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Church Post Code PE28 0TW

Open to visitors

It was a beautiful sunny afternoon in April 2023; a half day off of work and a six church crawl looking at churches to the south of the A14, which connects Thrapston to Huntingdon.

The church of St Botolph at Stow Longa was the third church of the afternoon. The village name here is interesting with ‘Stow’ meaning a holy place in Old English.

Stow Longa can be found some 25 odd miles as the crow flies to the south of Peterborough, making this amongst the most southerly churches covered by my sites. Huntingdon is eight miles or so away to the east, with beautiful Kimbolton two miles off to the south. This is an area of pleasant villages with attractive countryside, with Grafham Water a short distance away to the south east.


The village itself, although lacking in amenities, is large enough not to be called a hamlet, and had a population of 138 at the time of the 2021 census. The village green has a medieval village cross; with local legend stating that the coffin of Catherine of Aragon rested here after her death at Kimbolton castle in 1536, on its way to burial at Peterborough cathedral. The cross itself dates from the 15th century so it wasn’t put up to mark the occasion.

The church of St Botolph stands at the north of the village; on a secluded lane. This is a very peaceful, attractive setting; but difficult to photograph from the south due to the number of trees. This was my third visit here, with the church being open to visitors on each occasion.

There was no church here mentioned in the Domesday Survey of 1086 and the present structure dates back to the 13th century. However, various parts of the structure that we see today pre date this and there was a previous church here; and a church of some importance as well with Stow Longa being confirmed a prebend by Pope Eugene III in 1146. This would have made this a mother church of the other churches in the area.


The church that we see today consists of west tower, nave with north and south aisles and clerestories, south chapel and chancel

The present church was completely rebuilt in the 13th century, with work ongoing until around 1280. Around 1330 the eastern end of the south aisle was rebuilt with a south chapel being built. During the 15th century the south arcade was rebuilt and the clerestory added. The tower was added around 1500. During the 17th century the upper part of the clerestory and nave roof either fell or was taken down and rebuilt. . The chancel and chancel arch were largely rebuilt in 1880, and the rest of the church was restored from 1888 to 1893, when the south chapel and the east wall of the north aisle were largely rebuilt.

Taking a close look around the exterior we see an interesting architectural glimpse back through history. A series of holes throughout the tower indicate where the original scaffolding was attached when the tower was built; these holes never being filled in after completion. I have seen this before but only rarely; from memory the Boston Stump is similar.

The tower itself is of four stages, with each stage separated with a string course. Gargoyles of some age and high quality look out from the centre of each side. Above the west doorway there are two small coats of arms.

Fragments of coffin stones can be found built in to the outer east wall of the chancel; these again pre dating the present structure.

There is a single bell hanging here, which is of some age. The Revd Owen, in his study of the church bells in Huntingdonshire, which was published in 1899, attributes this bell to Henry Jordan of Aldgate London, who was a founder between 1455 and 1468. The National Church Bell Database states though that the founder was W Chamberlain, from the same Aldgate foundry, who was active between 1426 and 1456.

Owen mentioned that in 1552 there were three bells hanging here and mentions the local legend that two bells were taken down from the tower around 1820 and ended up at nearby Covington.


The priest’s door to the south wall of the chancel dates from the 12th century, before the present church was built and gives evidence to there being a previous structure here. There is a fine Norman arch, with a couple of grotesque heads on the capitals. The tympanum above the door is of national importance; consisting of the central figure of a mermaid, with two beasts, one on either side.

This is crudely carved with the mermaid depicted with hands raised, hair standing straight out, tiny eyes and a shocked expression. The mermaid has tiny breasts, almost as if the mason who carved this was a bit embarrassed about the whole thing and just did as little as possible as quickly as possible!

To either side is a beast. Some internet sources have described the figure on the left as we look at it as being a crocodile, with the figure on the right being a representation of the Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God. I am struggling to see how the figure on the left could be a crocodile; it more resembles a dog to me. The figure on the right has its front right leg curled up as the Agnus Dei would have but in truth it could be anything!

 With regards symbolism this has probably been lost in the mists of time. Mermaids though were seen as alluring, liable to tempt men in to places that they should not go. Perhaps we are seeing a warning to those entering the church (given that this carving may have been over the main doorway on a previous church) about the dangers of straying in to sin. If that is correct then then one of the beasts would be a symbol of good and the other being a symbol of evil. That would give some credence possibly to the figure on the right being the Agnus Dei. Lots of possibles here and to be fair there is a fair degree of conjecture here.

I am reminded of the pulpit at the church of St Mary, Orton Waterville which came to the church from the church of Great St Mary, Cambridge. This has carvings of voluptuous mermaids; with the legend being that it was given away as the carvings were proving too much of a distraction to the Cambridge choirboys of the day!


Moving inside, there are four bays to north and south. Both of these have rounded piers with moulded capitals, octagonal to the south and rounded to the north. A sign hangs from one of the piers, which looks to be of some age, urging us to ‘pray for one another’. A rood screen, which dates back to the 15th century, separates nave from chancel. A blue carpet runs the length of the nave, with Victorian pews to north and south.

 It was Easter time and a model of the tomb on Easter morning, with stone rolled away from the empty tomb and three crosses off to one side, stood at the entrance to the chancel.

The chancel is long and quite plain, with just a few wall plaques remembering the great and the good. The altar cloth was gold, with white or gold being the colour used over the Christmas and Easter periods. Two vases on the altar contain white lilies, these being an often used symbol of purity; with this again being appropriate to the Easter period. The three light east window is of clear glass, and with the exception of a modern representation of a cross at the east end of the north aisle, there is no stained glass to be found here at all.


The hand of the Victorian restores can be seen in the chancel, but there are also things that remain which give a glimpse of how things would have been here in pre reformation days.  A stone bench against the south wall forms the sedilia, the seating for the priests during the mass. This would have seated up to three people. To the east of that is a 13th century piscina, which was a drain in which the holy vessels used during the mass would have been washed. As is pretty much the norm in the covid years, the hand sanitiser is placed in the piscina!

It is interesting to look back at how things would have been in a small village church; albeit a church of some importance in the past. There is also a piscina at the east end of the south chapel, along with a modern altar. This piscina is later in date, 14th century to coincide with the date of the building of the south chapel in 1330.  It is more than likely that priests would have been employed to pray for the donor and their family, and the souls of their dead. It was not too many years before those prayers would be much needed as the Black Death drew nearer, killing roughly half the population of Europe.


I took a look around the church grounds, under the close scrutiny of a bulging eyed, grimacing grotesque which looked out from the east of the nave. There are plenty of quality gravestones here dating back to the 18th century, but nothing of any great importance or rarity and nothing in the grounds is listed.

Open, welcoming and with a great deal of interest; it was good to be back here again and I always enjoy my time here. 

All of the photographs on this page are from the April 2023 visit, with the exception of the close up of the tympanum doorway, which was taken on a pervious visit due to better lighting conditions.

The exterior shot on the left on the left, which was taken on a previous visit, gives a better view of the exterior from the south

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