St Helen’s Church is the oldest church in Wheathampstead but the exact date of its origins are unknown. The originally wooden Saxon structure pre-dated the Norman conquest, but no records survive which establish the date upon which it was founded. An ambitious scheme of restoration was begun during the early part of the 13th century, the original Saxon church having become dilapidated. The Normans rebuilt and lengthened the chancel in around 1238AD. The east window triple lancets which still survive in the structure today date from this time as do the window and doorway with its dog-tooth decoration on the north side of the sanctuary. However, from the Lincoln Cathedral Registry (Wheathampstead fell within the See of Lincoln up until 1845) the building of the central tower dates to about 1290AD, which is the first definitive date that can be ascribed to the church. St. Helen’s is built of flint rubble, or Totternhoe clunch, with flint facings and limestone dressings. There being no stone of this type in the area, it is thought that the medieval builders used stone from the Midland quarries shipped down the River Ouse to Bedford and from there conveyed by horse and cart along the Roman roads to Wheathampstead.
The tower is central and dates from about 1290 when the earlier tower needed rebuilding as we know from records in Lincoln Cathedral Registry which tell us of the granting of an indulgence for twenty days to all who contributed to the cost of the work – an early example of the practice so abhorred by Luther in later years.The inventory of 1548 mentioned four bells in the tower. These must have been fairly large, as in 1717 they were recast by Richard Phelps of Whitechapel, with no additional metal, into a ring of six, with a tenor of 17 cwt.In 1885, the second, fourth and fifth bells were recast (probably because they had become cracked) by John Warner and Sons of Cripplegate. By 1936 all the bells and their fittings were deteriorating, and a decision was taken to have them all recast and rehung in a new timber frame with all new fittings. This work was entrusted to John Taylor and Co. of Loughborough. The tenor of the new ring weighed 14¼ cwt., and the bells were tuned to the key of F major. The dedication of the installation took place in September 1937.
Crowning the tower is a splendid “broach” spire constructed of wood set at a very steep angle on a square base, and rising to a diminishing octagon. It is clad externally with strips of lead arranged in a herringbone pattern. The present spire is an 1865 reconstruction of an imagined earlier mediaeval version.
Much rebuilding and additional work was done in the early part of this century. Following the rebuilding of the tower, the south aisle of the nave was added and the south porch in 1350. The west end of the nave was rebuilt with its fine doorway and arch with ball-flower ornament c. 1320. The two-light windows at the aisle west end and the octagonal piers with their moulded capitals and double-hollow-chamfered arches are typical of that date.The north aisle was added later, the recessed tomb in the north wall probably being that of a benefactor of this work.The north transept or Lamer Chapel was rebuilt about 1330-40 with its large five-light traceried window in the north wall and three-light windows in the east wall. This window has a lowered sill supporting the reredos of the altar to St. Nicholas that used to stand beneath it. This reredos of seven canopied niches with leafy crockets and foliage in the spandrels was found walled up in 1865 and restored then to reveal all the artistry of its itinerant medieval stonemason who did not quite finish the work. Perhaps he was carried off by the Black Death which ravaged the country at the time. Pevsner has described the carving as richer than anything in the county, except for the east end at St. Albans Abbey. He comments, “Much money must have been available and an architect with a good sense of display”. The Macry family were the most likely benefactors of this work, their leopard’s head emblem being discernible in the reredos to those sharp-eyed enough to see it. (The same emblem may be seen on the font, also of early 14th century date.)
The south transept was rebuilt shortly afterwards with its fine east window showing some original fine feather cusping in its tracery and big fleurons. Its south window of four lights with net tracery is of the same date as that in the opposite wall.In the chancel the lancet windows on the north and south walls were replaced and enlarged about 1380, and the small low window at the west end of the south wall of the chancel is of about the same date.The two-storied vestry on the north-east side of the chancel was also added about this time. It was thought by one authority to have housed a hermit or recluse, the upper floor possibly being used as a treasury.
Ruth Jeavons writes: A mobile Church Army mission with a van had been active in Wheathampstead from 11th to 24th November 1908, at the invitation of the rector, Canon Davys. Its aim being ‘to quicken and stimulate the spiritual life of the parish’, it is likely that the idea of a church for Gustard Wood was a practical outcome.
The proposal to build a mission room at Gustard Wood appeared in the parish magazine the following month. It was for ‘a room of corrugated iron, on brick foundations, 40ft long by 20ft wide … calculated to hold 150 persons’. The estimated cost of such a room was £200, of which £50 had already been donated. The Rector, Canon O.W. Davys, requested subscriptions.
Mrs Upton Robins at Delaport was particularly active in pushing the scheme and approached the widow of the late rector of Ayot St Lawrence, Mrs Pearce, for a donation of £5. The reply was: ‘For an iron church I will give you nothing; but make it a permanent church, and I will give you £1,000’.
Thus was a much-improved project set in motion. Canon Davys’s son, Mr F. Trevor Davys, designed the new church and Mr J. Fenwick Owen of Gustard Wood, built the church in less than six months.
‘Dedicated to the glory of God and in memory of the Rev. William Peter Pearce, M.A. Cantab, Rector of Ayot St Lawrence from 1889 to 1900, this mission church is erected by his widow, Laura Theresa Pearce, 1910.‘
With a seating capacity of about a hundred, the church consists of a chancel and nave, constructed in Bath stone and knapped flints with a central bell turret in Bath stone and a porch in English oak.
The Earl of Cavan and Mr Apsley Cherry Garrard, among others, gave money, and other wealthy local inhabitants gifted church furniture, sacred vessels, hassocks, kneeling mats, lace and altar frontals. Mrs Lucy Straw of the Plough Inn gave a stone credence table and altar flowers, and the Countess of Cavan gave ‘alms bags of rich design’.
At the dedication service the Bishop of St Albans, his domestic chaplain, the Rev. Canon Davys and Mr W. Lane-Claypon officiated and boys from the surpliced St Helen’s choir sang hymns accompanied by Mr H. Watts on the harmonium. Afterwards, Mrs Upton Robins, who had given not only the harmonium but also the carved oak altar, invited everyone back to tea at Delaport.