Saturday, July 23, 2016

St Mary in Arden, Market Harborough

Want to visit a ruined church? There is one next to Market Harborough station.

St Mary in Arden, says the Victoria County History, was first mentioned in 1220, when it was a chapel of the nearby village of Great Bowden.

That gave it the same status at St Dionysius in the centre of Harborough, and St Mary in Arden was built on the same scale and seems to have been rather more important.

In the book of his television series The Story of England, Michael Wood depicts St Mary in Arden as a place of pilgrimage:
Below the church the graveyard stretched down the hillside to the Welland, where there was an ancient sacred well known as Lady Well. The pilgrimage probably required prayers at the shrine before its image of Mary, and then bathing and drinking at the sacred well. especially for the sick and infirm, who were born along by the villagers.
The church was a ruin by the end of  the 17th century, when it was rebuilt on a more modest scale using some of the existing stones.

St Mary's churchyard remained the town's burial ground until the cemetery opened in Northampton Road in 1878.

After that the church fell into disuse. The board outside says it lost its roof in the 1950s and was almost pulled down in 1971, but is now a scheduled ancient monument and maintained by the council.

Though it prevented further deterioration, I have always found the preservation measures taken in the early 1970s unsympathetic: all that toughened glass puts me in mind of a bathroom.

Many of the gravestones were removed then too, but the best examples now surround the remains of the church. You can read about them in an article by J.C. Davies.

The church's very existence still puzzles me: why a large church just outside the town? Could it have served a lost settlement called Arden?

Those Shakespearean echoes are tempting, but maybe it was built to serve the shrine by the Welland.

And its churchyard does contain the best seat in Market Harborough.

No comments: