Church of the Holy Sepulchre

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May, 2016

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This is one of only five surviving round churches in England, thought to have been built by Crusaders returning from the Holy Land and influenced by the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, built on the site of Jesus’s tomb. The most noticeable feature of this church was the Rotunda and this was copied in the round churches.

The round nave with its ambulatory was built around 1130 in the Norman style of architecture with solid round pillars and round arches. It probably had a small apse. Initially it was a wayfarer’s chapel sitting just outside the city of Cambridge. It became a parish church in the C13th and was extended in the C14 & C15th with a choir and north aisle. The tiny Norman windows were replaced by larger ones. The angel roof in the chancel and north aisle are C15th. A heavy polygonal brick tower was built above the round nave in the C15th. This collapsed in the mid C19th causing damage to part of the ambulatory. During restoration, it was decided to replace the tower with a much more authentic small conical spire. A south aisle was added, the north aisle enlarged with a vestry added and the east wall rebuilt. The round nave was sympathetically restored.

By 1994 the church was too small for the congregation who moved to the much larger church of St Andrew the Great. The redundant church became managed by Christian Heritage and is now open as an exhibition centre telling the story and influence of Christianity in Cambridge and the wider world.

This is the second oldest church in Cambridge after “St Bene’ts”: and the outside does look more like a market hall than a church. Entry is through a lovely Norman doorway with dog tooth carving.

A circle of eight massive round pillars with round topped arches form an ambulatory round the outside of the nave. This has a rib vaulted ceiling. Display boards covering the influence of Christianity on education, science, religious and political freedom and human rights and justice are in the ambulatory. There is a video in the south aisle.

Above is another row of lower pillars and round arches form a triforium and lead up to the plaster dome. Each of the pillars has a differently carved capital. The faces at the ends of the ceiling ribs are C19th carved to resemble Norman heads. The brightly coloured stained glass windows are C19th.

A simple archway leads from the nave into the chancel. The chancel feels completely different and is like stepping into a different church. It is light and airy with its large windows, white washed plaster walls and angel ceiling. The modern east window has Christ the King on the cross represented by a living tree. It represents the Christ’s triumph over death. One either side are St John and St Andrew with angels above.

On the floor are tiles with the Royal Coat of Arms of Queen Victoria and commemorate the reopening of the church after restoration.

In the north aisle is the Royal Coat of Arms and the memorial to the dead of both World Wars. There are also boards with the Ten Commandments, Lord’s Prayer and Creed.

This is quite an unusual church and the round nave has a womb like quality, and feels dark and safe. The chancel in contrast is very light and feels like a completely different church. The church is open daily and there is a charge of £2.50 to enter. This is only worth paying if you want to visit the exhibition or photograph the chancel. Otherwise admire from the doorway and take pictures from here. There is a lot of information on the panels – there is no dumbing down here – and a degree of background information is expected. There is a sample panel “here”: as photographs of the panels are not allowed. You do need to allow plenty of time to do justice to the exhibition. The church also runs regular walking tours around Cambridge looking at the people who helped shape Western Civilisation.

There is no parking at the church. The post code is CB2 1UB and the grid reference is TL 449588.

There are more pictures “here.”:


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