Churches have been part of the English landscape for so long that they’re easily taken for granted. After all, every village has one. They define the parish, English administration’s basic unit. In rural areas, where later building hasn’t grown up to obscure them, they’re still the most prominent buildings. It is their spires and towers that you see from a distance, marking place.
That familiarity can make it hard to see what extraordinary creations they are. Take something as plain as stone. A stone church looks right, normal, what you’d expect. The Fens are full of them, big, handsome and intricately decorated or small and friendly-looking. Each one made of silvery-grey limestone.
But remember: this is Fenland. Until humans got to work, this was a soft place where earth and water existed in an eternal embrace, shifting and slippery. Only the drains and sluices and pumping stations, and the constant vigilance of those who manage them, keep this land from returning to its ousy nature.
So if there was nothing here to build with, except reeds for thatch, where did all this stone come from?
In SW Lincolnshire, where the county meets Northamptonshire and Cambridgeshire, lies some of the finest building stone in England. Oolitic limestone from Barnack was used to build many of the best churches in East Anglia, including Crowland Abbey and Peterborough Cathedral.
And it was the same water that allowed people to bring that heavy stone from Barnack and other quarries to build churches in the fens, in a search of permanence in an unstable world. The fabric of every Fenland church has been carried by barge on waters of the Great Ouse and the Nene and the Welland and all their multiple tributaries. This seeming stability depends on movement.
Today, you can visit the old quarries of Barnack, which are a designated National Nature Reserve with the poetic name ‘Hills and Holes’, and wonder at the labour involved in prising the rock from this land and floating it away to build churches among the Fens.