“Seen from any angle it floats on the skyline like a great ship, with a small tower for a fo’c’stle and two turrets for masts…The interior is ablaze with light.”

– Simon Jenkins ‘England’s Thousand Best Churches’, p.743.

Image from "Geocass"

Image from “Geocass”

I popped into the Church of Sts Peter and Paul in the little village of Clare recently. Like the more visited Suffolk churches in Long Melford and Lavenham, Clare’s is filled with light from the clerestory.

Tobias, our assistant verger, has been researching how Great St Mary’s would have looked before the Reformation, so it was interesting to read about the destruction wrought in Clare by William Dowsing in 1643:

“We brake down 1000 Pictures superstitious; I brake down 200; 3 of God the Father, and 3 of Christ, and the Holy Lamb, and 3 of the Holy Ghost like a Dove with Wings; and the 12 Apostles were carved in Wood, on the top of the Roof, which we gave order to take down; and 20 Cherubims to be taken down; and the Sun and Moon in the East Window, by the King’s Arms, to be taken down.”

In fact, the cherubim were not destroyed and the sun and moon can still be seen in the east window of the chancel.PICT7589

There is lots going on historically in Clare, with the lovely church, a motte and bailey castle’s ruins, and the oldest Augustinian Priory in England. The Clare Ancient House Museum has a town trail and more information on its excellent website (as well as lovely pargetting).

Elizabeth de Burgh, a niece of King Edward II, lived in Clare for part of her life. Hugely wealthy, Elizabeth was widowed three times before the age of 28 and lived lavishly in Clare castle. On May 28, 1340, she entertained her cousin King Edward III, dining on boar, veal, various poultry, five swans, six herons and three bittern. She is remembered today in Cambridge for founding Clare College.

Access Cambridge Archaeology has led excavations which uncovered Anglo-Saxon burials and decorative medieval tiles in the castle grounds as part of the HLF-funded ‘Managing a Masterpiece’ project in the Stour Valley.  Volunteers have recently formed the Stour Valley Community Archaeology Group and there is also discussion of establishing a heritage centre in the old railway buildings at the foot of the castle mound, so there may soon be even more reasons for a visit!

Engaging Families with SHARE

SHARE logo

Last Friday I headed off to Ely for a training session organised by SHARE Museums East,the museums development network for theEast of England. Although Great St Mary’s is, of course, not a museum, courses like this are an invaluable way to hear about best practice from learning experts and build links with other local heritage organisations so we can learn from their experience.

The course was led by Jo Graham from Learning Unlimited and hosted by Ely Museum.


We focussed on the small changes that heritage attractions can make to welcome families with younger children and promote family learning.

Here’s a quick summary of the main points which I took away from the training day, focussing on simple things that we can do at GSM as we develop our formal and informal learning programmes:

  • A warm welcome and practical facilities such as toilets, good heating and a place for 
    buggies are crucial in allowing families with young children to feel comfortable and able to explore.
  • Clearly signposted information about visiting on the website is key for busy parents.
  • The youngest child’s level of interest often determines the length of a family’s visit – so offering some simple activities for toddlers within the church will allow everyone to stay a little longer and get more from their visit. A small storytelling area with a warm rug, comfy cushions and books could fit easily into the church and be packed away quickly for services.
  • Local families who want to return to a favourite attraction are best served by a rotation of self-led learning activities so that there is always something new, but the retention of old favourites which children will want to return for. At GSM these key attractions might be a magnetic storyboard with figures from medieval illuminations, replica brass rubbings and a selection of dressing-up costumes based on Christian figures in the clerestory…
  • MadonnaYoung children who enjoy heritage attractions have been shown to return to them in later life – so engaging families is essential to cultivate visitors who feel comfortable visiting historic churches in the future.
  • Families typically visit heritage attractions hoping to make memories together and share meaningful activities. We should think about photo opportunities, activities which have components that can be taken home to keep, and open-ended activities which promote active learning and creative dialogue between children and adults.
  • An explorer chest near the entrance can hold simple materials which children can use to engage with the space, such as binoculars, viewfinders, notepads and clipboards, or torches.
  • GSM is a living church with a full programme of services, so sensitivity will be needed as we develop learning materials for younger children which allow them to feel welcome and explore the church, while preserving its essential contemplative and spiritual nature.
  • Play is a type of active learning in itself, and there are many types: exploratory play, pretend play, games with rules, construction play and physical play. Many of these could be incorporated into self-led activities – costumes promote pretend play, drawing fosters creativity, and wooden blocks can be built into GSM’s gothic arches or imaginative edifices.
  • Ely Cathedral houses the Stained Glass Museum, and Ely Museum has a lovely illuminated stained glass jigsaw puzzle (see the last pictures in the gallery below) – I am hoping to make a custom jigsaw showcasing GSM’s own stained glass.
  • One of GSM’s great strengths is our location in the heart of the city – ideally placed for locals to pop in while shopping in town. I hope that by placing unobtrusive activity spaces around the church, GSM will become a welcoming oasis for families who want to catch their breath and encourage their children’s sense of curiosity and wonder in a beautiful historic church.

Queen Elizabeth I’s visit to Cambridge in 1564

And some there be, which have no memorial; who are perished, as though they had never been; and are become as though they had never been born; and their children after them.

But these were merciful men, whose righteousness hath not been forgotten.

– Standard King James Bible – Cambridge edition – Ecclesiasticus 44:9-10. Included in the form of service for the Commemoration of benefactors used at Great St Mary’s Church, 1910.

Inspiring ideas from York

Despite last Monday’s storm, I eventually made it to York in time for a study day at York Minster, organised by the Group for Education in Museums (GEM). It was great to see an established and highly successful HLF-funded learning and outreach programme in action, and I came away with lots of ideas that we might be able to apply on a smaller scale at Great St Mary’s.

Here are some pictures, and some aspects of the learning set up at York which particularly impressed me:


  • 3D printed models of the church through time – with the earlier (smaller) buildings slotting inside the later additions
  • Tactile lift-the-flap information panels to alleviate ‘museum fatigue syndrome’ and entice visitors into interacting with information
  • Blocks to construct gothic and romanesque arches
  • An emphasis on the people (past and present) who make up the Minster community – from clergy to cleaners, librarians to volunteer guides, masons to deans
  • Beautiful, streamlined interactive touchscreens – especially the annotated York Gospels, with key Latin sections highlighted and translated, and the keys to the East window’s iconography and Biblical symbolism
  • Lots of Biblical and historical quotations used to interpret the architecture and imagery
  • Films about Constantine, hidden gems of the Minster and Minster life today – very little text, letting the visuals speak to all visitors
  • Explorer back-packs for families
  • Glossaries to help visitors with unfamiliar ecclesiastical vocabulary
  • Friendly, engaging volunteers on hand to chat and interpret as needed
  • Visual timelines of the development of the East window, with a section showing events from across the world – great idea to orient visitors from overseas in the Minster’s chronology
  • Focus on craftsmanship, past and present, as an opportunity for hands-on experience (and a non-intrusive way to appeal for donations)
  • Heritage, culture and worship coexisting in a beautiful space

    • ‘Minster on the move’ – visits to local primary schools with handling materials to assess needs and build trust in advance to a visit to the Minster
    • Converting participation in targeted projects to regular visits: local school art projects displayed in Minster; parents invited to evening exhibition – resulted in new participation in family activities
    • Training for volunteer guides – collaborating to build a common structure for tours to ensure consistency of length, key themes and a two-way conversation with visitors, rather than a monologue – learning within the organisation as well as with visitors
    • Importance of regular tour times which can be advertised and sensitivity to visitors’ learning styles and different levels of existing knowledge – specialist themed tours a possibility
    • Developing financial sustainability through adult education and leisure learning courses: embroidery, flower arranging, wreath making, drawing
    • Ideas for commemoration of Holocaust Memorial Day on 27 January
    • The church filled with families drawing, learning and exploring
    • Ancient and ultra-modern co-existing in the space, with ‘the orb’ at the East End and the many interactive displays

    It was an inspiring day, and I found it especially helpful that GEM provides a forum for heritage learning officers working across different organisations (cathedrals, museums and churches) to share ideas and expertise.

Create a free website or blog at

%d bloggers like this: