News was received of a Saxon church. With one bound, he leapt into the car and headed out on the A45 in Northamptonshire. Jaw set in a firm line, his fingers drummed impatiently on the steering wheel as he contended with the twerps in the tedious traffic. Once onto the B-road, he relaxed. Turning into West Street, there was the church tower at the bottom of the hill, standing out like - a church tower. He parked up and killed the engine. The villagers walked past, seemingly unperturbed; they knew – that the church had been there for a thousand years or more and wasn’t going anywhere…
There was probably a Saxon settlement in the village of Earls Barton as early as the 6th century – possibly even a Celtic one before that. By the 11th century it had a population of about 100-140 and was known as Bartone or Buartone – ‘barley farm’ – with the Earls prefix coming from the 12th century lord of the manor, the Earl of Huntingdon. Today, it’s considerably bigger with a population of around 6,000 – a busy, pleasant-looking place, with a long-established reputation for shoe making. Barker Shoes are based in Earls Barton.
But what we’ve come to see is All Saints’ Church and, particularly, what has been described as “the finest existing specimen of pre-Conquest work and the most noteworthy architectural monument of its period in England” (British History Online) – the tower. The experts generally agree this was built around 970AD, when King Edward the Peaceful was on the throne. From what I can make out, he wasn’t as agreeable as his nickname suggests, but he was the first ruler of the three major Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Northumbria, Mercia and Wessex and, therefore, is regarded as the first king of all England. But we digress.
I reckon the tower is stunning – what do you think? It was built on a rubble foundation no more than 1 foot (300mm) thick, yet the structure is about 62½ feet (19 metres) high - up to the battlements, which were added in the 15th century. The construction is rubble, covered with render and decorated with strips of limestone. It is believed to have been multipurpose – the ground floor being used for worship and the upper floors for living, storage or even military lookout purposes. Services would also have been held outside, possibly conducted by a priest from an upper level. I get a real kick wondering about the people who built this, what they were like and what happened to them. I doubt they thought that folk from the 21st century would be admiring their work. Given that the Saxons commonly did not build in stone, someone wealthy might have been involved somewhere.
The rest of the church is a delight with, it is said, something from every century from the 10th onward. The nave is Norman and there are some lovely Norman features. Like most old British parish churches, it’s fascinating to wander round, but soothing to sit and have some quiet contemplation, reflecting on all those souls that have sat there before you.
Outside and to the north of the church is a curious feature, a mound, known as ‘Berry Mount’. It’s almost certainly man made and looks like some kind of defensive ditch. Some believe it was part of an unfinished castle, or that the church once joined a fortified manor. The theory I prefer is the local legend that there’s an entire army buried underneath it.
If you want to visit Earls Barton, or know a bit more, go to the Friends of All Saints' Earls Barton website.