St Helen's Church is the oldest church in Wheathampstead, although the date of it's origins is unknown. There was originally a wooden Saxon structure on the site which pre-dated the Norman conquest but no records survive which establish exactly when it was founded. The central tower dates to about 1290 AD which is the first definitive date that can be attributed to the church. St Helen's is built of flint rubble brought by the medieval builders by boat to Bedford and then conveyed by horse and cart along the Roman roads.
There are some wonderful inscriptions.
- One says "From you we learned to think, to feel, to imagine, to believe, to love".
- Another "We want to tell you something so there won't be any doubt; you're so wonderful to think of but so hard to do without".
- I was particularly moved by one which simply said "He was a kind man". That's a nice epitaph for anyone to have.
There were a couple of graves made of what look like modern bricks with built in air conditioning. Very strange.
There is a statue inside the church and a grave in the corner of the graveyard for the polar explorer, Apsley Cherry-Gerrard, who went with Scott's last expedition (1910 - 1913). Before the attempt on the South Pole, he went with two other explorers, Wilson and Bowers, to obtain an unhatched Emperor penguin egg (now in the Natural History Museum) and suffered from the cold so much that he shattered most of his teeth due to them chattering in the freezing temperatures.
He then went with Scott on the attempt on the Pole but was in the second supporting party to be sent back to base camp. After Scott, Wilson and Bowers failed to return, he went with a team who eventually found their bodies in their tent, along with their diaries, records and geological specimens.
Cherry-Garrard was deeply affected by the tragic end to the expedition, particularly by the deaths of Wilson and Bowers. He later suffered from clinical depression and what we now call post traumatic stress disorder. He spent many years bed-ridden due to his afflictions.
After we had walked round the church examining the grave stones, looking at the plants and the wildlife, we retreated to The Swan for a very pleasant lunch, a small drink and a chat about which graveyard we might visit next month.