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The Hidden Churches of Cheshire
Timber, both inside and out, is the predominant feature of 13th century St Oswald, at Cheshire's Lower Peover, a small village mentioned in the Domesday Book in 1086. A lovely black and white timber-framed building, with a large stone tower to the west (it was a later addition some 300 years later, being built in 1582), St Oswald lays claim to being the oldest aisled wooden church in England. Its exterior, complete with cobbled lane and ancient graveyard, is picturesque: its interior is impressive.
Medieval wooden pews, choir stalls, screens and arcades abound. Look for the carved wooden candlesticks on the stalls, and the shelf by the font, which was kept stocked with bread for the poor in bygone days, a practise still usually maintained on Sundays even today. A 13th century oak chest, hollowed out from one piece of wood, has five locks, requiring the attendance of five wardens before it could be opened.
Head east from Lower Peover to Macclesfield, where you'll find the church of St Michael, with its fine display of 15th and 16th century tombs and monuments to the Legh and Savage families. There's been a church on the site since the first half of the 13th century, although it has been rebuilt, repaired and extended over the years. The chapels date from the 15th and 16th centuries, though, and are particularly fine. It's worth stopping off on the way to Macclesfield, however, for a quick visit to St Catherine's at Birtle. The church is pleasant, though not unusual; however its interior is a showcase of collectibles. It was built around 1840 by the local landowner, seemingly to show off his ecclesiastical collection from around Europe. The parishioners no doubt would have been pleased most by the upholstered pews: a welcome change from the more usual hard wooden benches!
South to the market town of Nantwich, once heavily involved in the salt industry (avoiding the M6 if you can in favour of quieter roads) and you'll find 14th century St Mary's, with its wonderful octagonal tower. The vaulted stone chancel roof has magnificent decorative ribs carved in the lierne style, designed to draw the eye upwards to the ceiling - and presumably onwards to heaven. It is set off by the stained glass windows and magnificent carved wooden stalls, complete with intricately carved misericords beneath the seats to ease the long services. Less spectacular, but unusual in its construction is a monument in the south transept. It's comparatively modern, being early 17th century, and commemorates a local mayor. Made from alabaster and limestone, it has none of the colour of typical designs of the time, but its simplicity is its appeal.
Across the bottom of the county now, west to Malpas, and another St Oswald, this one from the 15th century, although the big square tower is believed to be 14th century. It's a solid-looking church, imposing and almost fortress-like on the outside, but inside it is particularly splendid. Its major feature is its panelled ceiling, adorned with gilded bosses and angels, which gleam against the dark oak panelling. The two chapels are dedicated to the two ruling families of 16th century Malpas: the Breretons and the Cholmondeleys. It's interesting to compare the two tombs ensconced within: that of Sir Randle and Lady Brereton, dated 1522, is elegant and intricate, while the later tomb of Sir Hugh and Lady Cholmondeley, some 80 years later, is much plainer, without the extensive numbers of carved 'weepers' around the base that appear on the older tomb.
Don't leave without seeking out the 13th century iron-bound carved oak chest close to the entrance. It's as impressive as anything in the church.
From Malpas, you can head north to Bunbury, on your way to Chester itself. There has been a church of sorts on the site of St Boniface since the 8th century, but the present-day one is based in the 14th century, when Sir Hugh Calveley founded a collegiate church. Sir Hugh, an adventurer and sometimes mercenary, lived what can only be described as a colourful life, founding the church in his old age, perhaps as a belated form of insurance? His tomb (although it's not certain he is actually buried there, as it appears he may have headed off on one last adventure from which he never returned) stands testament to his image: a larger-than-life statue in full chainmail, it's believed to be the earliest alabaster tomb in Cheshire.
Chester itself, home to the cathedral, of course, like all major towns has its share of churches. For perhaps the most ghoulish sight, St John the Baptist's, built in 1075, is a must. The tower you see today is a 19th century addition: the original fell down in dramatic fashion in 1881. The church is pleasant enough inside, with some interesting tombstones right at the back: the main attraction though is a carving mounted within an attractively carved Corinthian niche. A full-height carved skeleton, standing behind a drape, leers down incongruously from below the garlands.
Finally, to complete the circuit of Cheshire, a steady drive north-east from Cheshire will take you to St Mary's at Great Budworth, a pretty Tudor village. The churchyard is attractive, with gravestones dotted amongst the trees, and the village stocks stand by the church, which dates from the 14th century, with a 16th century tower. Inside, the church is appealing and restful, with some nice carvings in the sandstone and a 15th century stone font. The most interesting aspect is perhaps the 19th century price list displayed, which details the various charges for burial, depending on your station in life.
Cheshire lost the village of Warburton to the county of Greater Manchester in one of the boundary changes, but it's maybe worth popping over the border just to finish off your visit with a spot of true tranquillity at the old St Werburgh. A rustic, almost shabby building, its interior in plain in the extreme, with bare flagstone floor and rough-hewn timber supports, but you can't beat it for peace and quiet.
A Pictures of England article written by Louise Simmons
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Random England fact:
On Christmas Eve in 1801 Richard Trevithick demonstrated his "Puffing Devil" , a high pressure steam engine which was for the first time mounted on wheels and self propelled. This was the first ever successful passenger carrying road vehicle ie the first car. Sadly a few days later on another trial it toppled over on the then uneven roads,after being righted and moved to the stable of the nearest tavern it blew up and destroyed itself and the stable-- no one had extinguished the boiler!!!
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