- The Vicarage
- Church Street
- CB22 7NP
From Harston to the Tower of London
The long list of Harston Vicars includes a wide variety of characters who made an impact in many different ways.
The church, like the village of Harston, has had good times and bad. We may feel that we live in troubled times, but history gives perspective. Consider for a moment the life of Matthew Wren, a bright young Cambridge graduate and a Fellow of Pembroke, who was Vicar of Harston from 1611 to 1614. It was not an arduous position. He probably rode out from Cambridge to take a service or two on Sunday before returning to his books and the ‘academic disputation’ for which he was famed.
Church was hardly a thriving concern, and the parish was seen as troublesome. Although
church attendance was required by law, absence was frequent and even the
churchwarden, a local landowner, often failed to turn up. In 1601, the
exasperated vicar threatened to take the churchwardens before the High
Commission if they failed to get the recalcitrant parishioners to church. Their
reluctance was compounded by the state of the church: the building had been
neglected and the chancel had lost so much glass and tiles that no one could
Sadly, we don’t know how the people of Harston responded to Matthew Wren, but he moved on rapidly to higher things. He became, in rapid succession, Chaplain to Prince Charles (soon to be King Charles I), Master of Peterhouse, Bishop of Hereford, Bishop of Norwich and Bishop of Ely. As a catholic-leaning protégé of Archbishop Laud and King Charles I, Wren and his rulings roused the puritans of East Anglia to a state of fury. In 1641, as the country headed towards civil war, Wren was consigned to the Tower of London. Here he survived, unrepentant, for 18 years until the Restoration. He then then resumed the bishopric of Ely until his death in 1667, aged 82. While in the Tower, he vowed to give money to a holy cause if he escaped death. The result was a fine new chapel for Pembroke College, designed by his nephew Christopher Wren who went on to create St Paul’s Cathedral.
Meanwhile, in Harston, where six young clergy had come and gone in under twenty years, Robert Wallis settled down as vicar from 1626 to 1686. No doubt he provided continuity and familiarity in turbulent times, observing from a safe distance the religious and political ferment in which his predecessor, Matthew Wren, was so deeply involved.
Keeping the Church in Order
When the Parish Church was built in Harston in the 15th Century, replacing earlier church buildings, it could accommodate the whole population of Harston. It lay at the heart of the village, cementing the social fabric in shared worship, sustaining people through good times and bad, and disseminating information about religious, legal and political matters. The Church could be a place of refuge, and a source of solace, giving spiritual education while also reinforcing a collective sense of duty and obligation.
The Church’s purpose and the size of its congregations have changed over the centuries, but it still remains a place for everyone in the community. The building itself has endured through many cycles of decay and restoration, with people frequently agonising over how to raise money to keep it in good order. Jesus College, in return for the gift of Church land several centuries ago, remains responsible for repairs to the chancel. Under varying arrangements over the years, the Vicar and churchwardens have been responsible for all other repairs. In earlier centuries they relied on the proceeds from small pockets of land and from the ‘tithes’ - effectively a ten per cent tax on income from land – that kept parish churches afloat into the nineteenth century.
Beyond this, much has depended on the generosity of individuals and the goodwill of the community, supplemented, in recent years, by access to grants from heritage organisations. Churches are surveyed every five years and advice given on the work that needs to be done. For the last 15 years, Norman Jones, a member of the congregation, has generously given huge amounts of time to overseeing our restoration and development projects.
Over this period, external stonework has been extensively repaired. The chancel has been re-roofed. The tower has been underpinned and much of it rebuilt. An annexe with a servery and an accessible toilet has been added, in a style and using materials in keeping with the historic building. The heating has been replaced, and work has begun on areas of re-plastering and internal redecoration.
We are hugely grateful to a number of grant-awarding bodies, including English Heritage and the Cambridge Historic Churches Trust, for helping to make all this possible. Grants have only been made because of the strength of local commitment to ensuring our church survives and serves our community into the future. Members of the congregation, and countless others who value the church, have contributed generously through gifts to the restoration fund, and through organising and participating in a host of activities and social and events. Fundraising for the church goes alongside our broader commitment to charitable giving for other causes and we want to continue this balance.
We are looking to the future with plans that include replacing old pews with more versatile seating and seeing to much-needed internal redecoration. Our aim is for the church to be welcoming and open to the whole community, and to extend further its contribution to the life of our village.
Thank you for your support.
‘What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.’
These lines were written more than a century ago as an antidote to the pace of modern life. I remember them running through my head as a child: a licence to stop and look, to take delight in the greenness of grass, or the sway of wind in the trees.
Many years later, I was being interviewed for a job in teacher training in Lincoln. Looking around uphill Lincoln, in the lee of its magnificent cathedral, I saw a small group ahead of me. A boy of about eight, hand in hand with two younger siblings, was standing and staring, transfixed by the building that soared into the sky above them. This little scene helped persuade me to take the job, and I spent thirteen years close to this great building. During that time, I worked with many school groups who visited Lincoln and spent time exploring the cathedral. We walked with one group slowly through the exchequer gate arch so that the floodlit cathedral, golden against the velvet blue of twilight, loomed up in front of them. The children, giddy with delight, cartwheeled on the grass in front of the west doors, and lay spreadeagled, gazing upwards in awe.
We took children into the choir to see the misericords, and would then sit down and just look. For ten minutes or more we let the silence seep into them as their necks craned and their eyes roved around the lofty vaulting, the intricate carving, the arches, the organ pipes… Children are natural observers and less imprisoned by time than adults. Yet they often lack opportunity to be still, to reflect and to focus deeply, so the belief grows that the young cannot concentrate for long, have a short attention span, and need constant entertainment.
Despite the thundering traffic, ours is a village that offers the chance to slow the pace of life, to observe the trees and the changing colours of autumn, and to sense the presence of the past. The parish church, our oldest building, is open to everyone every day. Young or old, churchgoer or not, we can stand and stare, gaze upwards in wonder and, for a moment, let time stand still.