Cambridgeshire Churches

Wood Ditton, St Mary the Virgin

the odd tower of Wood Ditton

At Wood Ditton, one is at the very edge of Cambridgeshire. Here, the land is already starting to rise into the gentle rolling hills of western Suffolk, and (as the name of the village suggests) the fields are interspersed with little copses and patches of woodland. The Cambridgeshire landscape is (not unjustly) famous for being flat and devoid of woodland, so this verdant hinterland is a refreshing change.

Nowadays, warfare between the peoples of Suffolk and Cambridgeshire is limited, with only occasional pitched football battles reaching the news. However, once upon a time Wood Ditton was in the borderland of two English kingdoms – Mercia and East Anglia (although by the time the border was this far east, East Anglia was rather on the way out). Most of the East Anglian border is well-protected by natural features, the fens further north and the forests of Essex to the south. In between - where the ancient Icknield Way runs north-east from Whittlesford to Newmarket and onwards up into Thetford Chase - the Kings of East Anglia built four great defensive earthworks. These face south-west, running from the fen (or the river) to the woods, and are designed to make any Mercian offensive as difficult as possible. Two of them – the Bran Ditch near Heydon and the Brent Ditch just east of Whittlesford – are hardly visible now. The Fleam Dyke, which runs roughly from Balsham to Fulbourn, is still quite impressive in places, with the rampart rising about fifty feet from the floor of the ditch. However, none of these can compare with the Devil’s Dyke, which runs from Wood Ditton in the south-east to Reach in the north-west - its sheer scale dwarfs the rest. It is estimated that it would have taken a thousand men to complete each mile of the seven-and-a-half mile earthwork, which in places still stands sixty feet high above a fifteen foot ditch. Such an undertaking means many things: a boast of the power of the Kings of East Anglia; a tangible marker of the border of their kingdom; a means of controlling entry to the land during peacetime, and a line of defence in times of war.

from the side

It is funny how antiquity lends a patina of magic to prosaic things. In the time of King Edmund it was called the Miceldic, which simply means ‘great-ditch’. Later when the by now sainted Edmund defended his realm from heaven with a martyr’s palm rather than the sword it was named for him – St Edmund’s Dyke, the great defence of Seely Suffolk, the holy land of England. Then at some time in the late middle ages a darker name came in: what had been St Edmund’s became the Devil’s Dyke, for what could raise such great works save diabolic power? I’ve expatiated elsewhere on the evolution of names over time, and how what was once transparent and prosaic can become mysterious and evocative. This is a similar process, but it is the view of the object itself that changes, and with no evident practical purpose becomes magical. [Mark adds: readers may be reminded, as I am, of the long standing archaeological habit if branding any item for which no use can be identified a 'ritual object'.]. I digress. But there is something magical about borderlands between grassland and forest, past and future. There’s something magical about Wood Ditton, for all that its name means ‘wood-ditch-town’. In particular, there’s something magical about the church of St Mary, for it sits in a churchyard quite a way from the village, surrounded by the fields and sheltered by big trees.

a tombstone

The church befits its location. Most noticeable is the magnificent west tower – one of the most distinctive and endearing of all the towers I’ve seen in the county. It rises from an extremely broad base which must once have had a flushwork border around the bottom. The corners at the lower stages – up to about half the height of the tower are clasped by big buttresses, so big that the west face is concave. In the middle of that face is a fine Perpendicular west window, with a niche over the top for some long-lost image, and above which the buttresses fragment into sets of cross-buttresses rising in two steps through the middle stage. Above that, they turn into big broaches which support a surprisingly slight octagonal lantern with big bell-openings and a severe stone parapet on top. The whole thing reminded me a bit of Sutton [Mark adds: you've not written that up yet Ben!], though it doesn’t soar as much, or Elm, though it lacks all surface decoration. It also, oddly, made me think of the Pharos of Alexandria – though that was probably the evocative location inflaming my imagination.

The rest of the exterior is pleasant enough – the church itself seems small by comparison to the tower, but it is richly decorated with battlements on aisles and clerestory, and has a very steep roof. The south porch is especially pleasant, with benches lining the interior and tall thin Perpendicular windows providing light. Next to the porch, with one edge abutting a buttress, is a chest tomb for the Dobito family (who mostly seem to have been named Geoffrey), in a surprisingly prominent position.

Sadly, on our first visit we were unable to get into the church – by sheer bad luck, all of the (numerous) keyholders were not at home. However, we will be back soon, whereupon this entry will be supplemented by a bit more solid ecclesiology to balance the rest.

St Mary the Virgin was closed when we visited, but there are numerous keyholders listed.

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