Many visitors to Fletton Church come especially to see the Anglo-Saxon carvings. These visitors will be also be knowledgeable about Church architecture and not need a guide to the rest of the building. Others who come into the Church ask “How old is it?” These notes are particularly for them. The main source of information is Pevsner’s 'Huntingdonshire' in 'The Building of England' series. I have also used a guide written 25 years ago by Clive George, a member of the congregation until he moved away. I cannot improve on his Forward.
St Margaret’s Church has a long history, deeply rooted in the Christian lives of the countless souls who have worshiped here since before the Normans came. It stands today a gracious witness to the Christian faith in Fletton, past and to come.
The quick answer is to be found by a look at the plan, on which I have put some dates. Dates before the twentieth century are approximate.
As with many ancient churches that have been rebuilt and extended several times, working out the sequence requires detective work. Not everything can be certain because some work is foundations or covered by plaster and items like windows can be, and were, moved. So, I have found that I do not agree with the experts about the date of the priest’s Vestry. They say it was added about 1300, but I think it was added to, and is therefore part of the oldest structural work in the building. I have also therefore, done a sequence of plans to show how I think the building has developed. Not everything is completely certain, and you may come to different conclusions.
The church is quite small and people find is welcoming. Despite the spire, it is not always very visible, and even people who live in Fletton do not always seem to know it is there.
It is about seventy feet long by forty feet wide. The spire is 110 feet high. The Chancel is twice the length of its width, which might reflect the fascination of the people at the time it was built with the spiritual significance of the geometry and proportions. Other measurements do not seem to have such relationships.
The Church was mentioned in the late 11th century Doomsday survey and the oldest remaining walls may be from this church. If you stand outside and look at the south wall of the Chancel, a blocked Norman window is visible. The narrow buttresses are also Norman, as is the corbel-table visible just below the gutters. The east wall of the Church also has Norman buttresses. This east wall of the Chancel and Vestry seems to have no break between those two parts - the first clue to suggest the Vestry is early. There would have been narrow windows like the blocked one that survives, and probably three in number of the south side. The walls would be high. The Chancel Arch was originally, probably, round-headed, it’s capitals have the “scalloped” type, similar to the other Norman arches in the Church This suggests that the Nave is later than the Chancel, and of the same date as the North aisle. So, the first simple church was probably a Chancel plus Vestry.
About 1165 the Nave and North Aisle were built, so the Chancel Arch and Norman Arcade of six plain round arches were from this date. The Northern Aisle was about half of the width of the present one. We do not know what type of windows it had. At some time, the Chancel Arch was rebuilt with a pointed top. The capitals of these new arches are of the “scalloped” type. I am not sure, but I think that the stairs to the rood loft, now blocked at the top to hide their upper doorway, are also of this date. “Rood” means “Cross of Christ”, churches had a screen across the chancel arch, with a gallery or loft, on which would be a crucifix and depiction of Mary the Mother of Jesus and John the Beloved Disciple. No doubt there were candles to be attended to, and prayers were also said up there at certain seasons. The stairs suggest people were smaller in those days. It is easy to see where the Rood Screen was because bits of the stonework have been cut out.
The vestry has what appears to be an external corner above the north end of the communion rail, and a small cross shaped window looking into the present north aisle, the inside of this little window is in the vestry, and the splayed sides are, as is often the case, of unequal angles to get the light best directed into the building. The splays indicate it was this way round originally. These features are what made me question its age; and concluded it to be older than the North Aisle. There is more;
inside the vestry is a stone shelf, which may well have supported a floor at just the height to bring the little window to eye level. The present door between the
chancel and vestry has a later top section, so that if the vestry‘s present floor level were brought down to that of the Nave as it probably was originally, the resulting ceiling of the floor above is about right for it to have been originally a two storied building, perhaps a vestry below, and a room for the priest above. Of course it could have been a tower, even a defensive one, for it would have been on the comer of the church facing the Stanground Lode. It was was once a wet, marshy area, with perhaps a bigger river in it. It was certainly a barrier because Stanground Church is less that half a mile away, but rivers are also routes for invaders! Stanground and Fletton must originally have been settlements on either side of the mouth of Stanground Lode where it joined the Nene. Incidentally, Stanground Church lies two or three metres lower than Fletton according to the Ordinance Map, which is not how it looks to be.
A look at the contours on the map, and tracing out the older routes from Stanground to Peterborough indicates that the route from Stanground to Peterborough crossed the Lode at the present little bridge on South Street, Stanground, followed Fletton High Street to London Rd. by the present traffic lights. Quite a long way round to avoid the wet ground around Fletton Spring. No railway or Fletton Avenue in those days, and our Church on the main road, but not today’s.
The square topped window in the south aisle, and those high in the Nave are 17th century.
There was a Victorian restoration in 1872. The 14th century porch had collapsed and was replaced. A tower gallery erected in 1830, probably as a minstrel gallery and later used as an organ gallery was taken down, woodwork was renewed, and the east window was restored.
In 1901 the north aisle was extended to its present width. The Chancel roof and carving is from one of these restorations.
About 1917, the spire was hit by lightning, and the upper part rebuilt, one of three similar decapitations in the last 100 years.
In 1983, after an arson attack, the church was redecorated and the choir vestry built. In the fire the organ was so much damaged that little of the old one survives in the present instrument. The fire was started by youths, and by chance a retired fireman was working his allotment nearby. His prompt action saved the church from destruction.
In 2000 the choir vestry was replaced by a small kitchen, toilet and a meeting room, following the loss of facilities caused by the sale of the Rectory.