The Abbey was founded by Æthelred, King of Mercia around 689AD. By the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries, it was one of the largest abbeys in Britain.
The abbey was rebuilt in the C11th. The quire was destroyed by fire in the early C13th and had to be rebuilt. After the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the monastic buildings and nave were pulled down and sold off as building stone. The parishioners bought the quire for £400 as their parish church.
There was a major restoration in the C19thC by Gilbert Scott who added a small apse at the east end. Most of the furniture and stained glass date from then. The heavy buttressing at the west end dates from the beginning of the C20th when the tower began to lean and cracks appeared in the masonry
All that is left of the abbey church is the chancel, south transept and crossing, giving it a very lopsided appearance.
It is worth walking round the outside of the abbey first to find evidence of long gone parts. The grassed area to the south west would have been the cloisters.
At the west end, remains of the end round Norman pillars of the nave are still there as well as the now blanked off arch into the south transept. The top of the square tower with its tall corner turrets is late C13th after a fire started in the monastic bakehouse caused the upper part to fall down. The south transept is pure Norman work with blind round topped arcading with chevrons. Round the top of the walls is a corbel shelf with carved heads.
The original chancel is battlemented with flying buttresses from the lower side aisles and lots of crocketed pinnacles. At the east end is the smaller and lower apse added by Gilbert Scott.
The small church to the east of the abbey is St Andrew’s, the original parish church, which is now used as a community centre for use by the church.
Entry is through the west door. The C13th chancel is now the nave with the sanctuary in the apse added by Gilbert Scott. Big multiple pillars with a narrow band of carving round the top lead up to pointed arches separating nave and side aisles. On either side of the clerestory windows, narrower wall pillars continue up to form the ribs of the lierne vaulted ceiling with its carved bosses. The top of the church is lit by artificial light which makes it glow golden.
Above the arch leading into the sanctuary is a walkway. Above it are three tall pointed arches with a statue of Christ with his arms open in the centre one. On the back wall behind the walkway is the remains of a wall painting.
On either side of the sanctuary are two small chapels. That on the south has the remains of medieval tiles on the floor.
Inside the west door is a Norman font with very eroded carvings round the bowl. Near it is the splendid old strong chest which is now used for donations.
Above the west door is the remains of a Victorian wall painting which was painted directly onto the bare stonework. The paint is beginning to peel off and it is in poor condition in places. It is painted in shades of brown and grey and has the inscription “The Lord reigneth. He is clothed in majesty”. In the centre is Christ in Majesty with angels on either side. Below are St Peter and St Paul.
A tall round arch leads into the south transept which is impressive with the remains of blind Norman arcading on the walls. In the centre is the town’s war memorial listing the names of the dead from both World Wars. The bronze figure represents immortality.
On the west wall surrounded by iron railings is the massive tomb of Thomas Inglewood d1624. He is in full armour complete with a ruff. His wife Elizabeth is kneeling at his head, wearing a black dress with white ruff and cuffs and a hat. At his feet is his only son, Francis, dressed in the latest fashion with slashed trousers, cloak and ruff. Red pillars support a canopy with the family coat of arms.
In the centre of the south transept are two table graves. On is of a crusader knight in chain mail holding a sword and with his legs (minus feet) crossed. The other has a bishop with mitre
This is an impressive church, but it didn’t quite work for us. It felt sterile and lacking in atmosphere. It lacked the wow factor. We felt it didn’t deserve the 4* which Simon Jenkin’s gives it in ‘England’s Thousand Best Churches’ or his description of “one of the most beautiful in the county”. Maybe we just prefer the smaller churches. If passing or in the area, it is worth a quick visit, but this isn’t one to go out of your way to see.
The church is open daily 9-4.30 (or earlier in winter). There is a large car park across the road.