of the beheading of Mary Queen of Scots at Fotheringhay. She was originally buried in Peterborough Cathedral, though later exhumed and reinterred, by order of James I, in Westminster Abbey.
However, some of the finest Fenland churches are not cathedrals, but the more modest – although still magnificent – parish churches. I was both baptised and married in the Parish Church of St. Mary and St. Nicholas in Spalding; I was a pupil at Spalding Parish Church Day School, affiliated to this church.
I have recently acquired several books about South Lincolnshire in order to research Almost Love, my next novel. Among these is Geese, Gowts and Galligaskins, by Judith Withyman, a history of life in a fenland village from the mid-sixteenth to the mid-seventeenth centuries. (I shall review it when I’ve finished reading it.) Most of the papers that she draws on, in this vivid re-creation of how people lived in the Fens three or four hundred years ago, were discovered by her in the 1970s, in a chest kept in St. Mary’s Church at Pinchbeck, a large village that has become almost a ‘suburb’ of Spalding.
Such records are treasures and I wonder how many other Lincolnshire churches contain such secrets that are silently waiting to be yielded up to the interested and observant?