Cambridgeshire Churches

Stretham, St James

The fens are a funny landscape. I'm generally more of a mountain man - I'm never happier than when clambering around rocks and lochs in Argyllshire. Actually, since most of the Scottish mountains seem to be more vertical bog than anything else, perhaps there's more of a similarity with the fens than one might think... Still, despite the overwhelming flatness, I've always been rather fond of this bit of the world. My father grew up in Hunstanton on the northern tip of the Wash, and childhood holidays visiting my grandmother there always involved zooming up the A10 from Cambridge to King's Lynn. Ely Cathedral stand on its little hill, a great glowering sentinel, and the sky fills your field of vision.

Praises of the fenland skies are two-a-penny, though, so I won't describe the lovely light on the yellow oilseed rape, and the bruised stormclouds looming over the whitening willows. Aside from anything else, I am not inventive enough a writer to avoid the usual clichées. Nor will I describe the extraordinary purple soil, because you want to know about churches, not about soil.

The problem is, though, that there's not much to say about Stretham St James. It has a lovely churchyard - planted out like a garden, with borders full of bluebells, roses and ice plants (and the occasional headstone). Opposite the church there is a nice medieval cross in the village square, with four statue niches around the top. The tower of St James is Norman, and it has a nice 14th century spire. Inside, though, it is almost entirely a Victorian structure. Pevsner and the church guide assure me that bits of the structure are older (including the nave arcades, which are 14th century, apparently) but the architecture isn't much to write home about.

There is an elegant 14th century screen. It's surmounted by a dull modern rood group - but at least they made the effort. In the south transept is a big brass to Dame Alice Swan (d. 1497). That's about it, really. You get a nice view of Ely Cathedral from the top of the village, though, and it's on Akeman Street. And there were fisheries for 3,250 eels at Domesday. Did I mention that the fens are a funny bit of the world?

St James was open when we visited.

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