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Secret history

17 May 2013

By Sue Dobson

In Northamptonshire, county of squires and spires, Higham Ferrers is tucked away off the junction of the A6 and A45, alongside its close neighbour, Rushden.

This pretty medieval market town is a little-known gem. Centuries-old houses of mellow limestone cluster around the Market Square, with its 13th-century market cross and Georgian town hall. Behind the square, the quiet church close has a unique group of ecclesiastical buildings that could grace a cathedral city.

What to see
One of the finest churches in the Midlands, St Mary the Virgin, with its towering steeple and stunning, double-nave interior, dates from the 13th century. Roundels in the west porch depict scenes from the life of Christ. They were carved in 1270 by one of the foreign masons employed on the rebuilding of Westminster Abbey. Tendrils and figures form a Tree of Jesse on the stone frames of the doorway.

The exquisitely carved rood screen and choir stalls, with misericords under the seats, were given by Henry Chichele in 1425. Born in Higham Ferrers, Chichele was a trusted adviser to King Henry V, founder of All Souls College, Oxford, and Archbishop of Canterbury from 1414 until his death in 1443.

Chichele's beautiful little chantry chapel stands next to the church. With its tall pinnacles and carved battlements, this jewel of Perpendicular architecture served as the town's grammar school for nearly three centuries after the dissolution of the monasteries.

Across the churchyard lawn, Chichele's Bede House was built to house 12 poor, elderly men of the borough. Now the parish hall, it still has its impressive 15th-century timber roof and fine fireplace.

The ruins of Chichele College, founded in 1425 as a place of prayer and learning, stand on College Street, which is lined with Elizabethan houses. Its gabled front has a Tudor door, gargoyles, and niches that once held statues of the patron saints of the college. Behind it, there is a recently planted medieval-style cloister garden, and the partly rebuilt chapel is used regularly for art exhibitions.

Don't miss the exquisite "Mapestry" hanging in the public library, and do end your visit with a walk along the banks of the River Nene.

Where to eat and drink
Beans coffee-shop on the Market Square offers sandwiches, cakes, and the best cappuccino in town. The Griffin, a friendly 17th-century inn on the High Street, has cosy bars, and a good restaurant.

Near by
Kimbolton Castle was a Tudor manor house when Catherine of Aragon died there in 1536. Vanbrugh, Hawksmoor, Pellegrini, and Robert Adam transformed it into the stately palace that now houses Kimbolton School. St Andrew's, in the village, has the only Tiffany window in a parish church in England.

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