In 1626 Nicholas Ferrar was ordained and set about creating an Anglican religious community at the family's holdings at Little Gidding. The small community, variously calculated at between thirty and sixty people, lived by High Church principles and the Book of Common Prayer. They had a school and employed themselves in teaching, looking after the health of local people and in bookbinding (Ferrar worked on biblical indices called Concordances). Though the community discipline was demanding with three services a day and just two meals, there were no vows after the manner of monasteries. Little Gidding attracted admirers and critics, King Charles 1 visiting on three occasions, the critics being mainly Puritans who saw the followers as heretics. The community lasted barely thirty years and ended with the deaths of the main movers. Thereafter it was somewhat forgotten until the Oxford Movement rescued it from obscurity. Since that time it has been an inspiration of sorts and interest in the small community has never waned.
The church that we see there today dates from 1714 and excavations show it to be smaller than Ferrar's remodelled medieval building. It has a symmetrical stone facade with a large door surround and giant angle pilasters with obelisk pinnacles. The whole composition is topped by a bellcote with a steep pyramid pierced by three rectangular holes. Do these represent the Trinity? The rest of the building, except for the windows surrounds, is red brick and quite utilitarian. The interior is remarkable for its college-style nave seating (see main photograph) and a chancel that is the same width as the nave: basically an eastward extension of the space, minus the seating.
"Little Gidding" is known to poetry lovers as the title of a long poem by the U.S. born and naturalised British poet, T.S.Eliot (1888-1965). It is the fourth part of his masterpiece, The Waste Land, the poem that led to him being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948. This Modernist, meditative work is underpinned by Eliot's religious belief and draws upon Christian thoughts, traditions and history as well as mythology. He visited the church at Little Gidding in 1936 and was sufficiently influenced by its history to make it the title of his poem. Excerpts from it can be seen on the walls of the nave.
photograph and text © Tony Boughen
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