The Parish Church of Comberton stands on the highest ground in the village, and is surrounded by a spacious churchyard. Like more than fifty other Cambridgeshire churches it is dedicated to St. Mary the Virgin. It consists of a chancel, nave, north and south aisles, and a tower at the west end, with a south porch forming the main entrance to the church. The building is well proportioned and, in the words of an old seventeenth century manuscript, 'is a very neat and seemelie church.''
The first church was built in the 13th Century. There may have been an earlier church on the same site, but if so it was demolished and a fresh start was made. The new church consisted of the chancel as it stands today, the nave, and one narrow aisle on the south side. There was no north aisle, nor any upper windows to the nave ('clerestory windows' as they are called), and the roof was of the same height and pitch as that which now covers the chancel, most probably it extended in a continuous line over the narrow aisle on the south side. A porch completed the building, for there was no tower. If we had entered this Early English church of Comberton we should have been struck by its darkness. The only windows known in those days were narrow slits called 'lancets', two of which still remain in the north wall of the chancel at Comberton. As glass was rare in the thirteenth century perhaps the windows were unglazed, and the church must have been cold and draughty in the winter.
In the following century great improvements were made. Glass was now more easily obtained, so it was possible to enlarge the windows and admit more light. The two beautiful windows in the south aisle of the chancel were made during this period, as was also the window at the east end of the south aisle. Very probably other windows in the 'decorated' fourteenth century style were inserted, but if so they were again replaced in the following century by the 'perpendicular' windows which still serve today. A much more important event in the fourteenth century was the building of the tower. Church towers had a variety of uses. They supported the nave, they served as belfries, they greatly improved the appearance of the church, and sometimes they were used for purposes of defence. Comberton tower is not to be compared with the splendid towers of Bourn and Haslingfield, but in its way it is a good example of fourteenth century building. The belfry arch with continuous mouldings down to the ground is fine, and the west window is a good specimen of 'decorated' work.
In the fifteenth century it was recognised that the appearance of the church would be greatly improved by the addition of another aisle to match the original aisle on the south side of the nave. Accordingly, the north wall of the nave was taken down, arches were built in the prevailing 'perpendicular' style, and a wide north aisle was built. This operation necessitated the removal of the roof, and instead of replacing the original low pointed roof it was decided to carry up the walls of the nave to form a 'clerestory' with large perpendicular windows on either side. The reasons for this alteration are not difficult to understand. The proportions of the church were much improved, the additional windows made the nave much more light and airy, and moreover, they provided additional space for the stained glass with which the people of this time delighted to ornament their churches.
By the time of Henry VIII Comberton Church was complete, and a beautiful church it must have been. There were altars in the chancel and in both of the aisles; all the furniture was of the finest material, as the roofs and pews testify, and the whole was no doubt painted and gilded according to the taste of the age. Every window was filled with stained glass. The living was in the gift of the Prior of the great abbey of Barnwell, and the priest appointed by him lived in the 'old vicarage' which still stands on the south side of the church.
England was a poor country before the time of Elizabeth, and it may be wondered how a little village like Comberton could afford to build such a church. Of course the Church was wealthy before Henry VIII laid his greedy hands upon her treasures, but the real explanation lies in the fact that the parish church was the pride and glory of the parish, and the people willingly offered both labour and money to build and adorn the house of God. A friendly rivalry existed between parish and parish and it was the desire of each to have a more splendid church than the neighbouring villages.
How sadly this spirit decayed is evidenced by the shocking state of neglect into which many churches fell during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. At Barrington they kept their cows in the church in 1830! At Comberton the westernmost part of the roof of the nave was rebuilt in 1767, but the material and workmanship are very inferior, and there was no need for Thomas Holder, churchwarden, to advertise himself by having his initials carved on the beam!
Extracts from Comberton Parish Church by P. Gardner-Smith.
The cache contains a log book and pencil - please replace it exactly where you find it. The spot is overlooked by local houses so stealth is required.
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