A small Fenland town hides a hidden gem; a magnificent wooden roof with around 120 angels and nearly 20 saints and martyrs, out of sight to many but admired by those who take the time to search for the unseen works.
St Wendreda’s Church, March, Cambridgeshire, is built on the highest point of the town and is home to this rare piece of architecture. The oak double hammer beam roof, donated by Alice and William Dredeman and installed by Antony Hansart in 1527 during the reign of Henry VIII, gives the otherwise quaint church fame as experts believe this to be the finest example of the few roofs in this style due to the excellent upkeep and repairs over the years. A brass illustration situated on the wall just next to the font to commemorate the installer of the roof and reads:
“Here lyeth Katryn wife to Antony Hansart syst to ye Robard
Southevelt knight and counceler to ye Kyng Henry ye VII and to
Kyng Henry VIII on whose soules (1Hn) have mercy Amen
Which Katyn died ye 7 day Septemb Adm MV +VII”
Upon entering the church through a very traditional arched wooden door, the first notable interest is the clearly aged stone floor, lined with a diamond patterned tile. Ledger stones of important deceased figures lines the central aisle to the modern chancel to commemorate their burial at the location. Although some of these inscribed stone slabs are easy to read, others have naturally faded naturally due to age and wear.
The chancel is clean and modern, divided with the original archway marking separation of the chancel to the rest of the church. This part of the church is relatively modern compared to the tower built in the 14th century and the remainder of the church predominantly being 16th century. There is a simple red carpet leading up the steps to this area, leaving the focus of visitors on the stained-glass window, filled with blue, yellow and red colours. All the stained glass in the church is Victorian with the portrayal of the last supper shown in the window of the north aisle is a stunning example of the gothic style used during this period, however, all are magnificent works of art.
The south entrance to this church is through a porch with several gargoyles situated around. There are many gargoyles surrounding this place of worship, some more easily visible than others.
As you sit in the wooden pews, looking up at the angels above you offer a breathtaking view. The detail amongst the wooden figures is barely visible to the naked eye, leaving photographers a perfect opportunity to capture this beauty and make the features of the roof more evident to those usually sat below. Among the many angels is one carving known as ‘the Devil’. This is incredibly difficult to spot without knowing its approximate location. Other angels have musical instruments in their hands, while some hold shields.
Wendy James, who has attended the church for many decades says: “The roof is definitely an attraction to those who visit. It feels very special to be sat below over a hundred angels honouring our God every Sunday”.
Many famous faces have visited the church and offered their opinions on the rare angel roof. Doreen Wallace, an author, once described it as: “one of the finest church roofs in England, perhaps the very finest”.
This quaint church has another prized possession. It is home to the largest church bible in England, printed in the early 19th century. The second largest is held at the Bodlian library in Oxford.
In his book, ‘England’s Thousand Best Churches’, Simon Jenkins says the roof “outshines all others for the unity and splendour of its carving. It survived the Reformation axe and the buckshot of the Cromwellians. It survived the Victorians. It survived even those modern iconoclasts, the worm, the beetle and neglect”.
All these factors considered, it is unsurprising that this roof is one of the few who remain. Even more surprisingly, the structure is still held by the original wooden pins and only has aid from an iron bar, installed many years after in order to maintain the strength of the walls across the nave and keep the angel roof in top condition. Due to the sheer number of carvings, “the great beams disappear completely behind the heavenly host of angels”.
Many memorial plaques line the walls of the interior of the church, most notably a commemoration dedicated to pilot, Jim Hocking, who famously sacrificed his life by ordering his crew to abandon the plane that had caught alight during the flight. Hocking remained at the controls to ensure the plane didn’t crash on the town, saving March from a major disaster.
Wendy expressed her feelings on the roof: “It’s a shame they didn’t show more of the angels when we appeared on Songs of Praise”.