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A History of the Church

This brief summary has been abridged from The Story ​of Cherry Hinton Church by Dr Alice Parsons, with additional material by The Revd. John Yule and The Revd. Stephen Leeke.               

All of the information in the history of the Church is copyright 1987 St Andrew's Parochial Church Council.

A 2021 report on the History of Cherry Hinton's "Green Hut" by the Cherry Hinton Local History Society is available here.


We first hear of a church at (Cherry) Hinton in 1201 when Henry, son of the Fitz-Hughe family, obtained confirmation of a grant to him of land at Hinton with the advowson of the church. This land was later known as the manor of Up Hall and its holders acquired the surname "De Hinton". The Hinton family sold the advowson to Hugh de Balsham, who was Bishop of Ely from 1257 to 1286, and in 1335 John Hotham, the then Bishop, appropriated the rectory of Cherry Hinton to St. Peter's College, Cambridge (Peterhouse).

There are indications that there was an earlier church on the site of the present one; the jambs of the tower arch are massive and of a semi-Norman or transitional type, though the arch itself is later, and the plain circular stone font, which down to the 18th century stood upon five pillars, is of the same period.

Of any human portraiture or record belonging to that remote time we have but one rudely carved stone coffin lid, now built into the west inner wall of the tower basement. The upper part of the slab shows the head and shoulders of a man, his hands folded in prayer, or clasped about a heart; on the lower part are traces of a foliate design, now almost obliterated. The workmanship is of the crudest and the monument is probably one of the oldest remains of the church. It was moved to its present position in 1880 having served for some centuries as a door sill to the vestry.



In the course of the 13th century the original heavy Norman or transitional church was replaced by an Early-English structure of singular grace and beauty, some of the materials of the older building being incorporated into the new. The chancel, which is of unique loveliness, dates from the second quarter of the century, the nave being constructed about the latter part of the third. This Early-English building, of which we are so justly proud, forms the main part of our church today. A member of the Camden Society writing in 1845 says of it:

"It is not very often that we find in a country church nave, piers and arches of pure Early-English work, at least of the more finished description; for where they do occur of this date they are almost invariably plain .... The nave being for the most part unencumbered with pews allows these fine piers to be seen in their full proportion."



The reader is here advised to stand within the south entrance and walk slowly towards the north-east for an unrivalled view of the soaring columns. Their clustered pillars and deeply moulded capitals, lead on to the rich and noble proportions of the chancel arch. In the chancel the architecture changes into delicate shafts, twin lancets and double arcading; these are known as one of the gems of English architecture.

The aisle walls in the 13th century were probably much lower than today, with lean-to roofs of steep pitch and with comparatively small windows.



The church is largely built of flint rubble with some stone facings; the carvings and mouldings, which are executed in local clunch were probably the work of village craftsmen.

Clunch, an easily worked, soft white limestone, is locally quarried. Examples of its use can also be seen in the carvings of Ely Cathedral and many of the Churches and Colleges of Cambridge.

We know that Corpus Christi College possessed a quarry here by virtue of a grant of King Edward III and that the Cherry Hinton Rectory also used to own a pit.

Historically, the medieval stonecutter lived and worked beside his material; hence it is likely that many expert masons occupied the district, and that Cherry Hinton was the centre for a thriving village industry; where the clunch would have been cut and carved on the spot before being delivered elsewhere.



During the 14th and 15th centuries great changes took place in living conditions. There was a steady progress in culture, the arts of wall painting and the manufacture of stained glass in particular reached a high degree of perfection and there was a corresponding change in the architecture of the period.

Much of the earlier work fell into disrepute and a good deal that we should value now was swept away to make place for the newer styles. Happily for us the 15th century builders and craftsmen of Cherry Hinton were inspired to retain the graceful pillars and arches of their Early-English church and to blend them with later work in a new harmony.



The low walls of the aisles were considerably heightened, making space for the present large and finely traceried windows. The steep lean-to roofs were replaced by leaded ones, which were almost flat in pitch. The high narrow roof of the nave was removed and additional top light was obtained by the construction of clerestories (missing from the church today) and the original roof was replaced by a flat-pitched leaded one.

To the same period we owe the fine chancel screen, now a skilfully patched, if somewhat battered, relic of its former self. The interior of the church was enriched with many features whose losses we now deplore; among others the eastern end of the north and south aisles were divided off by parcloses similar in character to those of the chancel screen, forming side-chapels for the commemoration of early benefactors.

The latest alteration to the main fabric took place in the reign of Henry VII, when the sacristy was constructed on the north of the chancel and the tower rebuilt.

It is worthwhile pausing here to picture how the interior of the church might have looked before the onset of decay and neglect, which was so unhappily distinguished in the 18th century and later.



Much of the woodwork as well as walls, were covered with paintings; the large representation of St. Christopher carrying Our Saviour over the water, was to be seen over the north door. The rood screen, according to Gilbert Scott, was then "ornamented with detached pinnacles and flying buttresses." Its lower panels were curiously painted with Our Lady of Pity, St. Mary Magdalene and other saints.

The chapels at the eastern end of the aisles had painted screens of the same character and as late as 1774, the church still possessed a complete set of oaken pews bearing curious devices of country scenes and various inscriptions and proverbs.

The rich colouring of the interior was enhanced by the stained glass windows and the whole rendered lighter by the clerestory above the nave arcading.



It is difficult today to understand the almost brutish indifference of all but a few antiquarians to the loss and degradation of so many of our country's treasures even when these were not of a sacred character.

Of those that were, many fell victims to the vandals of the reformation who broke down and defaced pictures and statues which they considered idolatrous, and who must at least be held responsible for desecrating the Early-English altar stone and setting it in the floor of the nave.

The iconoclasts were not the only ones to blame. In 1638 a visitation by Bishop Wren, uncle of the designer of St. Paul's and sometime vicar of Teversham, disclosed a deplorable state of things in Cherry Hinton.

He found that the church was in disrepair, the services conducted in a careless and slovenly manner and that "the parsonage formerly being consumed by fire was not re-edified."

He gave orders to the vicar and churchwardens for extensive repairs to both church and vicarage; and a substantial sum was to be spent on buying a communion table, a linen communion cloth of fine Holland costing at least five shillings a yard (a large sum in those days) and a carpet of purple cloth such as they had at Fen Drayton.



The melancholy tale of deterioration and neglect is broken at one point by the activities of William Watson, brother of the Bishop of St. David's of turbulent memory (though he himself was not in Orders).

Watson was not a native of Cherry Hinton, but his youngest daughter carried Walter Serocold of Up Hall and she and her father are buried in the chancel. Watson's epitaph [13] rather significantly states that it was "in testimony of his love to religion and the decency of God's worship" that "he beautified the chancel and erected the altar".



Some fifty years after the death of Watson, William Cole the antiquary, visited the church to copy inscriptions. He tells us that the woodwork was decaying, walls and pillars were invaded by green mould and "the whole chancel was squalid and dirty".       

About 1792 the clerestory fell and extensive repairs became necessary. Neglect through ignorance gave way to injudicious measures of restoration and the disastrous expedient was adopted of selling the lead from the roof to help pay expenses.

Even in the middle of the 19th century the west end of the north aisle was "blocked off and used as a rubbish depository" - "an idle and unseemly custom" says a visitor "very common in the churches in the neighbourhood of Cambridge."

Gradually public conscience awoke and some improvements were affected. In 1811 the early font, dating probably from the first church, was brought. into use and placed on its present stone pedestal. It appears to have been rescued after having been thrown out. Its five original pillars seem to have been lost beyond recall.



In January 1874 a Church Restoration Committee was formed and the vicar was authorised to ask the architect, Mr (later Sir) Gilbert Scott, to report on the condition of the nave and aisles with a view to complete restoration. The steps recommended involved taking down and rebuilding the greater part of the nave and aisles and the porch and underpinning the foundations.



The work of restoration was carried out with loving care, the old material being used wherever possible and the stones numbered and replaced in  their original positions, but there is no  doubt that many interesting features were lost.

Among other items the 15th century chancel screen and a carved Jacobean pulpit and "reading pew" were discarded. The former was fortunately rescued a few years later and replaced, while the pulpit appears to have found a home at Teversham.

The nave restoration was completed in 1880. In 1891 the Master and Fellows of Peterhouse installed the oak choir and priests' stalls [11] in the chancel.

In 1930 the ancient altar slab, which had been removed from its dishonoured position in the nave floor to the wall of the tower, was rededicated and furnished for use. It was erected in the south aisle on the site of a previous chapel.



Though two of the bells were pre-Reformation the pearl of six was not completed until 1976 when the treble was hung in he new frame installed in 1952. Recently a most useful Church Centre has been built onto the north side of the church providing a meeting hall and kitchen, toilets and vestry facilities. It was opened and dedicated in 1982.

The St. Andrew window was erected in 1985 at the same time as the engraved glass doors and tympanum in the porch. The herald angels and saltire inscription "come into his gates with thanksgiving..." echo the St. Andrew dedication of the church.

The original organ installed in 1891 was replaced with a new Johnson organ [9] in 1986. In the same year a sculptured oak panel [6], formerly the altarpiece in the redundant church of St. Andrew the Great in Cambridge, was installed on the north wall. 



Down the centuries this building has borne a silent but profound witness to the constancy of God's love for his people and their erratic devotion to him.

If one is to see it at its best, it is on Sunday morning when it comes alive with local people who have come together to recall, celebrate and give thanks for the life, death and resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ their Lord.

They prove the power of his Holy Spirit to inspire men, women and children no less today than when the first house of God was raised on this spot.