The history of the North Midlands is writ large on this ancient town set high above the quiet meadows bordering the River Trent. Its history is traced from Saxon and Norman times, through Tudor to the present day. Even the Danes who came this far up the Trent in their longships, made it their winter base during their attempted expansion south from Northumbria into King Alfred’s Wessex.
Repton’s parish church of St Wystan is built on Saxon foundations, part of the priory that brought Christianity to this part of the Midlands. Remains of the ruined 12th century ecclesiastical house are incorporated within the famous school, the most important remnants being Prior Overton’s Tower, now part of the Headmaster’s House. The school can trace its foundations back to the time when the earliest Saxons settled here; today it is the North Midland’s major centre of learning. The parish church, that most recognisable part of that monastery still stands, with a needle-like spire beckoning the faithful over miles of water-meadows. It shelters a rare old crypt as well as overlooking the fine school buildings old and new, with grey walls and red walls, gables and red roofs, green carpeted church yard sheltered by ancient trees, the whole overlooked by delightful cottages – along the road to Bretby there is even a rare example of a black and white house with a room that overhangs its porch.
When those early Saxons erected their simple timber and mud-walled church some time around the middle of the 7th century, it began a thousand years of building, giving us one of the most noble of village shrines. They gave us a crypt which grew in fame until it became the northern equivalent of Westminster Abbey. Beginning with King Æthelbald (AD716-757) it became the final resting place of Mercian kings and queens including King Wiglaf and martyred Prince Wystan his grandson, who was murdered in AD849. For many years the crypt beneath the church sheltered the remains of the martyred prince who had been treacherously murdered by his cousin, but in 874 his remains were transferred to Evesham on the approach of invading Danes.
By this time Wystan had been made a saint and his shrine a place of pilgrimage. Such was the popularity of a pilgrimage to St Wystan’s Repton tomb that the crypt was regularly dangerously overcrowded by devout pilgrims. As a result an extra set of stairs was made, creating an early example of a one-way system, which stands to this day.
Around this time the Danes were for ever making a nuisance of themselves and after one particular foray in 850, they destroyed the monastery which had stood there for more than 200 years. When later Saxons built a church on the site of the old abbey, they laid its foundations on the remains of the old chancel walls, walls that are still standing to this day. Part of this rebuilding left us a crypt that has been called the most perfect example of Saxon architecture, certainly in this part of England. Only 17 feet square, it has a vaulted roof with small rounded arches resting on four spirally wreathed pillars, and eight extra half pillars on the walls. Modern windows have been cut into the walls to let light in and show us the crypt to its best advantage. There are still traces of an old altar, and an opening in the western wall which is believed to have been a peep-hole in by-gone days when lepers or the infirm could view the shrine without struggling up and down the steps.
The crypt was desecrated during Henry VIII’s Act of Dissolution and forgotten until the end of the 18th century, when a workman accidentally fell into it while digging a grave. Near an entrance to the crypt from the outside, a holy-water stoup, made for the use of the priory can still be seen. Today’s visitors have none of the struggle early pilgrims experienced. Modern lighting allows access even though it must be remembered that the stone stairs both in and out are hundreds of years old.
Today’s visitors to St Wystan’s, Repton’s parish church, can see the work of the 12th century and later builders who reshaped the Saxon church but the chancel walls are mostly as they were when the original 10th century craftsmen downed tools on their last day’s work. There are still the remains of two Saxon pillars with square capitals which were once part of the 13th century nave arcades, but now stand in the two-storied porch. Above its ancient door, St Wystan looks out from a small niche, watching visitors, old and young who come to see his wonderful Saxon church. Outside and on the side of the support tower of the slender spire is a clock, which prides itself as being half the size of Big Ben’s clock on the Houses of Parliament in Westminster.
It comes as something of a shock when wandering around the churchyard, to see the number of Commonwealth War Graves tucked away in a secluded corner. With only the odd exception they hold the remains of trainee glider pilots killed during training flights from their school based on the site of what is now Toyota’s Burnaston factory off the A38 near Derby.
Repton School celebrated its 400th Anniversary in 1957. Built on the site of the old priory church, its spacious main hall was designed in 1886 by Sir Arthur Blomfield, a major Victorian architect, in memory of Doctor Stuart Pears. It was under his rule that what was then a grammar school, became in the space of twenty years one of the great public schools in the country.
The friendly local pub the Bull’s Head offered to look after our dog while using the inn’s toilets in a village without such public conveniences for visitors, rounded off a day visiting this one-time capital of Mercia, one of England’s original four kingdoms.
A stroll around this attractive not-so-sleepy village of interesting old buildings with the occasional antique shop, can be extended by a two mile drive out to Foremark Hall. While not generally open to the public, the view from the outside is well worth the visit. Built in 1760 in the Palladian style, for the Burdetts, it is now a preparatory school for Repton; the family church is a National Trust property open to the public on advertised days. A century older than the house, it is externally Gothic, but its interior is still Jacobean, furnished with box-pews, a three-decker pulpit and a fine rood-screen.