Cambridgeshire Churches

Cambridge, St Clement

St Clement is probably the least known of the churches in Cambridge city centre. One problem is that it's out of the area that most visitors venture into, on Bridge Street leading north out of the main shopping streets. The other is that it's only very infrequently open. Mark and I managed to get in once in about 2004, but I didn't have my notebook at the time, and I've only noticed it open once or twice since.

This is a pity, because it's an interesting church, if not especially beautiful. St Clement has suffered more than most from the depredations of time. It sits in a cramped site, squashed between Portugal Place, Thompson's Lane and busy Bridge Street. The core of the building is very early 13th century, with a bit of 14th century work at the east end of the nave and an early 16th set of clerestory and aisle windows. The chancel was rebuilt in the 18th century, and there have been various restorations since, but this is at heart one of the oldest churches in the centre of Cambridge. You couldn't tell from the outside, though; so much of the stonework is pitted and blackened, and has been intermittently restored with new pointing and quite a lot of clashing brickwork. Most striking of all is the peculiar west tower. The west face of the church overlooks the rising bollards on the main road, and (like St Michael and St Botolph elsewhere in the town centre) sits directly on the pavement. The aisles are quite broad, but there was never any medieval tower between them - rather, there was originally just a big west window between rather substantial buttresses. In 1821 this was replaced with a peculiar little tower somewhere between a truncated square and an octagon in plan. It doesn't quite fill all the space between the buttresses, and for that reason looks slightly preposterous. It is also rendered in unpleasant sandy-coloured cement, and has details (fussy machicolated battlements, bell-openings and quatrefoil soundholes that are too high and too small) which are neither lovely in themselves nor in keeping with the rest of the building. In short, it all looks like a bit of a mess.

There is a doorway under the church, but entry now is through a south door at the end of the aisle. This is, according to Pevsner, original 13th century work; but it has been extensively restored, and is so blackened by traffic fumes and the like that I hardly noticed it as I stepped through. Inside, things get a bit more interesting. The churches of Cambridge have all responded to their dwindling congregations in different ways: St Peter and All Saints have been made redundant; St Michael has mostly been converted into a café now; St Mary the Less and St Andrew have specialised and cater for the bells-and-smells and the tambourine-and-guitar niche markets respectively. St Clement has coped by inviting in the Greek Orthodox population of Cambridge, who since 1986 have shared the church under the name of St Athanasios. So, the interior is an interesting combination of very high Anglican fittings (stations of the cross, elaborate altar cloth and so on) and hosts of Orthodox icons. It seems to work quite well, artistically. I was also able to have a nice chat with a man who was cleaning ready for a service the following day, and it seems that the sharing arrangement works well for both congregations, too. The Orthodox congregation is also huge by Cambridge standards - anywhere between sixty and a hundred people every week, apparently - so it keeps the church well-used.

Given all of that, it's a pity that St Clement is so drab. Various bits of ceiling plaster are falling off, and everything looks like it could do with a big clean. The nave is actually very nicely proportioned - five bays, with good plain arcades rising quite tall in proportion to the little clerestory above. Most of the body of the west tower sits within the church, too, and it works much better inside - a strong octagonal shape with a low tunnel leading to the door at ground level and a much wider opening above with the west window filling its far edge. None of that is evident to the casual glance, though. As I said, it could really do with a good clean - but more importantly, the windows are all filled with murky greenish glass. Almost none of it is figurative (save for some poor examples in the west wall), so I assume it's only lack of money that prevents them from replacing it with clear glass. It would make a huge difference.

Then again, some of the character of the church is imparted by the darkness. It certainly sets off the gold of the icons rather nicely. These are much the most interesting of the fittings - all different sizes, set around the church in different places. The most impressive are four big panels (apparently painted in Athens) which fill the place of a chancel screen. They depict Christ, the Virgin, St John the Baptist, and St Athanasios himself, and are very finely painted. Above it, an older rood beam survives, complete with religious text. Poking around the rest of the church I found a good grave slab complete with grinning skeleton in the north aisle, and a pleasant little Perpendicular font in the south aisle (complete with traceried panelling on the stem), but they couldn't really compete with the icons.

If the nave is dark, the chancel is even darker. This was rebuilt in 1726, and is fitted out in dark wood with a painted wooden ceiling depicting the instruments of the passion. Very unusually, it has no east window. Instead, the east wall is filled with a rather startling painting. In the centre is Christ, majestically standing in a vesica and dressed as a High Priest. He is surrounded first by a group of angels, and then by a host of saints. The paint is mostly very dark - even with the lights on it took my eyes a while to adjust - and for a while all one sees is the glint of the gilded haloes sported by the assembled throng. As the details became visible, though, I found myself very impressed. The faces are all well-painted in a Burne-Jones sort-of style, and the saints are all strongly individuated. The excellent guide available at the back of the church gives a run-down of everyone's identity. To take a few examples: we have familiar characters like St Clement, St John the Evangelist, St Paul and St Peter; as well as some more unusual faces like St Ambrose, St Etheldreda of Ely, St Cecilia and St Theresa of Avila. What is remarkable is that this was painted (in 1872) by one Mr Leach, about whom I could find almost nothing. It's a brilliant survival, and deserves to be much better known. As it is, Pevsner didn't even mention it. I wonder how many of the pedestrians passing by on Bridge Street imagine that one of the treasures of Victorian art in Cambridge lurks inside? It's better than any of the much-celebrated work round the corner at All Saints, for my money.

St Clement is usually kept locked, without keyholders. Good luck getting in.


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