Let’s fix up Notre Dame with concrete and steel: but let the sun shine into it

_106468565_hi053452713.jpgSo, here’s a story. On 15 April 2019, when the roofspace over the crossing of Paris Cathedral caught fire, I was in a pub in east London having a burger. My initial reaction was not one of anxiety for the 12th-century Early Gothic church, with its splendid 13th-century Rayonnant superstructure and rose windows with contemporary (if VERY restored) medieval stained glass, but instead a slight feeling of dismay of how long this would mean the building would be closed and how much it would cost to replace the roof. It was also a great shame to lose the crowning achievement of the restorer Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, his magnificent Neo-Gothic crossing flèche, albeit mere days after all the statues had been removed from it for restoration. Anyway, then I went off to watch Kubrick-themed Italian thrash-metal revival band Ultra-Violence open for Wisconsin death metallers Jungle Rot without that much worry.

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Point cloud-based cross sectional rendering of Paris Cathedral by Andrew Tallon, so you can see the difference between a ROOF and a CEILING

You see, not to be all Dr Know-it-All here, but what looked like ABSOLUTE DESTRUCTION to most of you looked like what it was to me – the wooden roof burning off the top of a stone building. It’s like a golem’s hat caught fire. One of the first things to get going in architecture is understanding the difference between a roof and a ceiling. Michelangelo did not paint the Sistine Chapel ROOF. If you go up to the bedroom on the top floor of a house, you don’t see the ROOF. You see A CEILING. You only see the roof structure of most houses when you go into the attic.

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A fire in the choir of York Minster in 1829 started by a disgruntled anti-Anglican cleric destroyed the medieval wooden ceiling and choir furniture of the cathedral

Notre Dame, like nearly every French cathedral (and most English Gothic ones) is covered by a high stone vault that makes the roof completely invisible from the interior. Essentially vaults are stone arches in three dimensions, and are nearly as stable as arches in a single plane. At least part of the reason that they were commonly employed in Gothic architecture was to make sure that the interior, and all its furniture and fittings (not to mention people) were protected from the biggest fire hazard – the roof structure – from crashing down to the floor as soon as it set ablaze. Places like York Minster, that always had wooden sham-vaults in their central vessel (which for various complicated reasons is unusually wide and therefore difficult to vault in stone), feel the pinch as a roof fire can be almost immediately catastrophic, as was the case in 1829 when Jonathan “Mad” Martin set fire to the choir furniture which ultimately destroyed the Minster’s choir roof and ceiling (although in 1984, the outer bay S transept ceiling was purposely caused to fall to the floor so the firemen could drench it to stop it spreading to the next bay).

When people reported that the rose Windows had exploded on that Monday night, and all the medieval stained glass of Notre Dame was lost, I literally didn’t believe it. I mean like, you might as well have said that Brian Blessed turned up and blew the fire out. Because it’s almost unthinkable that a roof fire (from which heat travels up) is going to significantly damage a window well below it. And yes, I was right. What had exploded were the smaller rose windows that allow light into the roofspace, which of course, have always had plain glazing, because no one looks through them except workmen.

 

 

SEI_62857434-e1555488108249Let me admit that perhaps I should not have been too blasé. The high vault of Paris Cathedral collapsed in three places on 15/16 April, two cells in the nave (half of first bay and half of second, along with a hole in the adjacent north cell), one in the north transept, and most notably of all, the entire crossing. Here it is rendered in red on a ground plan.

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Note the outer ring of vaulting is the outer chapels, the next two are the double aisles, and there are also vaults in the gallery directly above the inner aisle. None of these lower roofs appear to be affected, the high roof is a long way from them after all.

It does not seem to be widely reported that the crossing collapsed sometime in the morning of the 16 April, as there was an initial photograph by a reporter showing it to be largely intact, except flames visible through the central boss.

Whether this was due to the impact of the flèche falling down, or the extra fuel it provide to raise the heat there, I don’t know. Vaults are quite sturdy, but they aren’t designed to take much weight from above – hence why you usually never walk about on top of them and have suspended walkways over them for regular access. But as the largest vault with the least ribs in the cathedral, it’s probably the most vulnerable. It’s worth saying that the crossing of Rheims completely collapsed too after the roof burnt off in 1914, but then this was due to bombardment rather than simply fire.

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Rheims Cathedral, looking W from on top of the choir vaults, 1919

notredameinterior1704-0.jpgThe interior of Notre Dame currently has piles of debris under the three vault collapses – the charred remains of the roof and flèche, and the masonry of the vaults. Sensibly it has been left untouched, as it seems plausible some of the voussoirs of the ribs could be reused in reconstruction of the vaults.

However, it seems that absolutely no art has been damaged, not even the Baroque canvas oil paintings that hung on the walls of the transepts. Vaults collapsing no doubt makes a big crash with a lot of dust, but there’s no domino effect with the adjacent bays falling as you might expect (the support is from the side walls, not the adjacent vaults, as many single bays of vaulting in ruined abbeys attest).

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The crossing of San Francesco, Assisi after 1997 earthquake. The roof is supported by quadrant arches of 15thc masonry, with purlins of reinforced concrete from 1953.

Three cells fell out of the vault of the Basilica of San Francesco in Assisi in 1997 during an earthquake (one on top of 4 people who’d entered the building after an initial smaller quake the night before), and apart from the frescoes directly painted on their structure (Matthew the Evangelist by Cimabue and St Jerome by the Roman Masters of the St Francis Cycle), but somewhat surprisingly, there was essentially no damage to the famous frescos of the Life of St Francis on the walls right next to the site of the collapse.

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Plan of vault collapses at San Francesco, Assisi in 1997

Anyway if you think a few vault cells falling down is bad, you should see Soissons Cathedral after the second Battle of the Aisne in 1919.

(yes, that is TWO WHOLE BAYS of the early 13th-century nave destroyed and subsequently rebuilt)

What’s been more depressing than the Notre Dame fire itself is the aftermath. The alt-right hate crew roll in to blame the Muslims (for, um, sneaking inside the roof space to start a fire that hardly damaged the structure at all ah yes, much more likely than an electrical fault: like and subscribe). Floundering President Macron seizes on it to try and rally his gilet-jaune agitators into some sort of patriotic common cause by promising it’ll all be fine in five years. Billionaires donate a bit of pocket change at a 95% tax deductible rate to get themselves on the golden wall of donors when they should simply be paying more tax on their obscene wealth. Saddest of all, a load of spreadsheet architectural firms get free publicity by doing stupid renders where they put a swimming pool on top of the cathedral, or a glass roof to let light in, revealing that they don’t even seem to understand the concept of a vault. The hack journos lap all this up, and don’t try to talk to the people hard at work consolidating and assessing the structure. I’m not even going to dignify these starachitects’ horrendously egotistical self-promotion by making fun of any of them directly. This video does it much better than I could.

So what should be done? First and foremost, a roof is practical – it simply a frame designed to angle a covering of waterproof material to throw off precipitation. To nearly every visitor to a cathedral, its structure below the shingles, tiles or lead is invisible to them. Most people do not think of the roofspace above them, because it is, essentially, only accessible for maintenance purposes. The French often refer to cathedral roofspaces as “la Forêt” (the forest) because of the maze of timbers (for the avoidance of doubt, this was not specific to Paris, but generally used in most French church high roofspaces). You generally walk in these attic spaces on suspended walkways over the vaults, and there is little natural light except from windows in large end gables, and small lucarnes in the roof.

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The (former) high roofspace at Paris Cathedral

When you go to Chartres, do you realise the roof burnt off in a similar work-based accident in 1836, and was replaced by an ingeniously modern structure of wrought and cast iron, drawing on the recent technology some of the most recent iron bridges by Thomas Telford in the west of England? It’s really rather artful.

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Chartres Cathedral, roofspace, 1837–9 by Théophile Mignon

Rheims Cathedral had its whole roof burnt off during bombardment in 1914. Do you notice now that the roof put on the 1920s and 30s is made of reinforced concrete? Well, only if you go up one of the spiral stairs through the whole height of the walls and walk round the roofspace, you don’t.

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Rheims Cathedral, roofspace, 1919-38 by Henri Deneux.

That’s why to me, the thought of using “new-craft” talent and traditional oak to replicate the original roof is pointless and little bit silly too. Medieval roof structures are almost textbook tinderboxes of large and small timbers, and why in the Middle Ages roofs burning off churches was a relatively common occurrence, especially since they didn’t have lightning conductors (or indeed, dodgy wiring). It’s interesting to see that although the roof timbers were incinerated overnight, the steel scaffold at the heart of the blaze that had – ironically – been constructed around the flèche for its restoration, has only been damaged by its westward fall, the rest is basically fine. Wood burns well below the melting point for even basic metal. I’ll leave it to the professional engineers to design, but not creating the new roof out of a mixture of light-weight concrete and steel strengthening seems like a cut and shut case, really, unless you want to have a Glasgow School of Art on your hands when it catches fire again.

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View south across the collapsed crossing from N transept. The flèche fell to the right of the picture.

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14th-century iron ties on the late 13th-century flyers of Beauvais Cathedral

Metal has been used for a VERY long time in church restoration. Beauvais Cathedral, which had some vault pockets fall out in 1284 necessitating a change of plan on the part of the builders, has iron ties between the buttresses which are from at least the 14th century, and also iron clamps across the stones in the redesigned high vault itself. Ruined abbeys, for instance Whitby in North Yorkshire, are only still standing to the level they are because the men from the ministry inserted iron rods into the wall cores in the early 20th century. Does that spoil them for you? Nope, because I bet you didn’t have a clue before now how much work people do to keep these ancient buildings here for you to look at.

Notre dame flecheSince we have the original statues in storage, Viollet-le-Duc’s timber and lead flèche ought to be reconstructed to his original designs. It’s a slap in the face to the man who had the vision to create the Notre Dame that Paris could love again after the city had abused the structure so appallingly in the Revolution and Reign of Terror if they don’t. We have his original plans, it shouldn’t be too hard.

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Removing glass from the choir clerestory at Notre Dame, early May 2019

However, it seems to me that the one thing the 19th century got wrong was the glazing. Nearly every window in Notre Dame was filled with stained glass during Viollet-le-Duc’s surveyorship, and while this was no doubt the situation in the Middle Ages, this modern glass is severe and flat, rather than delicate and jewel-like like genuine medieval glass (the original medieval glass is mainly in the three great roses, but an awful lot of that is filled in with the same sort of gaudy bubblegum 19th-century stuff). Currently, the team of conservators have removed all the glazing from the clerestory, and it looks rather delicate and lovely. Paris Cathedral was a very difficult building to actually examine from the inside. You were almost looking at the lighting system more than the structure itself. But since the crossing vault has gone, wow, in photos, it looks FANTASTIC.

It was all very blue, wasn’t it? Well, just about every window had coloured glass in it, even those at the back of the gallery spaces you can’t see from the floor. Also awful recent ideas such as illuminating the vault bosses with spotlights made the whole lighting system of the interior very distracting, unreal, and sterile. A church interior should change with the passing of the day. Notre Dame always looked the same: like being in a gloomy jacuzzi. But with real, unfiltered sunlight passing over it, it actually looks alive again! How ironic it takes the roof burning off and the crossing collapsing to make me say that.

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Now, I’m not saying they should put a lantern that opens up the roof over the collapsed crossing, like Ely Cathedral. That would probably be an intervention too far (but you could bet the Middle Ages would have a crack at it). But do let the sunlight continue to fall across these stones and get the endless Parnassian passages of Victorian-Era glass out to let the clerestory do what it’s supposed to do – be a clear story. The building deserves it. But as for the roof, I take the words of Billy Gibbons from the opening track of ZZ Top’s 1990 album Recycler.

“Concrete and steel: hey baby, what’s the deal?”

 

 

(Note on picture credits. Featured image was posted by the Cathedral themselves on their Twitter account. Collapsing spire from a video distributed by Reuters. The interiors and the shots of the burnt-out roof were taken by Thomas Goisque around two weeks after the fire. You can see – and use – all my pictures of Notre Dame’s interior from summer 2016 on Flickr)

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Churchcrawling trails: The Norfolk Broads around St Bene’t’s Abbey

Ah, Norfolk. Now that’s churchcrawling coun’ry. Well, that’s what people would say. Undeniably, the density of medieval churches is quite extraordinary in some parts, and the preservation of medieval furnishings – especially rood screen dados – is remarkable. This tour is based around the churches around the confluence of the river Ant with the river Bure, where the great Benedictine of Hume Abbey (now commonly referred to as “St Bene’t’s Abbey”) was strategically based. The Abbey would have been influential on these parishes, as it had the right of advowson (the right to appoint their next parish priest) for many of them.

One thing to notice round here is that you can’t drive wherever you want. Just because two places look quite close, it can actually be a good 20 minutes to go round the Broads to get to it (note, this is why the famous Ranworth is not included in this trip. You need to go back to Hoveton and back east to get to that). I don’t usually like to dictate a route, but here I will present them in order of visit, since there’s a pretty high chance you’ll be visiting these from Norwich, anyway.

Although there are 10 churches here, they’re so close together you can easily do them in even a short day.

Beeston St Lawrence, St Lawrence

PICT0090.JPGMust be one of the most-noticed round towers in the county, as it lies right next to the A1151. Although the majority of traffic will probably bomb past it at 60 mph, there’s a lay-by on the left as you head north if you know it’s coming (careful when you cross the road!).

Like a lot of Norfolk churches, it’s a two-cell building, large but spatially interesting. Lack of basically any good building stone, arcades are relatively rare around here. Round towers are certainly partly a symptom of a situation, since having no corners means you don’t have to bother finding good stone for quoins.

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The chancel however, is quite a fancy bit of architecture, probably dating to the second half of the 14thc, when a starting gun really went off in Norwich for parish church rebuilding. Fancy buttresses with gables intersection with the shafts, fiddly but rigid window tracery, and, impressively, flush work patterns at the base of the E wall.

P1850011.JPGInside, the building is very plain caused by the 18thc ceiling dictating the walls’ overbearing whitewash. Of course, the walls are built of crap, so it’s not like there’s anything to scrape down. Bashed-up piscina at the E end of the chancel. You’d be pressed to spend longer than 5 minutes here. So unless you want to pray or anything, on we go…

Barton Turf, St Michael and All Angels

P1850273.JPGProblem with Norfolk churches, really, is they’re often totally overshadowed by a single possession. If all of England’s parish churches were like this, then there would be a case for removing furnishings to museums, as happened in Italy and Spain for much of the 19th and first part of the 20thc. But here we are, in deepest potato fields, one of the finest bits of late-15thc English painting surviving : their angel rood screen.

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Here it is, in the very place where it was painted (it has been shown that these screens were painted after assembly). It used to be nigh impossible to get in here, but now this masterpiece is accessible to anyone who makes the journey.

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The whole exterior of Barton Turf church was redone in the late 15thc. The arcades inside are earlier, from the 14thc, and originally would have led to much narrower aisles. The chancel was probably also built at this date, but given a full refenestration, and a S chapel added to it. Note how the arcade to the chancel chapel is totally different.

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So, the screen. It has an utterly captivating balance of gilded pattern and the human feeling of dialogue between the paired figures as they hold attributes of their office (even though most of them are heavenly beings and not human at all, but, whatever). What’s unusual about it is that somehow, it’s almost completely and utterly untouched by even a scratch of iconoclasm (two have had their faces acted, one of them likely for its papal tiara, too much for anyone claiming to be Reformed). There’s a story, told in the mid-19thc, that in 1793 the rector came back from a trip to see the church completely remodelled, wall paintings removed and family pews replacing old oak benches, but was just in time to save the rood screen from being painted over, but this does seem a little of a fiction.

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The screen shows the orders of Angels from Cherubim and Seraphim downwards: you don’t need me to go through them and their iconography, there’s enough guides to that when you get there. I can, however, tell you that the carpentry is identical to that at Westwick three miles west (though it’s much repainted there, so don’t get excited about that), and the accepted date is c.1480s-90s.

PICT0102.JPGIt’s interesting to note that it could have been put in before the aisles were reconstructed since the chancel arch is of that date, which would explain why the four kings screen to the S chapel, is of a totally different hand and just shockingly crap in comparison to the main screen.

 

Irstead, St Lawrence

The journey to Irstead is part of the fun. You’ll probably get stuck behind a slowcoach and then wonder how on Earth a church can be deep inside a wood like this. But this is the Broads, there’s always people about. Anyway, it’s worth it, as despite being a small church, it’s got by far the most to see so far: as well as a rood screen, wall paintings, bench ends, a font, and a beautiful iron-work door handle of the early 14thc.

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P1850225.JPGIrstead is a good contrast to Barton Turf in a number of ways. Again, it’s a 14thc core (look at the windows, and also the evidence of one of the wall paintings), but this time it’s the walls, rather than arcades. The S arcade is much later, possibly 16thc, as the capitals are plastered brick. Usually the “shafts stuck onto the side of a chunk of wall” look was a stylistic one, but here, it may well be that they cut the arcade out of the wall.

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And the rood screen. Or rather here, the paintings, since they’ve been remounted in a new support with a 19thc carved top, and were presumably detached from their original carpentered rood screen. Unusually, there were no architectural divisions between each figure, instead them standing in groups of three in front of the same wallpaper.

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What’s interesting here is the object’s manifest history. Every single face has bad paint loss, as it’s been squiggled over with by a sharp object. Look closer, and you’ll see every attribute of each apostle has also been attacked in the same way, less comprehensively for larger ones like St Andrew’s cross. Instead of this demonstrating a parish who hated their screen, this is one where they perhaps wanted to keep it as an aesthetic object. By doing this bare minimum to “cancel out” the identities of the saints, it was now just a piece of furniture, and would probably pass muster with all but the most puritan of crown commissars. The people who did this were former Catholics who still believed in the power of images.

 

Neatishead, St Peter

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On return to civilisation (well, as far as this bit of Norfolk gets, anyway ho ho), let’s make a stop at a deep-cut that will make no one’s top-whatever list, but is a great little riddle to solve. You don’t need to be an expert to feel something’s not right with this church. It’s just a box, essentially. A big box, too. It’s definitely medieval, the piscina is in the right place. It feels far too big to be a chapel, but the wrong shape for a parish church. So what’s going on? P1850208.JPG

Well, it turns out this is just the chancel of a standard tower-nave-chancel church, with those parts demolished in 1790. But at nearly 20 metres long inside, this would’ve been a heck of a chancel, no?

P1850207.JPGWell, actually, look at the side. You can see where the mid-14thc masonry of pebbles ends, and changes to standard flintwork. This is where the chancel’s been extended by a third, presumably with fabric from the demolished parts just as some tabernacles and a doorway have been used in the W front. Shows you can’t always trust windows as evidence (they were mostly redone in the 1870s). Anyway, it’s an usual bit of work for its date. Quite frankly in most places they’d have got rid of the whole thing and built a boring brick box.

Horning, St Benedict

Another one that’s hardly top of anyone’s list but all the more reason to make the effort. The door is on a timelock, 9am-5pm, like many places round here. Also it has hot-drink making facilities for visitors, which is nice (powdered milk, though).

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First thing you’ll notice is that it lost an aisle. Yes, even though the stone for the arcades was hard-fought for round here, the space they gave was more liturgical purposes than general population. Any problems with the aisle roofs, and many parishes would elect to demolish them and block up the arcades instead.

From the inside, you can tell the N arcade was likely much earlier, the S arcade being part of the inevitable Perp remodelling, including provision for a now-vanished rood ensemble. Many medieval bench ends scattered around, and an impressively gnarled-looking parish chest.

Holm Abbey (St Bene’t’s Abbey)

If it wasn’t for the valiant attempts at Horning church to promote it and its legacy, St Benet’s would probably be much less visited than it is. It’s really off the beaten path and not terribly well-known by anyone not from around this parts. There’s not much left of the church, nor was it a particularly big one, but it’s a wonderful experience. Follow the signs to the private road, and eventually you will come to a car park with a clear pathway to the most substantial surviving portion, the W gatehouse.

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St Benet’s claim to fame is that it was the only abbey not suppressed in the Dissolutions of the 1530s. Ownership of the entire abbey was given to the Bishop of Norwich, who never formally evicted the monks. But it’s not like you can survive as the only Benedictines in England, so the complex was quickly abandoned and ended up like just about every monastery, eventually quarried for stone by the diocese like every other foundation in the county.

In the 1720s or 30s, a brick windmill was built against the gatehouse, utilising it as a support. It is, itself, a significant structure, one of the earliest windmills you’ll find in this country. However, the building it partly envelops (and indeed, protects) is quite a mindblower.P1850179.JPG

It’s an exceptionally sophisticated use of limestone and flint, probably dating to around 1320s-30s. The spandrels of a man fighting a rampant lion are hardly done justice by this photo: they’re gigantic.

Although, as I say, the church is hardly impressive, but you ought to make the effort if you can. Wear proper shoes, and be aware there are some quite curious cattle kept in the field (they’re not aggressive, but they can be frustrating when they are standing exactly where the best bit of wall is).

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The high altar is marked by a giant cross, and there’s a talking bench (no, really) on site that will help you understand it all when you get there. I’ll do a video about it eventually. But when most abbeys have had their enclosures completely obliterated from the environment, the experience of walking though open landscape for about five minutes from the gatehouse to the church is one of the best ways of getting an idea of the scale of these institutions.

Ludham, St Catherine

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This is my favourite church round here. For many years following the first quarter of the 14thc it likely would have been undisputed as the standout. Strip the Perp away from every other church here and you’re not left with much at all, but here you’ve got the base of a significant W tower and a chancel to rival the finest Dec-essays in Cambridgeshire or Oxfordshire.

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P1850103.JPGIndeed, much of the stone is probably clunch from Cambridgeshire, although the quickest way to get it here would be to put it round the coast from King’s Lynn and up the river Bure. Because it’s such a pliable stone susceptible to weathering, the extravagance is most interior: the sedilia and piscina group, but also the chancel arch capitals, full of characterful monstrosity.

Then comes the Perping, with grand new arcades, clerestory, and rood ensemble, the original carpentered screen of kings surviving pretty much unscathed. Notice on the capitals, a hole has been cut into each interior face for the vanished loft, and the capital now carries the rood beam, the inner mouldings of the chancel arch removed. But the extremely unusual thing at Ludham: there’s something on top of that beam.P1850088.JPG

PICT0129.JPGThe painted tympanum is of such incredibly poor quality it’s almost certainly a Marian replacement for the original that was destroyed under Edward VI. On the back are the royal arms of Elizabeth, which attests to this. The canvas the royal arms were painted on were originally over the rood group, and it’s been remounted on the reverse, so sadly it didn’t spin round when the commissars came round. Like the bit in Stingray. Some of you will know what I mean.

Catfield, All Saints

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P1850073.JPGAnother ambitious church, but the arcades here are earlier, late 14thc. No clerestory, but instead a strip of wall paintings. They’re difficult to decipher but they’re an impressive reminder of how some quite “boring” architecture must have been designed with mural painting in mind. Easiest to identify is the Stoning of St Stephen in one of the spandrels. The screen survives, but is not of the exceptional quality of either carpentry or painting we’ve seen thus far. The kings on it are good, but more traditional grumpy standard International Gothic rather than energetic Flemish-looking stuff.

P1850060.JPGThe chancel was remodelled in the late 1460s, under the patronage of its rector, John Walters, who died in 1471. It retains windows identical to the nave (except the E window, which has been lost), but the walls cut back for giant blind arcading around the windows (see also Acton, Cheshire). The now unused wall shafts mean the main draw must have been some sort of fancy woodwork on the roof.

Sutton, St Michael

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Back to normality here: no heroic Perp nave. Instead, the pebble construction advises basically all of the church is 13th and early 14thc, but with some later refenestration.

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The S aisle is small but good for how it conjures the feeling of a distinct space. The Y-tracery, if genuine, advises a c.1300 date. Exceptionally good font, late 14thc is a fair stab at the date.

Ingham, Holy Trinity

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Now, I have to first admit, I haven’t been in here. They had scaffolding up in the tower. Since they had temporary traffic lights outside and a massive scaffold over the pub, it felt like the whole village was being restored, but that might be a coincidence. I was a bit miffed, because it’s always been an enigma. Ah well.

P1850026.JPGStill, my questions were moderately answered by looking at the exterior. There was a priory here, but this doesn’t look that different to a normal large parish church. This is because the chancel, built in the 1340s by Oliver de Ingham, was adopted as the choir of Trinitarian community in 1355-60 by his son-in-law, Miles de Stapleton. Traces of how their ranges connected with the church survive outside, but all of the buildings themselves have gone.

The chancel itself is a nascent example of Norwich Perpendicular, as used by the Ramsey family on Norwich Cathedral cloisters and choir clerestory. It still uses some curvilinear elements in the tracery, but it’s all extremely rigid and solemn. Inside the sedilia have Perp panelling, Pevsner implies they’re essentially Victorian but I guess he’s exaggerating. Also, the effigy of Oliver de Ingham is famous, for he awkwardly lies on a bed of pebbles, in a conspicuous display of his purgatorial piety.P1850020.JPG

Now you’re out of the Broads, you’re free to choose your own path. Tunstead and Worstead, perhaps?

Any suggestions or corrections, please leave below in the comments!

 

 

 

Why after two decades, you mustn’t rely on Simon Jenkins to guide you around England’s churches

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Did anyone ever see the TV series? Seems to have sunk without trace.

Yes, remarkably, 2019 – that year I am somehow in RIGHT NOW – marks two whole decades of being able to have England’s Thousand Best Churches in the car. The book has joined the Pevsner Architectural Guides as “essential” gear for anyone interested in churches. It’s been reprinted so many times you can get it brand-new for mere pounds. So inescapable it is, it was integral to my beginnings in visiting churches. When I graduated onto Pevsners I used to keep it around when on the move to see if I was missing any “essential” churches when travelling long distances. But now, I realise: it really isn’t reliable. At all. And it’s becoming so embedded in the culture of English church tourism, I worry slightly it’s becoming quite dangerous to its future.

Woah, daddy! That might seem a bit harsh, but I’ve had issues with this book for a few years now after initially using it and recommending it, and I’ve had a good look at it the last few months to really pick apart why. And at the end of it, I’m not happy.

REASON ONE: THE TITLE IS A DAMNED LIE

The main problem with it is that England’s Thousand Best Churches is not England’s 1,000 best churches. Putting aside that it inexplicably leaves “Parish” out of the title for the time being, it is ultimately a personal, curated list that focuses on variety, and of course has some attempt to ensure consistent geographical distribution. This might seem like a quibble, but really, the one thing you must know about this book is that you cannot rely on it flagging up a must-see church near you. While maybe around a third of the buildings are superlative churches you would expect any seasoned church-visitor to have heard of (e.g. Heckington, Lavenham, Grantham, Melton Mowbray), the other two thirds are pretty random. Believe me, in terms of quality, a lot of Jenkins’ churches are no better than another six churches 10 minutes drive away. That’d be fine if it dropped the objective superlative “Best”, but because of this, people will go out of their way to visit “a Jenkins church” as if they’re special. But they’re not, and in doing so, ignore many churches that are equally or more interesting.

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St Peter, Heysham. Objectively not as good as any church in 1000 Best.

And this really does bring in the problem of what a complete hash he makes for some counties off the beaten churchyard path. Lancashire is not great for historic churches by any means, but why include an inaccessible Victorian church in the middle of a goddamned derelict industrial wasteland (we’ll come which one in a minute) when you could be recommending something in the beautiful Lune Valley between Lancaster and Kirkby Lonsdale? That could be Hornby, with its unique double-stage octagonal tower and apse; or Tunstall, with its admirably ancient medieval tracery and lovely continental glass? What about the picturesque, low-pitched, St Michael-on-Wyre, or the self-proclaimed “Cathedral of the Fylde” (bit of a silly name but it is undeniably the biggest medieval church around), St Helen, near Garstang? Heysham, over Morecambe Bay, a candidate for the most attractive view from a churchyard? It’s easy to criticise the treatment of your home turf in something like this, but it is just shocking how poorly distributed and non representational his choices here are, and I suspect many other counties have the same problem.

Now, I realised this very early on in my days. But at first I thought that there was a reason he’d left certain churches out. Maybe they were locked that day? Maybe he was unlucky, or the church’s policy had changed? Wait, no…

REASON TWO: LOADS OF THE CHURCHES ARE REALLY DIFFICULT TO GET INTO

No, not really, they are just really weird choices a lot of the time to the point where it all seems a bit random. Let me give him a bit of credit first: there’s one bit of the book I like. The part of the introduction titled “Access” is actually, the best-written part of the whole thing, and in reflection has had a lot of influence on my creeds regarding church access that I still hold. I can only assume, that because of the potential nerves it might touch among custodians, it was copy-edited to buggery and back. Unlike so much of this book, it’s very careful with its language, and as a consequence does not place undue blame on communities or seem entitled. It has respect for the work and dedication by churchwardens and clergy, but also, balanced with righteous disdain for the rude and selfish that occasionally poison the church-visiting experience. The exhortation that his readers should leave a donation is also very effective. This passage, notably, is worth quoting.

But no security is as effective as a regular flow of welcomed visitors. A parish church is a church open to all. A church shut except for services is the meeting house of a sect.

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Not the most welcoming presbytery, at Barton-upon-Irwell

I’ll give him credit there, that’s pretty bang-on churchshaming. The interesting thing he reveals in this section about his (alleged) selection process for the book is that Jenkins claims that he set a limit of half an hour to gain entry using his mobile phone (and, quaintly, a copy of Crockford Clerical Directory). I always took this preface being as a vital criterion for whether a church got in the book or not. Now, I really don’t think it was at all.

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All Saints R.C., Barton-Upon-Irwell, Greater Manchester

This is the Roman Catholic church of All Saints in Barton-Upon-Irwell in Manchester, which I’m sure he must’ve visited while he was co-chair of English Heritage in the late ’80s. If you bother braving the awful traffic on the M60 around the Trafford Centre to get here, you’ll realise it’s part of a Franciscan convent, with a massive palisade fence around it, and warnings about guard dogs. It’s not even that significant: it’s a pretty alright Catholic church by E.W. Pugin, but it’s hardly a standout Victorian masterwork like St Giles, Cheadle by his father. Regardless: you’re not getting in it. Why are you sending me to a cloistered Victorian church in a brownfield site near an orbital motorway instead of an ancient church overlooking Morecambe Bay?

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All Saints, Arksey, West Riding of Yorkshire

There are other weird choices for churches that are not usually open. Arksey near Doncaster is absolutely impenetrable (and I’ve tried in advance, too – it’s not even that exceptional, the Churches Conservation Trust-held Kirk Sandall would make more sense round there). Checkley in Staffordshire is also kept locked (I think he just got lucky when he was going to Cheadle to see Pugin’s St Giles). The completely uninteresting Victorian box at Birtles in Cheshire is included for its collection of imported furnishings, but these are precisely the example it’s never bloody left open, and that it’s in the middle of nowhere why there’s no keyholder (there’s a single house next door, presumably they’re not interested). The list could go on. Take it from this: his whole 30-minute test is nonsense. Some of the 1000 Best are not casually accessible and need planning ahead to a level that really isn’t worth it for a tourist that isn’t doing a degree in this sort of stuff. Because I suspect that Crockford’s part is a load of nonsense, and a lot of his visits had a bit of a red-carpet put on because of his connections as a serial management-board-sitter and journalist. Because, basically, Country Life can get you in just about anywhere, and an affiliation with The Times must get even the most miserable custodian excited to wait around to open up a locked church on a request from the head office.

REASON THREE: THE RATINGS OUT OF FIVE ARE MOSTLY COMPLETE RUBBISH

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St Botolph, Boston, Lincolnshire

The out-of-five star ratings are also, in retrospect, an annoying distraction and not very consistent or an accurate representation of any aspect of the church. Firstly, a “one-star” rating seems like a bit of an insult, which the implication it only has one thing worth seeing, when actually there are many very high-quality buildings with loads of things to discover that get the one star. Instead, what seems to matter to Jenkins is size. Boston, for instance, is not a bad church by any means. It’s even worth the effort of driving into the town and paying to park (although maybe not on market day). Its tower is uniquely ambitious in the whole country for its excessive height without even resorting to a spire, and the interior is massive and seriously impressive. But five stars? There’s not really that much to look at inside, and there’s more medium-sized churches in the area you’d generally spend a lot longer inside looking around. Do the stars reflect how exceptional these churches are? The aesthetic experience? How much time you would spend there? Their width times their length times their height? I wonder why he even felt the need to star them. If these are the top 5% or so of all historic churches, isn’t that enough of a recommendation? It’s really very puzzling.

REASON FOUR: INCONSISTENCY IN WHAT QUALIFIES AS A “CHURCH”

Then there’s the whole “church” thing. The books is called BEST CHURCHES. Yet then he says that his “principal definition is that a church be in some sense parochial.” Which essentially comes out of nowhere, because the title does not include the word “parish”. Okay, I see the point of not having the medieval cathedrals in: they’re too complex to sum up in a short entry and would dominate the book. But then he totally scuppers that by saying “monastic foundations which were not made cathedrals at the Reformation but were acquired by their towns” are getting in, because “They may seem like cathedrals, but they are parish churches like any other.” No they aren’t! If your reason for not including cathedrals is that they already get attention, why include Christchurch, Sherborne, Tewkesbury, and Selby? They completely throw the balance of the book off, and by being huge places often suitable for an entire day out, they overshadow the other entries in the way cathedral ones would have done. If Beverley, why not Southwell and Ripon, with which it was essentially equal rank with before the 19thc? And what about St Albans Abbey? That uniquely remained a parish church with a rector after becoming a cathedral in 1877, so very much “in some sense parochial”, as much as Selby Abbey. He also pointlessly declares “Consistency […] leads me to omit a number of former town churches which have been elevated to cathedral status, such as Portsmouth and Newcastle“. Well, St Nicholas in Newcastle is hardly comparable to a medieval cathedral: it’s so boring inside it wouldn’t even make a list of the top churches in Tyne and Wear. Portsmouth wasn’t really a town church, it was a very fancy early 13thc collegiate church, yet it differs from Newcastle Cathedral in that its west end was built up to a cathedral scale from the 1930s onwards, and indeed makes sense to omit.

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The much underrated Collegiate church of St Mary, George and Denys, Manchester, aka Manchester Cathedral.

But somewhere like Manchester Cathedral is essentially in its original form as a late medieval collegiate church, and could be adequately described in an entry in this book, and indeed deserves a visit among the other churches of Lancashire . So not all buildings with “Cathedral” at the end are comparable to medieval cathedrals, and not all of them would make the list of 1000 Best Churches either (like Chelmsford Cathedral, which is probably one of the least interesting medieval churches in Essex). All this would be less of an issue if he’d just put “parish” in the title, but instead it’s even more tortuous, arbitrary, and misleading.

So, essentially, as an objective guide to the best churches in England, the book is a total mess. It assumes the reader knows every cathedral city, which from my experience is a big mistake (I remember a hairdresser expressing surprise that Wells had a cathedral once after asking the dreaded “holidays” question), and sends people past loads of outstanding buildings to ordinary churches that can only be explained as places the author happens to have been and liked. To use it as a trip planning aid, as I initially did, is an almost complete waste of time, because you will miss so much, and many of the truly typical parishes selected are, basically, random. But wait, it gets worse!

REASON FIVE: ITS JOURNALISTIC PROSE IS REALLY, REALLY GRATING TO READ AFTER A WHILE

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Simon Jenkins, doing his best “monkey journalist” pose

So, now, the next big point about this book. In trying to actually sit down with it for this reassessment, I can see why people unable to visit England’s churches (if they have no car or live abroad) I’ve recommended it to as an introduction have been really disappointed. Because if you’re not actually using it to plan out excursions, it’s really horrible to actually read cover to cover. The main problem is that, while he tries to be all poetic like Betjeman, Jenkins can’t throw off his journalistic shackles of always writing pedantically in the active voice. That is, he always has to put “Jenkins writes utter crap” instead of just occasionally putting “utter crap is what Jenkins writes” just for a bit of a change. This works for 500-word newspaper columns, it becomes so incredibly weary for a whole book when every single sentence has to start with “The” because he CAN’T PUT THE SUBJECT SECOND JUST ONCE ARGHH. Because of this, he comes off about as well as a musing Romantic as Vanilla Ice did as a gangsta rapper.

He loves the following words in his patter: “glory” (as in “the kneelers are Little Piddle’s glory”), “soar”, “fine”. Yeah, he loves “fine”. Seriously, get your copy and start circling it. It’s crazy how often he uses it. Most of us now use “fine” to mean “satisfactory”. Probably because it was overused by people like Jenkins to mean “I know this is a good example of what it is, but I can’t actually articulate why because I’m a lazy hack”.

People say that Pevsner tells you just about everything about a church except what it looks like. Jenkins however, manages to do even worse, by  wasting space with vapid introductions that detract from the thing he’s supposed to be inspiring you to visit.

On a warm summer’s day, Fotheringhay is a magic place. The church seems to float on its hill above the River Nene, a galleon of Perpendicular on a sea of corn“.

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A boat, in front of the former college of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary and All Saints, Fotheringhay, Northamptonshire. … or is it the other way round..?

So, wait a minute, the hackneyed metaphor of a church looking like a boat aside, the River Nene is made out of corn? No, you must mean there literally is corn on the hill above the river? How can a sea be hill-shaped? That’s not much of a metaphor, really. Is it only magic if it’s summer? How warm does it need to be for it to be magic? Is it magic because the sea is shaped like a hill?

You might think this is pedantic nitpicking (which it is), but the point is that this is just completely uninteresting fluff, like you just asked a robot to write some vaguely poetic metaphor about Fotheringhay to waste space at the beginning of its entry. Or you’re just a hack journalist crapping out journalese while looking at photograph from the Country Life archive… oh.

REASON SIX: HE SAYS SOME REALLY STUPID STUFF

Now, I might seem to be getting a bit ad hominem here. And yes, if this book hadn’t become so bloody iconic, I wouldn’t be so grumpy and virulent of what could be seen as good-intentioned doggerel. But much worse than this book being so tedious to actually try and read for pleasure, is that some of the off-hand remarks Jenkins wantonly chucks around are really quite irresponsible and sow potentially harmful seeds. Yes, sometimes Pevsner was rather acerbic, which eventually led to interesting buildings being demolished (e.g. Christ Church, Blackpool). But at least he was consistent, and also kinda funny. But Jenkins says things that are so utterly, incredibly, mindbogglingly dumb, so misinformed and poorly thought-through, it’s frightening they are coming from someone who had so much clout in the heritage sector.

Consistently infuriating is his completely paradoxical stance on whether our churches should preserve the past, or change for the future.

Churches whose walls were scraped down to bare stone by the Victorians would be much improved by the reinstatement of their plaster. They would also seem less like archaeological sites like meaningless fragments of wall painting were not left stranded like flotsam in a sea of whitewash. A wall should have some visual integrity. If wall paintings are wanted, let us paint new ones […]”

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The repainted rood screen at Harpley, Norfolk, that Jenkins decides is “insipid”

So this makes me particularly enraged. Here he’s deciding some ancient mural decorations should be got rid of because he can’t tell what they’re supposed to be. Where do we draw the line? Did he think of the consequences of what saying this might inspire in people? What drastic actions these words could excuse? And to end it with his complete fantasy about a society largely detached from Christianity being able to suddenly create artists able of producing genuine, inspired artwork on the walls of our churches is just absolutely absurd. Usually when he encounters Victorian painting that covered space with perfunctory reflections of what was probably there (e.g., the saints on the screen at Harpley, Norfolk above) he dismisses it as “insipid”. So what the hell does he expect we’d create now now? It’s like for all he goes on about quality, he doesn’t actually understand art very well.

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Rood at St Michael and All Angels, Bishop’s Cleeve, Worcestershire by PJ Crook, 1987. A triptych by the artist was installed in the church in December 2018, but Jenkins probably thinks that’s rubbish too.

Usually modern art is ignored completely by Jenkins. When he does, he’s nearly always snooty about it, unless it’s a recognised “proper artist” such as Stanley Spencer or Marc Chagall. One piece he hints an opinion of the “new” is the rood by PJ Crook at Bishop’s Cleeve (1987, actually, so it had been there 13 years) , of which he can only bring himself to say “its material [acrylic paint] alone is out of place“. Without even touching on form, he turns his nose up because something was made by an artist using modern paint instead of oils, which seems to me snobbery to the point of utter arrogance. If not that, then he’s just being an arsehole, because even the Pevsner revision gives it a rare “good”. And quite frankly, if you can’t see at least excellent composition of space, colour and figures in this, then you’re just wrong. If anything, it could be criticised as being an extremely safe, traditional interpretation.

Despite this apparent revulsion of the contemporary, and his constant pops at “bad” Victorian glass (which he never really seems to define, beyond “gloomy”) he gets somehow gets even worse, into objectively downright stupid territory:

Empty niches, inside and outside a church, are as much an offence to the eye as to architecture. They look like paintings from which the faces have been removed, a triumph of archaeology over aesthetics.

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An empty niche on the tower of St Walburge R.C., Preston, Lancashire, which must have had its statue removed between now and um *checks Pevsner* c.1857.

This is Jenkins trying to have an original thought but instead coming out with complete and utter unadulterated bollocks. Primarily, because the buildings that are most covered in empty niches are not victims of iconoclasm, but High Victorian churches by the likes of Gilbert Scott, that never had any statues in, and it’s questionable whether it was ever thought that they would. Certainly not by Scott himself, who was hardly smells ‘n’ bells when it came to churchmanship, but then there are plenty of modern Roman Catholic churches dotted with empty niches too. A niche sanctifies the space within, a mini-ciborium: emptiness made holy. Nevertheless,  while you can admire the detail of a medieval niche for its own sake, but also you can ponder on what has been lost from within. Much like such subtlety that would appear to be utterly lost on Jenkins. Suggesting we should waste our time filling them with any old crap for the sake of it is just incredibly reckless to the point of madness, and just encourages absolute garbage like David Wynne’s feckless Virgin in Ely Cathedral Lady Chapel. It’s like insisting that the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum put A4 inkjet print-outs of Jack Vettriano pictures in place of their stolen paintings because the empty frames are such an “offence to the eye”. You utter plank, Simon.

But then for all his “let us paint new ones” blowhard guff there’s the remarks about modern urban developments around churches. I know, I make fun of England. People get so cross of me making fun of Selby not having a Marks and Spencer (oof, that hasn’t aged well, has it, listeners?), or whatever. But I like to think gentle ribbing of shit towns is all part of being English. But the problem with Jenkins, it’s not in a self-deprecating way, but instead, he has to show off how he always knows better, doesn’t he. 

The closer we get to the church however, the more disappointing [St George, Doncaster] becomes. Its setting is miserable, besieged by traffic and stripped of townscape. The exterior is remarkably unkempt. The place desperately needs environmental first aid.”

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St George, Doncaster, West Riding of Yorkshire

The church has indeed got the slightly ignominious situation of the ring road separating it from the town. But it’s fucking Doncaster, mateDo you think the church would really benefit from the Primark being 20 metres closer to it? Then he’d probably moan it was swamped by “ghastly modern development” or something. As it is, the churchyard is a bit of an oasis, and makes the best of the environment that it can to frame Scott’s magnum opus to its benefit. Like come on mate, be positive about it. I don’t know what condition the exterior was in when Jenkins saw it (the church was and is indeed still on Historic England’s heritage at risk register) but this whole entry just seems to shame the church itself. There’s such an awful “if only you listened to meeee, everything would be wonderful” attitude running through so much of his polemic. Because look at his great wheeze for Doncaster, everyone:

Why not gather other glass from Yorkshire’s too gloomy churches and open a stained glass museum here? Do something!

Ah, yes, here he is, just throwing it out there: that Victorian stained glass across a vast region, nearly always with memorial inscriptions to local people, to be taken from the tracery that it was designed specifically for over a century ago, and put in a light box in a museum. That’s somehow going to be in a church with a fairly healthy congregation who worship there. In DONCASTER, where I’m sure people would fall over themselves to go and visit to see Victorian glass you think made Yorkshire’s churches too gloomy. A museum of gloomy glass. Another champion idea there Simon, I can see you’ve really thought that through while typing it on your Thinkpad in First Class while you travel to another board meeting with your complimentary breakfast. Quite frankly, if I had anything to do with St George in Doncaster, I’d rather he’d never came to my church in the first place.

REASON SEVEN: THERE ARE PROBABLY MORE FACTUAL ERRORS THAN THERE OUGHT TO BE IN A BOOK WITH TWO EDITORS

In the acknowledgements Jenkins reveals, among the fact that he had many “suggestions” so he probably didn’t even visit all 1000 himself, that he had two editors: a researcher and a copy-editor, I guess. Still, like most parish churches, this loves to spread mistruths and understands some concepts quite poorly. The worst is when Jenkins predictably uses the stylistic shorthand of Norman, E.E., Dec, and Perp, invented by Thomas Rickman and absolutely cemented by Pevsner’s use of them in the Buildings of England. Fair enough, we all do. But, unfortunately, he tries to one-up the BoE…

Only Rickman’s Early English has been queried as appropriate, since the style was emphatically French. I have followed recent usage and refer to it more correctly as Early Gothic.

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Just stick to this, mate

This might seem like a small thing but damn it is annoying. It appears to be totally based on his misreading of something and subsequently trying to be clever, as I can’t think where anyone queries “Early English” as appropriate for architecture c.1200-1290s, and instead uses “Early Gothic”. Rickman’s treatise was called An attempt to discriminate the Styles of English architecture. Therefore he referred to the three phases as Early English, Decorated English, and Perpendicular English. The “English” only stuck for the first one. Early Gothic is the generally-accepted name used to refer to the style developed in France in 1130-1200, with limited influence in England before they fully developed their own peculiar style of Gothic around 1200 that we overwhelmingly call Early English. Anyway, therefore, anything that Pevsner calls “E.E.”, Jenkins consistently calls “Early Gothic”. Why he thinks he knew better than the editors of the Pevsner Architectural Guides at Yale on the nomenclature of Gothic architecture, God only knows. But then this is someone who can actually say British Empire “was a remarkable institution that dismantled itself in good order” with a straight face. Really Simon? The Bengal Famine was “good order”? You’re not a historian, stop pretending. You’re a hack journalist with a strong dash of jingoism.

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Definitely a Victorian mural at St Peter, Titchfield, Hampshire

There’s other errors too, let’s choose the one where he says, rather prosaically, that the W wall of Titchfield church has a “Victorian mural of the draft of fishes”. Which he must have got from an outdated source rather than actually looking at it, because post 1952, it’s extremely modern-looking after being reworked by students of the Portsmouth School of Art. It stinks to me of a filler paragraph written without actually looking at the building – and the more you scrutinise it the more stuff you’ll find but quite frankly at the moment I’d like to just throw this book into the sea, so let’s finish this.

THE CONCLUSION HOLD YOUR HORSES DON’T GO YET

So really, all this book is a list, the rest is just mechanically-written, error-ridden, tedious piffle, with prose as flat as the Norfolk Broads. You might as well use the quick lists at the back of Parish Churches as Works of Art by Alec Clifton-Taylor (Clifton-Taylor has a similar authoritative tone that grates a bit, but at least he has good prose, knows what he’s talking about and is at least very consistent on things he hates, especially Victorian stained glass). The slick presentation of 1000 Best is the key to its success, and totally what’s suckered in for the last decade or so. That is, the really lovely and plentiful Country Life archive photos in the original edition (much reduced to a few plates in the paperback), the excellent maps (showing the churches in adjacent counties is fantastic for tourism), and above all the “Gotta Catch ‘Em All” mentality. And of course, without his contacts in journalism (Country Life) the publishing trade (Pevsner Architectural Guides, Penguin), he would have never been able to pull it all together. Now of course, its popularity led to endless more advances for him to crap out <Bit of Britain>’s <number> Best <thing>. From the initial sequel of Houses, to now, Railway Stations. No doubt soon he’ll be doing 400 Best Public Toilets.

Jenkins lives in absolute fantasy world, where paintings always have little red ropes between gold poles in front of them, and pinecones always lie on chairs to keep common people’s bums off them. He doesn’t seem to appreciate – which is bloody amazing for someone who got so far in the heritage sector – that our heritage is not “frozen in time” for him to stumble upon, but instead is preserved through diligent restoration, conservation and curation, with many important choices being made. Many of his criticisms of the condition of churches are snobbish at best and irresponsible at worst. But the thing with Jenkins is that he knows how to write for print (unlike me, who writes 4,000-word hatchet jobs on crappy guide books for no real reason), has iron-clad media connections to keep getting plum freelance columns in The Guardian and spouting off on Radio 4, but has very little of worth to say. He is inert and unimaginative at best, reckless and downright stupid at his worst. I worry that this list will only damage people’s experience with churches, by sending them on wild goose chases to churches they haven’t a chance of getting into, and passing lots more worthy ones on the way that slip into obscurity and ultimately dilapidation. And just in case you think my criticisms of him are little unfair on the man, I offer a column of his moaning about how awful it is to be mocked as a white male (which is actually more boring and predictable than it is offensive), then in its defence said on TalkRadio, “I do sometimes feel a bit like it must have been like to be a black person 20 or 30 years ago”. Maybe you should wait until a person of colour has had a chance to be chair of the National Trust, eh, Simon? Anyway, I suppose I ought to go back to trying to post some of those Churchcrawling Trails so at least you have an alternative source.

 

p.s. To Penguin. Give us an advance and I will write England’s Four Hundred Best Public Toilets for you.

Churchcrawling Trails: West Derbyshire’s Three Titans

Derbyshire is an overlooked county for churches. Alec Clifton-Taylor in his English Parish Churches as Works of Art (a book which I’ve nearly really understood the point of and is enjoyable and frustrating in equal measure) says it is “not a very distinguished county for churches” and that there was “much insensitive Victorian restoration”. The latter being something you could say about essentially any partly industrialised Midlands county. Or the Home Counties, for that matter.

Derby is one of very few CofE dioceses with creeping urbanisation limiting the amount of unlocked churches that has recently started to really push the idea of ecclesiastical tourism Many parishes display roadside “church open to experience and explore” banners branded by the diocese which is just dandy really. The Peak District itself is breath-taking: these churches go up to the southern edge of its wildest parts. On the lowlands towards Ashbourne, the stonewalls criss-crossing the fields give a very good sense how enclosure of privately really changed the landscape after the demise of the medieval open-field system.

The Three Titans

Derbyshire YouTube thumbnailThe three churches of Ashbourne, Bakewell and Tideswell occurred to me as a good triumvirate of massive churches when making my second episode of my YouTube series: to Derbyshire’s parish churches as Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah are to Toho feature films (erm… – Ed). Each of them has great ambition. Ashbourne owes its massive chancel (one of the longest in the country) and cruciform layout to its status as a prebend of Lincoln Cathedral, but the “missing” arcade in the nave is testament to how they lost interest. In Bakewell’s case it was a royal possession that was going to get a double-tower westwerk, before Prince John gave it away to Lichfield Cathedral. While both of these continued to get filled with memorials from their parishioners, Tideswell was entirely a product of local ambition in a newly-made market town, and built mostly within a 40-year window. Anyway, watch my video for more on that.

A practical note: Ashbourne is not as short a distance from Bakewell as you might think. Bakewell is on the A6 from Buxton, you need to go west and down the A515 for the Buxton to Ashbourne road. The other churches make ideal stops so the journey doesn’t get too dreary.

Ashbourne, St Oswald

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Extremely ambitious church, largely 13thc, with a huge spire, which nevertheless cannot be called commanding since it is kind of lost in its valley, and only occasionally glimpsed on the approach into town. Only downside is the parking situation, which is very restricted on streets and I have never noticed a church car park. The Sainsbury’s is free for two hours (as of 2018) with no purchase required. Park there, its 6 or 7 min walk round the corner and down Church Street: buy a bottle of wine or a toothbrush if you feel guilty when you get back. Market day is Thursday and Saturday: traffic can be bad around these days.

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Gigantic chancel, dedicated in 1241 (see the tiny brass inscription in the S transept), followed by two transepts with E arcades (see how the S one has been pushed quite alarmingly by the central tower). Nave with only one arcade, tower showing a buttress where obviously at some point it would’ve been assumed the other one would go.

P2120459There is some medieval glass, quite easily missed, in the N transept. All the big windows are glazed but by rather generic efforts by the big firms. The Kempe W window for instance.

Loads of monuments. The N transept is essentially one big sleepover of late medieval and Tudor alabaster couples. Then there’s the famous monument in white marble by Thomas Banks to little girl Penelope Boothby. One could call it neo-classical but I suppose what makes it special is that it’s uncomfortably real, especially next to all these flamboyantly pious medieval nobs.P2120441

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The views from the churchyard are magnificent. Like most active market towns parking not that easy. There are car parks down the hill, but these are intended for the shops, not the church, which is a bit away from the main centre. If you keep driving up past the church the road ceases being residents only and becomes two hours stay: the same on the west side of the churchyard. Market day (Monday) doesn’t alter the restriction here but the traffic in and out of the town can be terrible.

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The church is an impressive scale, and initially very ambitious, but a lot of it is completely rebuilt in the mid-19thc, including the steeple and the entirety of the S transept (although apparently in authentic to what was there). Nave interior consequently, is forgettable. The chancel is trying to be flashy, but the twin set of Y-tracery windows on the E front is not the showpiece it wants to be. Amazing it survived being knocked out for a great big Perp window as happened to the no doubt quintuple lancets on the east end of Ashbourne.

The altarpiece, bizarrely called by Pevsner “wood-carving of c.1500, according to Dr Kamphausen probably North German” is by Kuchemann of Battersea, 1882. There’s lots of tombs in the huge S transept, but most notable is this extremely unusual late-14thc alabaster monument from the Foljambe family on the SW pier of the crossing tower, showing them as pious standing figures, a bit like Grand Wood’s American Gothic. Except they have pillows for some reason.

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Tideswell, St John the BaptistP1740016.JPG

Calls itself “the Cathedral of the Peak” which is a bit silly really. It’s pretty leggy, but all of its architecture is firmly parochial. Very welcoming to tourists. In fact the amount of the “general public” who just wander in out of idle curiosity or for a few moments of peace and quiet is the most cathedral-like thing about it. There is no longer a market in Tideswell so it’s pretty sleepy. No parking restrictions on the roads, you can park outside but it’s often busy with ramblers’ cars.

Most of the building dates from the 14thc. The nave and transepts are all basically one campaign in the 132 and 30s. The chancel was built in the 1360s in the late-Decorated style in the stylistic orbit of Lichfield Cathedral’s presbytery. The chancel has a very rare altar-screen, which, with its giant niches, sedilia and piscina, tomb niches and other gubbins really do hint at the grandeur and sophistication of medieval ritual. Spiffing E window of Jesse Tree by Heaton, Butler and Bayne.

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Other churches of interest

Norbury, St MaryP1890125.JPG

P1890106.JPGWorth a trip in itself. The chancel contains nearly all of its medieval heraldic glass, which dates it around 1300. Its architecture is also extremely well-connected, showing lots of motifs from the English “Court School” of the 1290s which produced top-whack stuff like the Eleanor Crosses. Look out for the little flowers that “tie” together the tracery.

Right next to the National Trust property of the manor house, which incidentally has the medieval hall masonry partly surviving which is visible from the churchyard. The turn off from the main road is easy to miss if you’re going the wrong direction.

Mayfield, St John the BaptistP1070505.JPG

Although north-east of Norbury, in Staffordshire. Certainly one for the pure medieval architecture fans than the general crawler. Whopping chancel, of similar type to Norbury (see also Checkley, towards Cheadle, which despite being in Jenkins is locked with no keyholder) and powerful Romanesque and Early Gothic arcades.

Bradbourne, All SaintsP1890165.JPG

Spectacular setting over a valley, perhaps the reason why such an early fine tower was built: to see from and be seen! The mid 12thc has its own fantastically detailed doorway (unusual) and also some interesting sculpted corbels. There’s not a huge amount to see inside, but it’s still a characterful church. Don’t miss the carved Saxon cross shaft as you come into the churchyard.

Fenny Bentley, St EdwardP1890158.JPG

The church is very restored, and the steeple is all brand-new Victorian. But it is nonetheless an essential detour for one unique monument. The two effigies are, in a playfully macabre manner, tied up in funeral shrouds. All of their offspring are shown on the sides in this manner too, like those little sausages of processed smoked cheese. The east end of the tomb identifies them as Thomas Beresford and his wife Agnes, but this may have been added later. Thomas died in 1473, but it’s impossible that the weird effigies could have been made much before the reign of Queen Elizabeth nearly a century later. If this was a retrospective monument set up to honour an ancestor, it would explain why their faces were hidden, while also acting as a memento mori for the current lord Beresford. A moving work of art: you can feel that sculptor really imagined the bulk of a knight in armour and his lady while carving these.

Alstonefield, St Peter

P1070413.JPGVery isolated church, feels like you’re in the North York Moors. Suitably ancient-feeling interior, with a very wonky end to the south aisle arcade which should amuse. A sheela-na-gig carving in the north aisle to raise a cheeky smile. Popular with walkers so some tea and coffee-making facilities (always nice if you’re parched).

Hartington, St GilesP1890273.JPG

Like much of this area, tremendous hill-side village. Extremely swanky Perp tower. Interesting how the church has been expanded – transepts with western aisles bolted onto the 13thc arcades, and then the S porch makes a single roofline with the S transept.

Youlgreave, All SaintsP1740177.JPG

Strange name. I’m never sure whether to pronounce the ‘E’ in the middle (the road signs say “Youlgrave”). The church has some excellent stone sculpture. Aside from the famous pilgrim figure embedded in the wall, there are the lively arcade capitals of around 1200, a most unusual font with a side basin, and the exceptionally-good alabaster memorial to Robert Glybert of 1492. He and his wife kneel with their issue in front of the Virgin. Christ has lost his head, otherwise it’s in incredible condition. Morris and Co. glass to Burne-Jones design in the Victorian chancel, well-executed.

Monyash, St John the BaptistP1740215.JPG

Pretty steeple, but the most interesting thing here is the chancel, which is, what we pedants call early Early English (so just after late Early Gothic). The sedilia were often dated as some as the earliest examples because of their round arches, and their dogtooth monument being mistaken on photographs as chevron. Dogtooth is really not a big thing till the 1230s so they’re not exceptional at all, but still nice examples of 13th-century sedilia.

Chelmorton, St John the Baptist

Like a lot of churches in the ups and downs of Derbyshire’s Peaks, characterfully on a slope. It’s nice how you can easily get above the church on the north side and look down. It has something quite exceptional inside – the base of a medieval stone rood screen.P1740239.JPG

Longstone, St Giles

P1740104.JPGNow this is not a church I’d usually expect to like so much. On a little road up and away from the village’s main road, the church looks like it’s been rebuilt to within an inch of its life, and nothing much convinces as being medieval. Yet clearly the effort was put into to stabilise the roofs, which are simple but beautiful from the inside.

P1740111You know when Pevsner calls a Victorian window “good” that actually he was really quite impressed, such a rare occurrence it is. Still, he’s right on the E window, which is likely by Heaton, Butler and Bayne. All of the windows are characterful work by good firms though, like this Hardman.

The last thing I have to note about this church is that the guestbook goes back to 1975, which is exceptionally old, and I suppose shows you how often people visit here. There’s still plenty of room left (it is quite thick, though), so go visit though. Then maybe they can get a new one without the awkward “where baptised” for us Virtuous Pagans…P1740121.JPG

END! Let me know in the comments where you might go further off the beaten track. I have plenty more Derbyshire to come: I’ve not forgotten Melbourne, Repton, Chesterfield or Dronfield!

Is Danny Dyer really directly descended from Royalty?

Spoiler: yes but you probably are just as much too

My computer runs like garbage so I really need to get a new one before I try to edit anything this long again. There’s plenty of text content I need to make live so yeah, look forward to that instead.

Since I put this together I actually ended up in The Bear pub in Oxford which features in this. Very nice cask.

Churchcrawling Trails: South Richmondshire

Richmondshire? Is this some secret county that only gets unlocked when you complete a high-score of church visits? No, it’s a district of North Yorkshire – the only district in England named by adding the “shire” suffix. Certainly it’s helpful to avoid confusion with the London borough, but that can’t be the main reason. It may be to do with its vast size (some hundreds in Yorkshire were “shire”, e.g. Hullshire, Howdenshire), which spreads into the largely unpopulated Yorkshire Dales. The area around its “capital” however, has some quality churches in attractive landscape which are often overlooked.

This tour features on three medieval churches which aptly demonstrate how parish churches borrowed and developed each others’ ideas. Then there are plenty of other ancient churches between Richmond (around Richmond itself will be a future Trail) and Ripon (which is a great base to explore these from). Also very close to the World Heritage site Fountains Abbey.

Patrick Brompton, Ainderby Steeple and Burneston

These three churches aren’t super-close to each other, particularly since the A1(M) slices through the middle. However, they’re a really fascinating chain of emulation, starting with Patrick Brompton – the name of the ancient Irish saint pointing to an early foundation. Try and visit them in the following order, but don’t worry if you can’t.

Patrick Brompton, St Patrick

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Patrick Brompton church in 1820. Notice the old tower, and lower chancel gable. From McCall, Richmondshire Churches, 1910.

This is one of my favourite churches, despite it being quite heavily restored: it does make a difference when the church is restored well, though. It’s the oldest in every way, except for the tower, which is a Victorian rebuild of the original which collapsed.

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Nave N arcade, last quarter of 12thc

The arcades are wonderful examples of Early Gothic: pointed arches but still with Anglo-Norman Romanesque ornament (see also Bedale). Notice that only the off-set smaller arch has a counterpart on the other side, presumably when it was built the church only had a north aisle and some sort of transeptal chapels.

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Chancel, 1300s or 1310s.

The chancel however, is a tremendous overture of its genre that begins the story of exchange around this area. It has niches for the statues of the patron saint (certainly St Patrick) and Virgin Mary. The larger one on the south side was probably for St Patrick (going off evidence of surviving wall paintings in other churches, the Virgin was on the N). There’s an Easter Sepulchre alcove, and a sedilia and piscina group.

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Piscina and sedilia group S of the high altar. Look out for the flies here, mind. Seems all of Richmondshire’s insects come to this corner to die.

The sedilia, essential French-inspired Rayonnant in their details, obviously set a bit of a benchmark (pun intended) around here. They have gables directly over the trefoil niches, the space within elegantly filled with a pointed trefoil.

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“String-course swallower” on W wall of the chancel.

Not quite as artful but part of a long tradition is what the masons do with the string-course that wanders around the sedilia, tying all the furnishings up with a bow. Because the masons can’t just let it end, a little beastie gobbles it up just before the chancel arch.

 

Ainderby Steeple, St Helen

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Steeple didn’t really receive the connotation of “tower with spire” until probably the 19thc, and this tower is all the church of St Helen ever had. The effort instead was put into its chancel, which owes a helluva lot to Patrick Brompton.

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S wall of the chancel with piscina and sedilia group.

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“It’s a living”

All the elements from that earlier building are here: the patron/Virgin niches, ornate sedilia group, wandering string course: even that pesky string-course swallower! All that’s missing is the Easter Sepulchre alcove, although this may have occupied the site now taken by the organ. The thing is, the actually quality of the sculpture is much, much lower. I mean, look at the sedilia.P1030178.JPG

They’ve got all the same elements as Patrick Brompton, but look how clumsy they are. The trefoils don’t elegantly link up the empty space inside the gables, they’re just plonked there. It’s almost as if someone carved them from memory: they certainly did not use a drawing to copy them!

Burneston, St Lambert

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This chancel is the last in the chain of Chinese Whispers. Although all its windows are rigid Perpendicular-style, there’s something unmistakably Decorated about the whole thing. And indeed, inside, there’s deja vu all over again.

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The chancel is probably earlier side of Perp around 1400, which makes its connections to the above two 14thc churches more understandable. It has the basic ensemble of ornate sedilia and piscina, patron/Virgin niches and wandering string course – although sadly the swallower’s nowhere to be seen. The sedilia have also ditched the trefoil completely: perhaps they were referencing Ainderby Steeple and thought it was best to leave it out because they’d made such a dog’s breakfast of it.

Other churches in the area

Make sure you visit some of the following around here too. They’re all mostly open every day.

Bedale, St Gregory

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One of the more famous churches in the area, in a town with a large market street. Parking can be a bit of a squeeze around the church but I’ve always found somewhere (but there is no church car park). A church of quite large proportions. What’s out of all proportion is the E window of the S aisle. This is clearly made of tracery salvaged from a dissolved monastery, probably Jervaulx Abbey. It clearly is meant to be at least twice as tall, and probably a terminal window from a large wall (such as a presbytery E wall or transept, or if Easby Abbey is anything to go by, the refectory).

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Nave N arcade

The N arcade is fantastic Early Gothic of around 1200, similar to Patrick Brompton, but a bit later and not as high a quality. Indeed Pevsner calls it “very curious, inventive certainly, if somewhat gross.” Which is a masterful bit of bathetic description which always makes me laugh. Indeed, god knows what the idea was with those big balls everywhere (notice how they go down the first column as well as on all the arches).

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Effigy of Brian Fitzalan, d. 1306 (monument carved likely 20 years later)

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Engraving of the Fitzalan tomb with mostly destroyed chest, E. Blore, 1825. British Museum.

Perhaps the most famous thing in the church is the effigy of Brian Fitzalan. Although Brian, Lord of the Manor of Bedale, died in 1306, the effigy can’t really be any earlier than the 1320s, for its sinous ogee canopy with ballflower ornament isn’t really paralleled at that date. He originally was on a tomb chest that celebrated his life, so it was likely a commemorative effigy erected by his family. The lady next to him is about as like to be his wife than the two knights opposite them to be husbands.

Hornby, St Mary

Not to be confused with Hornby in North Lancashire.

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Church from SE, chancel mid-12thc, E wall by G.L. Pearson, 1877.

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N nave arcade, last quarter of 12thc

A largely Romanesque building with a lot of clout, although rather other-enthusiastic restoration by J.L. Pearson in the 1870s. The E wall with three windows and a rose is him thinking of the sort of thing that might have been there. Even more overzealous is his Neo-Norman chancel arch, with pales in comparison to the ancient racousness of its late-12thc arcades.

There’s a side chapel full of a few rather sad old monuments and effigies, but the real surprise is the back of the screen, which retains its original decorative 15thc painting. It’s rare enough for something like this to randomly survive, but Yorkshire diocese had an episocopal command to remove screens in the 18thc, so barely any can be seen round here now. Anyway, it looks like William Morris designed it.P1500189.JPG

Kirby Malzeard, St Mary

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Not the best church in the area, but just on the West Riding side of the river, so easy to overlook. Suffers a bit from over-restoration by Blomfield in the 1870s (that most over-eager of decades for the British) and again after a fire in 1908. There’s a Romanesque core here, but Blomfield’s strange choice of neo-Perp work is quite overbearing. The medieval sedilia are bizarre. They have ogee arches with dogtooth, which is like a mash-up of the greatest hits of the 13th and 14th centuries.

St Michael, Well

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A small but atmospheric little church. The 14thc E wall looks suitably gnarled by the trails of time and specifically, the gable being inexpertly lowered at some point.

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P1500150.JPGInside, there’s some rather random accoutrements, including a very nice Antwerp Mannerismy wooden altarpiece and the unusual sight of a Roman mosaic floor, discovered in the remains of a nearby villa. Funny how churches became dumping grounds for random bits of local history, but where else should it go? All the way to some museum that has loads of this sort of thing anyway?

West Tanfield, St Nicholas

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The church’s exterior is totally upstaged by the Marmion Tower just next door, the gatehouse to the old manor. Its 15thc oriel window is a great photo opportunity for you to ask a friend to take of you for a souvenir of your visit to Richmondshire (it’s owned by English Heritage and open any reasonable hour for you to go up inside).

However the interior of this church is full of amazing things: primarily monuments, although the rather weak local sandstone is often in a parlous state. The most special monument is the double to John Marmion d.1387 and his wife. Not so much for the alabaster effigies, but the survival of the iron hearse over them, which can only really be paralleled at the Beauchamp Chapel at Warwick, and Westminster Abbey. This would have have been draped with fabrics often, surprisingly, obscuring the monument, but the candles on it would have contributed to the visibility on dark winters’ days.P1500084.JPG

No doubt connected with the munificence of someone represented by one of these effigies is a window made up of 15thc stained glass with many complete figures. Although there’s a lot of modern pieces (I don’t think the central head is original, for instance) it’s still quite a thing to behold.

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Catterick, St Anne

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Church from the SE. The oculus thing in the gable – probably the most visually-interesting thing – is Victorian. The angled buttresses on the corners are referred to in the 1412 contract as “franche botras” (French buttress).

I don’t like to be a text-obsessed art historian, but the church at Catterick is notable for being one of the very few medieval English parish churches to have a contract associated with its construction, dated 1412. It is between Katherine Burgh, wife of the recently-deceased Lord of the Manor, and the mason Richard de Cracall.

P1030222.JPGI do wonder if they needed to set out the shape of the church with Richard in writing because he was a bit crap, because the outstanding thing about the building is how incredibly boring it is. Hardly any mouldings, dull tracery, overall clunky feeling. Even the sedilia (called “prismatories” in the contract, a word that appears nowhere else in Middle English, so probably a scribal error) are flat and simply carved, unlike those of a similar date at Burneston.

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The church is modified from the original contract: the aisles were extended into chancel chapels in the 16thc (but retaining the original E windows), and most annoyingly, the Victorians put a porthole clerestory on top of the arcades. Still, it’s definitely worth a visit for the unique history. The village also has a medieval bridge that also has a contract. Obviously the manor had good archiving practice.

More Richmondshire churches will follow in future guides, but that’s all for now.

Churchcrawling Trails: Occupied north Berkshire

One of the big pains in the arse about navigating England’s churches are the baffling counties. Since the big 1974 county boundary changes, the traditional historical counties often don’t match up with the road signs are where places actually are. This is perhaps most obvious in the district of the Vale of White Horse, which is now firmly administratively “Oxfordshire”, but is defiantly referred to locals as “Occupied North Berkshire”. (Essentially the boundary was originally defined by the River Thames which flows round the city of Oxford, but since urban expansion it was pretty daft for Berkshire county council to keep collecting the bins there)

Anyway, these churches are administratively all in Oxfordshire now, but all but one will be found in the Buildings of England volume for Berkshire. Many of them have the notable attribute of a cruciform plan, with often with a crossing tower and transepts, apparently here valued above the usual nave arcades. Subsequently, these transepts were colonised by memorials in the 14thc, and there’s much medieval sculpture to enjoy in this small area around Faringdon.

p1010291.jpgNote you might want to leave time at Faringdon to go up the hill to see the incredible Lord Berners’ Folly which looks over the town. Although it looks Georgian Gothick, it was built as late as 1935. Even if you can’t go up the tower (which, umm, you probably won’t, it’s only open for special occasions, and there’s no lift by the way) the view from the edge of the hill is wonderful (path from Stamford Road up to the hill is marked on map above)

Faringdon, All Saints

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The church from the SE. Notice how the crossing tower is sadly truncated. It fell left on to the transept, which is basically all Victorian.

Faringdon is a mid-sized market town, but you can park right next to the church which is just a bit on its own past the Market Square. The church is rather Evangelical and full of music equipment, so it’s not left unlocked. It’s advertised as open on Saturdays and Bank Holidays, but the key is available Monday-Friday 9-4 and Saturday 9.30-1 at the Tourist Office just south of the church in the Market Square. It’s one of the most hassle-free key collections I’ve ever had, and of course the added bonus you get the church to yourself!

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Interior of the enormous chancel with its giant lancets. The sedilia are mostly original, and were inserted about 50 years after the chancel was built.

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The chancel and sedilia in 1842. Watercolour by H. Dryden. Northamptonshire Central Library.

The obvious first barnstormer the church possesses is its gigantic 13thc chancel, no doubt at the behest of the canon of Salisbury Cathedral who had control over it by virtue of it being his prebendary. There are explicit instructions that the vicar (the prebend’s “vice” who actually does the work as a parish priest but gets of the parish’s tithes) had two chaplains to assist him saying the Liturgical Hours everyday “decently standing in suitable places” (“locis conventientibus decenter consistentibus“). The interest of the Cathedral in its prebendary’s liturgy is also shown by the rather gross sedilia that later were retrofitted into the chancel. They have the sort of over-the-top exuberance you’d expect from the early 14thc, but their motifs are early firmly Early English Gothic. So this is the 1270s or something REALLY pushing what ornament they have.

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The Early Gothic crossing with its varied capitals. The quatrefoils with faces peeping out and trefoil-head niches are a bit odd, but they look similar to the Bampton sedilia, and seem to have been added later.

Like so many places round here, the rest of the interior is slightly spoiled by the steeple getting knocked over in the Civil War. Incidentally, it fell onto the S transept, and that’s why that’s got the mezzanine floor in it with the Bible Break-out Room and kitchen/loos. But there’s still the wonderful late 12thc arcades and crossing tower to enjoy. This is a church you can spend a good hour or so exploring.

Uffington, St Mary

(Not to be confused with Uffington in Lincolnshire, near Stamford)

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The church from SE. Entry is through the unusual gabled porch on the S transept. Notice the odd window on the transept chapel. The unusual window is most likely 17thc repair of a later medieval window.

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Nave looking SE into the crossing.

An absolute belle of a church, almost a perfectly preserved early 13thc aisleless-and-cruciform plan, if it wasn’t for the fact the spire fell off and disfigured the nave (the whole height of the nave has been compromised, most notably the W triple lancets are now cut off). However, the crossing space has a moving sweetness, one of the best achievements of the Early English style.

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Chancel interior S.

The chancel ends with a sedilia/piscina group in perfect condition, but seemingly totally medieval. It also unusual, ends in a wooden rib-vaulted bay (entirely restored but predicated by the transverse arch just before it). The whole thing is thoughtfully composed in a way it’s rare for churches of this date (which is probably, uhh, 1220s?).

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N transept chapels. It’s clearly trying to look like an arcade of a cathedral transept, but really, it’s totally unecessary as the chapels are essentially just a hollowed-out thick wall.

The transepts are justified by the presence of small chapels, extending as chunks of wall with stone roofs, just enough to fit an altar and a piscina in there. It’s really unthinkable that it wasn’t designed for multiple chaplains to say Masses here daily, like Faringdon’s ordinance. But there’s no easy answer as to why they spent money on this rather than the usual nave arcades you’d expect for a parish. Yes, the manor and advowson (right to appoint the next rector) belonged to the wealthy and powerful Abingdon Abbey, but, um, so did loads of places: that’s they were so wealthy and powerful. Some things are impossible to answer, and who knows, perhaps whatever ambitions the architecture represents were never actually fulfilled.

Anyway, since you enter through the porch on the S transept, don’t forget to go into the nave S porch and see the absolutely wonderful ironwork on the nave door.

Sparsholt, Holy Cross

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View into the S transept from SW.

Sparsholt shows how parish-church transepts became more typical auxiliary spaces in the 14thc: as future-proofing the building for getting crowded out by the burgeoning trend in bourgeoise for monuments and chantries. The N transept at Sparsholt is nearly as large as the chancel. The surprise inside the transept (past the wooden screen, which is largely original) are the Decorated tomb niches, with their original effigies of exceptional quality, even more precious for them being carved out of oak.

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Oak effigy of a lady, early 14thc.

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Chancel piscina, sedilia, and tomb niche, second quarter 14thc.

The chancel is probably a 13thc lanceted structure a bit like Faringdon’s is, but one that was later souped up with a new reticulated E window and tracery put into the lancets. Even more niches here, and a stone effigy of a knight of a similar period to the wooden ones. Hierarchy of materials? If indeed they haven’t been shuffled about. Certainly the priest in the N chancel niche has been put in there on a modern base later. At most this would have originally had a brass in it so the Easter Sepulchre chest could be placed inside it.

Childrey, St Mary the Virgin

Yet another transeptal church with many medieval monuments, yet less architecturally sophisticated following what appears to be a Perp re-fenestrating and re-roofing. However, it does have the advantage of being high up for a nice view from the churchyard.

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Interior looking E.

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Alcove for the Easter Sepulchre on the N side of chancel, second half of 14thc.

The chancel has a late 14thc Easter Sepulchre receptacle, an early example of the late medieval trend for picking this position for your tomb to essentially serve as a table for the chest that took a crucifix and and host on Good Friday to symbolise Christ’s burial and Resurrection on Easter Sunday. Even though it means you couldn’t have a sculpted effigy because of it.

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Lead font, second half of 12thc.

There’s lots of things not to be missed. The 12thc lead font, for one, which shows how they just reused the same mould over and over rather than carving all the bishops on it separately out of stone. There’s some glass high up in the N transept which is 15thc, beautiful essays in yellow-stain: notably parts of an Annunciation, an Ascension, and a BVM in glory.

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Glass in the N transept, 15thc.

Stanford-in-the-Vale, St Denys

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Interior to SE.

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Not the best church in the area: if there’s any to skip, it’s this one, but it is nevertheless worth a visit and left open. The outstanding item is the bizarrely grand, canopied niche over the piscina. The reserved Sacrament (leftover consecrated Hosts from Masses) was usually kept suspended over the altar or on the N side of the altar, but this does not preclude it being kept here in this particular church. Very high quality first-quarter 14thc Oxfordshire Decorated. Did they have more that’s been lost? Or maybe this was all they could afford?

Buckland, St Mary the Virgin

(Not to be confused with Buckland in Gloucestershire)

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Church from SE. Note how the chancel roof has been lowered from its original pitch. The windows may have been altered in the late Middle Ages before the 17thc gave them their current strange form.

The outstanding impression of this large cruciform church is that all the tracery has been taken out in the 17thc and replaced with transoms going straight into the heads of the windows, making it look like it’s got iron bars from a comedy old-West jail. It’s a typical, but not common (probably because the Victorians often got rid of it) post-medieval bodge-job repair, as well as the transepts at Uffington above, you can see examples of it at Egglestone Abbey (County Durham) and Stretton-on-le-Field (Leicestershire).

Inside the N transept you can see earlier lancets, but the Victorians instead invested their time on the S transept, covering it head to toe in glittering mosaics, executed by Powell’s of Whitefriars in the 1890s. Undeniably, this ends up being the showstopper in this building.

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The S transept with its late Victorian mosiac work.

Bampton, St Mary the Virgin

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Church from the W.

The only place on this list which is still in Oxfordshire. It’s on the edge of another group of interesting churches, but fits better for these for being yet another example of being cruciform, and the only one lucky enough to retain its spire. And what a spire! It has extremely small broaches on the corners, topped by little flyers with original statues. One, a St John the Baptist, fell off relatively recently and is kept in the nave.

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Canopy in N transept, possibly originally over the shrine of St Beornwald.

Unusually, the church was a minor pilgrimage site, for local pre-Conquest Saint, Beornwald. The great niche in the N transept seems to have been related to his shrine. The shrine itself, long lost, maybe be related to the remodelling of Romanesque chancel and some of the earliest sedilia to feature gables. Although the left half of these are Victorian, the overall design is authentic, and bears comparison with the style of the W front of Salisbury Cathedral, so 1250s.

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The mid 13thc sedilia in the chancel. Could their gables be similar to the lost shrine casket of St Beornwald?

However, perhaps the greatest treasure at Bampton is this stone reredos, probably 14thc, showing Christ and the Apostles. Pevsner calls it “rustic work of c.1400”. Yeah, it’s hardly Claus Sluter or the Pisani, but he’s kind of underselling it. It’s a remarkable survival, and the fragments of colour very evocative of how it originally looked. Yeah, they obviously messed up on John’s chin, but that gives it all the more charm.

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Reredos, S aisle. Probably second half of the 14thc.

In the same day as most of these churches I went out to Little Faringdon, which is a deep cut for people who love small-but-perfectly-formed Early Gothic arcades. But it’s quite a bit out of the way, so I didn’t include it in this trail. Where might you venture next? Let people know in the comments!