15 May Science & Magic in Colsterworth
In the garden of a Manor house in the small hamlet of Woolsthorpe by Colsterworth, grows an apple tree that – at least as the story goes – changed the world.
In 1665 Cambridge University shut its doors as a protection against the plague, and Newton found himself returned to his childhood home. This countryside exile proved to be a time of revelation for Newton, during which he developed his theories of optics, and proved that colour was a component of light. It was also during this time, that according to tradition, Newton watched an apple fall from a branch and, pondering its descent, set his mind to the mathematics of gravity.
But the history of Woolsthorpe, and neighbouring Colsterworth stretches out far beyond the exploits of its most famous resident. Archaeological exploration of Colsterworth has revealed settlements stretching back to the Iron Age.
The church of St John the Baptist is a building that was well known to Newton. Originally a Saxon church, as evidenced by the distinctive herringbone stonework in the nave, and a fragment of carved Saxon cross kept in the church, St John the Baptist church is a gem of historical, social and architectural interest.
Parts of the building would have been standing at the time of the Domesday Book, when Colsterworth was recorded as a village with 21 households, which would have totaled around 100 people. The Village had one acre of meadow, 80 acres of forest and two mills.
The tower of the church was built in the early 1300’s, and, although much eroded, the name of the master mason – Thomas de Somersby, can still be read, carved into the east face of the tower.
This is not the only mark left by medieval masons on the walls of the church. In a time when belief in devilry and witchcraft went hand in hand with Christianity, it was not uncommon to find people proactively protecting themselves against the dark forces.
A large circular carving of concentric circles can be seen on a windowsill on the north side of the church. This is believed to be an example of an apotropaic mark – more commonly known as a Witch’s Mark. It is thought that these marks were added as a form of protection against witches and demons, and would trap them if they attempted to enter through the windows, or deter their entry. Further examples can be seen high on the exterior walls of the church.
They can be found in many historic church buildings across the country, although the faint carvings can be difficult to see after so many centuries, often appearing when the light is just right.
Several hundred years later, in 1877, these carvings were joined by another, equally as fascinating. A stone slab into which a young Isaac Newton had carved a sundial was presented to the church and installed in the site of the Newton Family Chapel.
Although the sundial is now largely hidden by the organ, the church is currently fundraising to enable a substantial re-order of the church which will make the handiwork of the young scientist, more accessible to the public.