Tuesday, 2 October 2012

St Peter's, Northampton

Northampton is seldom considered a very beautiful town. Its architectural heritage has been mostly either lost of bastardised. But the town is blessed with a few isolated gems which are up there with the finest buildings in the country. The Sessions House, 78 Derngate, The Guildhall. The town centre's four remaining ancient churches, All Saints, St Giles, Holy Sepulchre and St Peters, each have their own place in the superlative lists of English churches.

The church of St Peter is today in a neglected outpost of the town, between the station and the town centre. It is on Marefair, a road that once hosted a market (fair) for female horses (mares). It sits high on a mound overlooking the inner ring road. It was once so different. The station is the site of Northampton Castle, a major royal palace and fortress in the Middle Ages. Nearby St Peters served the town (and supposedly once a Saxon Palace). The town centre has since shifted eastwards, and the area around St Peters, known as the Boroughs, became the location of slum housing and small industrial buildings.

The church has beautiful Norman carving inside and out. Like many cottages in the area, it makes use of the contrasting local limestone and ironstone in horizontal bands. A single, long, roof covers the nave and chancel and below it is an arcades clerestory. It was rather enthusiastically "restored" in both the 17th and 19th centuries, yet there is still so much to see. The tower has moved east, the east front has moved west, but the norman body survives.

Centuries of social decline in the area left the church forgotten and neglected. Once it was surrounded by urban grain, little houses and factories. Today, it has Marefair on one side and nothingness on the other. It was eventually declared redundant, but this move may be what has saved it. It was taken over by the Churches Conservation Trust.

The CCT have restored the GG Scott paintings in the chancel, sorted out the damp problem, restored the fabric, and importantly open the church on a regular basis. The area to the south of St Peters, along by the overlooked River Nene, is soon to be redeveloped (supposedly) as part of the Northampton Business Improvement District. Let's hope that this investment can be used to improve the church's setting and reinvigorate the ancient heart of the town.

For The Friends of Northampton Castle go to http://www.northamptoncastle.com/

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