In my last post I excused my absence from blogging, I’ve been quite busy in the parish over the last few weeks. I’ve been particularly occupied with arrangements for the solemn Eucharist for Candlemas that was held in the glorious surroundings of Stow Minster. I’ve been putting off posting about Stow Minster, but having given you that tantalising glimpse of this building, I thought I might say a bit more about the place.
Stow Minster, the parish church of St Mary the Virgin of Stow, is an extremely important building. It’s a building that dominates the small village to the north of Lincoln that surrounds it – in fact it dominates the whole countryside around it. The name Stow means ‘holy place’ and the village was an important centre for christian mission and worship from the Anglo-Saxon period. Stow was so important in former times that many of the villages around it have ‘by Stow’ added to their place names – Coates by Stow, Sturton by Stow, Willingham by Stow, Normanby by Stow.
By tradition the first church on this site was built in the late seventh century at a spot where St Etheldreda rested for a time while on a journey. The legend is that she planted her walking stick in the ground and it blossomed into a tree and in due course the church was built beside it. Stow is often identified as Sidnacaester, the cathedral of the Anglo-Saxon diocese of Lindsey, but that identification is possible, but sadly unprovable.
That’s not the end of the story. The bishops of Lincoln owned a manor in Stow and they established a palace there. The palace of Stow Park was a favourite country retreat of sucessive bishops, including bishop Hugh of Avalon, St Hugh. It was at Stow that St Hugh made friends with the swan that was to become his attribute. The bishops of Lincoln continued to lavish money on Stow Minster, and at some point towards the end of the twelfth century, perhaps even during Hugh’s tenure, they rebuilt the present chancel of the parish church.
Very little has been added to the building since. The central tower was rebuilt in the fifteenth century and strengthened with new arches set within the Saxon arches. Perpendicular windows were inserted into the east and west ends, but little else was done to the structure.
By the early nineteenth century the building had become seriously dilapidated, and in the 1850s and 60s it was restored under the direction of J L Pearson, who removed some of the later accretions including the Perpendicular windows. In the chancel, the first part of his restoration he inserted a rib vault in place of the late medieval timber ceiling.
Sadly the future of this important and venerable building is at considerable risk. The Pearson restoration has come to the end of its natural life and now considerable work needs to be done to the building both internally and externally. The small and devoted congregation have already managed to raise sufficient money to repair the transept roofs, but the great roofs of the nave and chancel now need urgent attention. The full cost of this work is around three million pounds, far more than the tiny parish are capable of raising. So what will happen? Well one very real possibility is that this building of national importance, will cease to be a parish church and that the long tradition of christian witness and worship in this place will be lost. A very sad future for a glorious and inspiring building that simply comes alive when used as it was intended, for the Eucharist.