The Towers of London

You might wonder why I haven’t updated my blog for over a year. The short answer is: I’ve been living in London! I’ve been ground down to the point where I realised that Dr Johnson’s pithy “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life” does not actually mean it is impossible to get tired of London. Not in the slightest. In fact, it just confirms we all get tired of life from time to time. But slowly London is turning into little more than a dehumanising playground for the super-rich, with all of its rich heritage being buried under totems of steel and glass. This is why I’m going to break my fast of posting with an angry blog post that has nothing to do with churches!


Site of Nine Elms Northern Line station, July 2017

I used to joke every time I visited London, there was a new skyscraper visible from Waterloo Bridge. Now I’ve actually seen the concrete cores shoot up in real-time, followed by inevitable dismay of a steel frame with ugly cladding, I can confirm I wasn’t exaggerating. I was living at the edge of Vauxhall for a while this time, which all the way from Nine Elms to Battersea is essentially one big building site. Many of these buildings, such as the Keybridge estate on South Lambeth Road (the UK’s largest brick tower – as if anyone asked) replace former mid-height tower blocks. It has taken around a year to reduce the post-war tower on its site to a sad lump of smashed conglomerate and twisted rebar. The rest is being built on lingering brownfield sites, regenerated by the gigantically oversized American Embassy in Nine Elms, and the promise of a Northern Line extension, which is currently boring its way through the subsoil.


Battersea Power Station, July 2017

The housing round here is the generic example of “shiny and new”. Its newness is all it has going for it. Flats like goldfish bowls are stacked as high as they can go, as close together as possible – one wonders how you’d get a fire engine in between some of them in a disaster like Grenfell. They might be luxury when they open, but with their lack of any real social cohesion beyond commuter hideaway, they’re surely the slums of the future. Battersea Power Station, sitting unused for what seems like forever, has required the unchecked greed of the luxury property boom to find a use for it. This largely consists of imprisoning it in walls of steel and glass, building unconvincing replicas of its famous chimney-stacks, and falling back on its promise about the amount of affordable housing.

Affordable housing: what a wonderful phrase. You would think it would be a passing phase too, but the bubble never seems to burst. The egregious Vauxhall Tower which adjoins the St George’s Wharf – clearly visible from the World Heritage Site of Westminster Bridge – is perhaps the worst case for this. A Guardian exposé revealed there is not a single resident registered to vote in the UK in it. Most of it is empty. Cars with blackened windows merely drop their VIP cargo off behind a closed gate at the base. It’s basically a huge folly, which houses little more than occasional entertaining suites for foreign executives when they happen to be in London, and properties for high-flyers’ investment portfolios. And a big “up yours” victory lap from the land-grab.


St George’s Wharf apartments and the Vauxhall Tower, begun 2007, designed by Broadway Maylan. (In the background is the core of part of the Vauxhall Square development, at time of writing rapidly receiving its curtain walls of brick cladding. It will be relatively low-rise at 87 metres, and will be joined by a pair of 187 metre luxury blocks)

Next to it is what is, I think, without doubt, the most incompetently ugly building in London: St George’s Wharf. It is a grotesque complex, which neither has the conformity of a single block, nor the variety and interest in its grouping. The pyramidal arrangement of the towers – which have been described as butterflied prawns which I can’t possibly top – is unnecessary and aggressive. What do the towers even do? Why is all the glass green? Why is it so downright bloody awful and right at the edge of such an important city? It’s the sort of terrible thing you’d expect in the desert, where there’s not much to do except make an empty statement: but not in a place brimming with important buildings.


122 Leadenhall Street and 30 St Mary Axe over the church of St Katharine Kree (1628-31), in 2015.

The City has become unrecognisably foreboding and suffocating in a very short time. Aside from Tower 42 (The Natwest Tower), the Swiss Re Building (now officially 30 St Mary Axe, but really, everyone calls it the Gherkin) was the first skyscraper to be built in the City. It was enabled by the regeneration of the area after the IRA bombings in the early ’90s: the 1992 bombing that all but destroyed the Baltic Exchange, and the 1993 Bishopsgate bombing near Liverpool Street station, the crater of which undermined the facade and north wall of the little medieval church of St Ethelburga, all but destroying it.



Main entrance of 30 St Mary Axe (The Gherkin) begun 2004 by Foster + Partners.

The thing is, the Gherkin is not a bad building. It’s not the best, but it’s good. The original plan was for a 386 metre-tall Millennium Tower – that’s taller than the 309 metre Shard. The building that was eventually built was a mere 180 metres, but has both a memorable and pleasing profile. It has solidity – the motif of the steel-frame construction giving it both an interesting surface texture and distinct visual character beyond its silhouette. But most of all, it respects its surroundings and earns its height. When you visit what architects call the “street interface” (the “way in”) the steel frame cleverly opens up, quite invitingly. The way in is clear, and the building actually has a presence on the human scale. The lattice work also draws the eye up to the building above. You know immediately you’re in the presence of an iconic building you’ve encountered first on the skyline. This is far from true for many of the other garbage skyscrapers going up in the City since.


Street interface of 122 Leadenhall Street (aka “The Cheesegrater”), begun 2006 by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners.

The Leadenhall Building (the “cheesegrater”) is the first of the diminishing returns. It’s not terrible, but it does pretty much the same trick for the street interface as the Gherkin. You could be generous and say it is sublime – but it’s more overwhelming and on the side of ugly. But at least it makes a statement on the street. The main reason for its silly shape is to preserve views to St Paul’s: which in some ways is a worthwhile function but also begs the question why a skyscraper was allowed there in the first place.


20 Fenchurch Street (aka “the Walkie Talkie”), begun 2012 by Rafael Viñoly Architects. Image
© User:Colin / Wikimedia Commons

Now, this piece of crap I have no time for whatsoever. 20 Fenchurch Street is sited somewhat south of the city skyscrapers, and dominates the view from London Bridge. It has a particularly arrogant top-heavy look. This look is basically the only trick it has. With the bundled tube method of construction, buildings can be any shape they want. These doesn’t mean that they should. This building is a planning disaster – partly it got through with its textbook greenwash strategy of “London’s highest public park“, which is essentially an over-priced bar with a few bedding plants dotted around. Its shape – which goes against any good sense in design – has also caused quite serious problems: the well-publicised “death ray“, when magnified sunlight reflected down off it caused property damage around the City.


20 Fenchurch Street, main street interface

But I think that what really shows what’s bad about this building is its street interface. When you walk past it, there’s absolutely no interesting frontage. There’s no way, if you don’t know to look up, that there is a tower above you. It just looks like every other front. All it is there for is to make a jokey shape on the skyline. It oppresses at the human scale. Medieval cathedrals may dominate the cities they lie in, and make big statements with lofty steeples on huge towers, but no one can argue that can’t realise when you’re standing right in front of them.

Strata SE1. from Monument 2014

Strata SE1 (aka “that stupid thing with the fans in”), begun 2010 by Bogle Flanagan Lawrence Silver Ltd. © User:Colin / Wikimedia Commons

A similar building to this in many ways is Strata SE1 at Elephant and Castle, apparently known as the “Electric Razor” but more commonly referred to as “that stupid thing with the fans in”. It is claimed that these turbines make the building sustainable, but since nobody has ever seen them actually turning, this is clearly a load of bollocks. Ironically, what the building does do is create a wind tunnel effect that I noticed when taking this photo.


Strata SE1, main entrance.

Again, its street interface is so poor (although, admittedly, at least it has some reaction to the main elevation of the skyscraper, with the big vertical division that carries up to the top) the only way you’ll notice you’re at the base of what you wondered “what the hell is that stupid thing over there with the fans in” at from Greenwich is because it’s caused your bucket hat to be blown off into the worst roundabout in the world.


The Scalpel (52-54 Lime Street), as of July 2017, over the church of St Andrew Undershaft (early 16thc).

There’s so many more hideous buildings to complain about. In the City, three skyscrapers are currently going up on Bishopsgate (in addition to the already completed Heron Tower, the tallest building in the City), and the extra ones in the financial heart, such as the intimidatingly-named (and actually, for the first time, taking a shape-based name officially) Scalpel on Leadenhall Street. The poor city churches: often ones that survived the great fire, such as Katherine St Kree, St Olave Hart Street, and poor poor old St Ethelburgas, seem about the only buildings of any age around here. Blackfriars One, looming over the bridge, going against everything the Friars Preachers stand for in its vainglory. The Chelsea Waterfront. The Corniche opposite Tate Britain on the Albert Embankment. 121 Strand opposite St Clement Danes (which would have been one of the main beneficiaries of the most egregious vanities disguised with greenwash: The Garden Bridge). You might notice I’ve left the Shard out of this, which although I’m not a huge fan, I feel like it’s the Gherkin of the South Bank. It’s not brilliant, but it’s undeniably striking, has a few clever ideas (such as a successful street interface), and despite its height, doesn’t really spoil that many views. I could go on with worse. But it’s time to finish.


One Blackfriars, by Ian Simpson Architects, in February 2017.

It is an unimaginative cliché to label these buildings phallic. They’re nothing like phalluses. Phalluses are useful, and perhaps even for some, pleasureable to look at. Nor these buildings more specifically ithyphallic: an erection does not always point up, and you don’t show it off to lots of people to show how important you are (not unless you want to be banned from every branch of Wetherspoon’s). These skyscrapers are like giant aggressive fists, shaking intimidatingly in the air, grasping wads of cash outside the reach of those below. They’re not progress: but are often mostly empty, built by people who don’t give a crap about anything other than money. The people being conned into giving these things planning permission are swayed by a Blade-Runner fantasy that the future must be vertical. But down on the ground, the housing crisis continues.

Essentially, these things aren’t that much more than overblown marquees like the Crystal Palace. Hopefully they will last as long as the 1960s-70s predecessors they invariably are built on top of, and the importance of preserving the human scale in architecture, as well as ornament, craftsmanship, and good design will some day return.



Top 10 wrongs about parish churches

One of the most difficult things about working on parish churches is dealing with the general misinformation that surrounds them. So often the interpretation in the building is composed by its well-meaning guardians who only have a vague idea of the significance of their church. Not everyone can be an expert, sure, but when you are faced with multiple instances of “hoverers” – a custodian who insists on accompanying you around the building and regaling you with the same old clichés – means you need the patience of a saint to endure a day’s fieldwork. And I mean a proper saint, like John the Baptist, not one of those rubbish bishops of nowhere in the first millennium whose only miracle was coaxing a few swans.

A great many persistent factoids resonate around parish churches, some that I feel damage the general understanding of the history and practice that the rich material culture they consist of represents. So here is a collection, presented in true Huffingfeed listicle style, of my top bits of guff you will see spouted by church guidebooks that you should be very cautious in believing.

1. This church was founded 823 years ago last Tuesday

Burneston, North Yorkshire

A load of Perp.

You will nearly always see something like this as soon as you open the door of the church: a sign proudly declaring the date that the building was founded. This is because it answers the question most people will inevitably have, and it allows them to declare that the site has been occupied for an impressive amount of time, such as nine hundred or one thousand years. It means that most visitors will gaze around a run-of-the-mill fifteenth-century Perpendicular church cleaned up in the nineteenth century with the impression that it’s more than twice as old as it actually is. The story, as any churchkrawler kno, is much more complicated than that.

The dates that tend to be incorrectly given for the foundation of a parish church usually come from two types of sources. If they’re a specific date, like 1123, then they are probably the first time a church in the village is mentioned in a legal document. If they’re more vague, like twelfth century, they probably refer to what can be observed in the fabric of the church, even if it’s just a bit of Romanesque chevron built into the vestry wall.

The reality is that the parish system as it was in say, 1500, was basically established during the tenth century. After that, except in rapidly-growing cities, parish churches were very rarely built from scratch as they were in the nineteenth century. It is almost certain then, that any medieval church has pre-Norman Conquest origins. The famous Domesday Book is frustrating to church historians because it very rarely mentions churches or priests: it was really only interested in indexing taxable property. It is kind of a big deal if a church can say it was mentioned in Doomsday, but it doesn’t really mean it’s older than most other English churches.

2. The chancel was rebuilt by the monks of Xey Abbey in 13xtyx

Checkley, Staffordshire

Not built by monks.

This is the same sort of thing, where a piece of documentary evidence is seized upon to put a date on to something. When a date and monastery are mentioned in a parish church guide, it refers to when the advowson of the parish was transferred to them. The advowson was the legal right that allowed someone to appoint the new rector of the church: a highly sought-after job for a priest, as it was a steady source of income for life. It was recorded by the diocesan cathedral and nomially approved by the bishop, but it was very rarely turned down, which meant it gave the advowson holder – often referred to as the “patron” – a great deal of power and influence. It originally was usually held by the lord of the local manor, but this power that it represented meant it quickly became an object that was traded, for money or goodwill.

A lot of patrons gifted their right of advowson to monasteries. The monasteries however, quickly realised this was very convenient for them if the community had a cashflow problem. A parish rector had to a be a Religious man – an ordained cleric – so a normal lord of the manor could not rector himself. Unlike lords, monastic communities of course were made up at least partly by priests (the actual proportion of monks in a community who were ordained depended on the type of order), so exploited the loophole to appoint themselves rector, which meant all the tithes – the taxes of the parish – went directly to them. As rectors, they were supposed to maintain the chancel and provide divine service, but it was more likely they would put a vicar in, supported by a small fraction of the tithes, or even a chaplain, on a measly stipend.

The last thing a monastery would do after getting the money from the tithes, is pour it back into the parish. Monks made themselves institutional rectors because they needed the dosh to support their house, not because they had some zeal to go round rebuilding parish churches.

3. Saxon fonts

Saxton, North Yorkshire

Bowl = who knows; stem = Victorian; base = B&Q

Fonts were an important part of Early Christianity because they represented conversion and entry into the faith. No doubt there are a lot of impressive ancient fonts in churches, but the amount of times you hear about a font being discovered in the vicarage garden gets very suspect. Baptism remained an important part of post-Reformation parish life, so fonts are one of the few free-standing fitting to remain unscathed in English parish churches. If you see something that looks like an extremely crude thing for washing pigs in, then high chance that’s what it is, not a thousand-year old font.

4. Crusader tombs

Edington, Wiltshire

Excuse me, I’m having a lion

The main story with these is that if a knight has his legs crossed, then he died in the Crusades. This is, of course, a load of rubbish. The reason effigies have their legs crossed is because they look pretty silly with their legs straight, as if they’re lying in bed, depressed and not wanting to get up and go to work. With their legs akimbo they look ready for action. It’s not a special cipher ready to be decoded.

5. Ancient stone seats

Welsh Newton, Herefordshire

Who would even want to sit there, really

Same with the fonts. There are ancient “frith-stools” and Beverley Minster that are connected to the right of sanctuary granted to these places – that is the right to be tried under Church, rather than state law. These however, were special churches, and there is no evidence that it extended to ordinary parishes. Any sort of “armchair” you see in a parish church is unlikely to have the same significance. Most of them were mocked up from fragments by Victorian restorers – my theory is that the arms we used for very simple bench ends for the western half of the chancel.

6. Our stained glass window by Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones

You know those stick-on transfers you can buy in cathedral gift shops? Yeah..

You know those stick-on transfers you can buy in cathedral gift shops? Yeah..

Burne-Jones was a prolific designer for Morris and Co. The firm kept pumping out poor-quality versions of his cartoons well into the twentieth century after anyone connected with them in their heyday was long dead. Unless it’s an early, bespoke piece of work, it’s very unlikely Ned saw the piece of glass, let alone visited the church. In most cases, claiming your glazing is by Burne-Jones is like saying you often host concerts by Bob Dylan because you have a 1992 CD remaster of Blonde on Blonde.

7. The Easter Sepulchre

This is quite a serious and complicated one, so bear with me. Any feature built into the north wall of a chancel is usually called an “Easter Sepulchre”. It is symptomatic how a label can become received opinion, with no questioning as to its veracity.

St Albans Psalter, c.1130-45, P50 - The Three Maries at the Tomb

St Albans Psalter, c.1130-45, P50 – The Three Maries at the Tomb

What is an Easter Sepulchre? Well, it is part of the liturgical elaboration around  the Holy Triduum of Easter, first recorded in the Regularis Concordia, an ambitious text intended to consolidate monastic practice in England  in the tenth century. In this, it is described that on Good Friday, a sepulchre would be used for symbolic burial of a cross (the Depositio). Early on Easter morning, the cross would be removed from the sepulchre and placed on the altar (Elevatio). Then would follow the Vistatio, when the monks were supposed to re-enact the visit of the Three Maries to the tomb. Because the latter step was, as it involved a trio of priests dressing up as women, potentially a little bit silly, it seems to have been rarely enacted. However, the Despositio made its way into the Sarum Rite (the closest thing medieval England had to a Book of Common Prayer), so was known to clergy in parish churches as something they should be doing.

The famous bona-fide Easter Sepulchre at Cowthorpe (North Yorkshire)

The Regularis Concordia describes the structure as being curtained, and a representation of such a structure has been convincingly argued to be shown in the twelfth-century Romanesque wall paintings at Kempley in Gloucestershire (Stephen Rickerby and David Park, Burlington Magazine 133, 1991, available on JSTOR). By the later Middle Ages, they seem to have been commonly in the form of ornate wooden chests commonly recorded as such in church inventories, especially in the Reformation clear-outs under King Edward VI, when they were put to all sorts of domestic uses, even chicken coops. The only such Easter Sepulchre to survive – although admittedly with no documentation as to its function – is at Cowthorpe (North Yorkshire).

Stone-next-Dartford, Kent

Stone-next-Dartford (Kent). Monument to Sir John Wiltshyre (d.1526), north aisle.

We know that the Easter Sepulchre was always set up on the north side of the chancel because of the huge amount of medieval wills from the fifteenth and early sixteenth century that stipulate that individuals want their tombs set up there so that the sepulchre can be placed upon it at Easter. These tombs, when they survive, can be seen to be specifically designed for the purpose of having a chest placed on them: with flat incised brasses rather than sculpted effigies. There’s even a whole type of early sixteenth-century tomb that you find in the London area that is primarily designed as a console for the chest. But these tombs are NOT Easter Sepulchres. They are convenient places to put the Easter Sepulchre.

Heckington, Lincolnshire

The locus classicus of the stone “Easter Sepulchre” – Heckington (Lincolnshire), late 1320s

The textual evidence suggests that Easter Sepulchre itself was something you need to lie an altar cross down in once a year, probably shielded behind a curtain. Why then, does everyone call the features in the north walls of the fourteenth-century chancels of Heckington and Hawton Easter Sepulchres? Veronica Sekules convincingly argued (BAA Conference Transactions 8, 1986) that these were primarily conceived as Tombs of Christ. As the consecrated Host was actually the body of Christ, by placing it in what medieval people actually perceived as a “copy” of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, you were essentially making an actual tomb of Christ. The other prominent features in the north walls of these chancels are the founder’s tombs. It was always considered beneficial to be buried in good company, but what better grave-mate than Jesus Christ Himself?

Hawton (Nottinghamshire)

The south wall ensemble at Hawton (Nottinghamshire), late 1330s. Vestry doorway, founder’s tomb (probably originally rector John de Swine, d.1344), Tomb of Christ.

Sekules goes on to argue that these Tombs of Christ were installed in certain parish churches because of the cult of Corpus Christi which spread across Europe in the fourteenth century. As well as giving himself the prestige of a tomb next to the Son of God, the rector who commissioned the Tomb of Christ would also be creating a Sacrament Shrine, that would contain the Host all year round. We can assume that laity would be admitted into the chancel outside of services to be able to pay devotion to the Blessed Sacrament outside of the Mass.

The possibility that the features at Heckington and Hawton were used as Easter Sepulchres in the Paschal liturgy is at best, a tertiary one, and certainly less based in real evidence than the idea that they were an all-year-round Sacrament Shrine. A recent PhD thesis by Christopher Herbert (Leicester University, 2007, available online) actually set out to show how most so-called “Easter Sepulchres” were completely useless for putting a cross inside (essential for the public spectacle of Depostio and Elevatio), and confidently concludes that the stone Easter Sepulchre was never a widespread tradition in medieval England, but a Victorian misconception. But yet people will still stubbornly insist that they were, and the term remains de rigeur for describing any sort of niche in the north wall of the chancel. It’s essentially the fault of Nikolaus Pevsner, who, as an avid digester of Victorian literature and a formalist essentially uninterested in liturgy, sprinkled it liberally around the Gospel of church crawlers, the Buildings of England.  At best, “Easter Sepulchre” is a neologism that represents the multivalent functions of architectural features. But at worst, it’s an entirely incorrect moniker that misrepresents medieval practice, puts simple holes in the wall on the same level as true works of art such as Heckington and Hawton, and draws attention away from the actual Easter Sepulchres such as Cowthorpe which have vanished from thousands of parish churches at the Reformation. If you actually look at the textual and material evidence a priori and ignore the distorting effect of Victorian Tractarianism on assumptions about the Middle Ages, you will see the whole idea of permanent stone Easter Sepulchres built into chancel walls crumbles.

8. The church is the people, not the building

P1410494The Church (big C) is the people, and the church (little c) is the building, I’m interested in both; but please don’t demean the latter as an object of aesthetic and historic interest by sticking this needlessly iconoclastic statement in Comic Sans MS font on a big ugly noticeboard right in front of some fascinating dado arcading.

9. Leper squints

Selby Abbey, West Yorkshire

No no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no.

Apparently, if you believe English parish church lore, medieval England was a bit like Dawn of the Dead, with walking corpses shambling around churchyards. Of course, leprosy (now generally refered to as Hansen’s disease – don’t want to be caught leper-shaming) was a widespread debilitating  disease in the Middle Ages, but to think that parish churches actually modified their fabric to cater for this is quite ridiculous. Ridiculous enough in the eyes of academics, who realise that monastic hospitals would give ostracised lepers opportunity to receive the sacraments and would never think of bothering to write an article to debunk it; but not ridiculous enough to mean people don’t think twice before accepting it.

There are three things that usually get labelled as “leper squints” in English parish churches. (I may be pushing my luck here sub-dividing a listicle into letters)

9a) Low side windows

Washingborough, Lincolnshire

Open up the low-side window, I’m roasting in this chasuble – careful not to let any of those lepers in, mind

These are usually found in the south wall of the chancel, towards the west end. They often have evidence for shutters on their jambs. The problem is, unless you stood on a stool and stuck your head right in, you can’t see the altar from them. Paul Barnwell has argued – mainly because they are also used in secular buildings – that they were used as ventilation, to let air in when the oxygen levels inside were becoming rather asphyxiating (Ecclesiology Today 36, 2006, available online). This is very reasonable when you think of all the candles that would be burning, especially on dull winter evenings.

9b) Altar squints

Bamburgh, Northumberland

An unusually fancy “hagioscope” at Bamburgh (Northumberland)

Often, in the jambs of the chancel, there are holes often quite unartfully, smashed through the fabric. These are often called “hagioscopes”: a total Victorian neologism but not a bad one. The function of these is fairly obvious, because they always are positioned so someone standing in front of a subsidiary side altar has a good view of the high altar. This is probably so that a chantry priest can sync the all-important elevation of the Host with the main ceremony, almost like a monitor at a sporting event to allow the crowd to see a close-up view of what’s happening on the pitch. In this case it’s the body of Jesus Christ, not someone getting kicked in the balls during a vicious tackle.

9c) Blocked-up aisle windows.

St Michael on Wyre

This is, incidentally, one of the most exciting things ever.

Here’s a supposed persons-afflicted-with-Hansen’s Disease-vision-enabling-aperture at St Michael-on-Wyre (Lancashire). It’s not to allow an outcast to see inside, but actually the window of the original thirteenth century aisle. When the aisle wall was built further out in the later Middle Ages, a bigger window was put in and this one blocked up.

10. You might want to take a look at our delightful Millennium window/tapestry by the mothers’ union/prayer tree



Could Anyone Not On the Bus Please Raise Their Hand: A Guide To Conference Fieldtrips


It’s that time of year when academics can grab a break from their endless PowerPoint slides, passive-aggressive question sessions and lunch breaks with suspicious fish-based sandwiches, and instead be permitted into the real world to point at things in a somewhat organised manner. Like a school trip, bus loads of academics are driven from the lecture hall to archaeological sites, great buildings and art galleries, with a burning determination to show everyone around them that they absolutely ooze theory, methodology and object-based knowledge from every gland! Things can get pretty heated as they tear into poor display, conservation and interpretation; so here’s a few situations I have identified that you can be ready for!

P2000537Everyone will look at an interesting piece of medieval sculpture for a bit, then someone will realise it is a Victorian replica and the group will die a little inside

Well… it’s a very good pastiche


Seizing the opportunity, one eminent delegate will speak inside a building to the extent that they basically recite the entire manuscript for the book about it that they have never got round to writing

He’s been going for at least 35 minutes now, isn’t the wine reception supposed to be at six??


P2060052Instead of looking at a building, people will gather round a small model of it made by secondary-school children in the 1950s  and criticise its numerous inaccuracies

Of course, the layout of the monastic complex is conjectural to say the least; and that tracery of the infirmary is ludicrous for the documented date


KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAIf a number of scholars are invited to climb part of a stair-turret, they will ignore instructions where to exit it and proceed to ascend to the very top as if they might glimpse the court of heaven with God enthroned with His angels in splendour, when actually all they will find is a roof-space filled with asbestos

Now this just doesn’t seem safe, maybe I ought to go back down and not mention this


P2020195One conference delegate will criticise the liturgical arrangement of a church building but absolutely no one else will care

Look at the state of those riddel-posts
They look like drainpipes


P1560077There will be a significant digression about the appropriateness of light fittings

All 1960s, of course


P1240071Two insane people will look at something utterly insignificant as if it is the most exciting thing in all of creation

Is that..?

I think it is…!



13625143_10100333691940530_1400530738_nEven though every group is supposed to see the same things in a rota, people will hide the coloured sticker on their name badge and go with whatever group they feel like because they really don’t believe this is possible

Balls to that Anglo-Saxon tun, I’m going to the lady chapel roofspace first


P1770506Someone will be told by a guard not to get too close to an object when pointing at it and have their authoritative ego scarred for the rest of the visit

I wasn’t even that close… and it’s glazed anyway so I don’t know what their problem was frankly



P1630331An amateur guardian of a building will deliver an extended Ladybird book version of its history to an assembled congregation of eminent scholars who know more about it than anyone else on the planet, but everyone will be too polite to tell them to stop

And we have three windows at the east end, which symbolise the 3 at the beginning of our village dialling code

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAIt will rain and people will make interminable jokes about the “English summer”

Even if the conference is abroad



13816950014_3797aa884f_b[1]You will be stuck between two people discussing the differences between Purbeck marble and other types of fossiliferous limestone which is interesting for the first ten minutes but then you realise decorum means you have no escape

In the en-delit shafting in the triforium? That’s blue lilas, surely




With more wonky arches


Knocking on Heaven’s Door: Church access

About as far as too many people go. St Augustine, Kilburn.

About as far as too many people go.
St Augustine, Kilburn.

The hobby of churchcrawling seems to have escaped the sort of stereotypes that trainspotting, birdwatching and stamp collecting have amalgamated. It’s a rather obscure activity, to the point where it’s common even for people well-educated in matters of history and heritage to be ignorant that churches are not only full of innumerable treasures, but are usually welcoming to casual visitors throughout the week. The amount of times I see people wander into a church and not dare to venture beyond the table full of leaflets at the back of a building, glancing at a few memorial tablets before making a quick exit in case a priest emerges to throw a Bible at them is remarkable.

let'shearitforE. E. ARCADEeverybodyandofcoursethemarvellousDEC CHANCELandwelcomebackNORMAN DOORWAY we'llfinishwithasetfromPERP WEST TOWER

let’shearitforthewonderful E. E. ARCADE everybodyandofcoursethemarvellous DEC CHANCEL andwelcomebackthespectacular NORMAN DOORWAY we’llfinishwithasetfromeverlovely PERP WEST TOWER

There are a few celebrity church crawlers – Lloyd Grossman (who lives… in a church like this?), Jools Holland (right) and of course, Philip Larkin with his perennial favourite “Church Going” (in which the solitary speaker ascends the pulpit to give a mock sermon – any intended allegory aside, it’s something every churchcrawler has done). But it is journalist Simon Jenkins who has done the most to open up the hobby to a wider audience, with his 1000 Best Churches. Many who have now progressed to new-edition Yale Pevsners and English Heritage reports will admit that Jenkins was their gateway drug. Indeed, many churches are proud of their rating in Jenkins (although they often protest it is far too low).

Don't be fooled, viewer. This porch appears to be opened in this way but the church is always locked. The most rotten trick outside of someone practicing the organ inside and locking themselves in.

Don’t be fooled, viewer. This porch appears to be welcoming but this particular church is always locked.
The most rotten trick outside of someone practicing the organ inside and locking themselves in.

Anyone who uses Jenkins for a while comes to the realisation that practically every Church of England or Roman Catholic church has something interesting in it and that frankly some of his choices are a bit bizarre. However, clearly keen to avoid devoting space to opening arrangements that would quickly date, Jenkins tended to pick churches that are usually easily accessible by a casual visitor – something which of course is not the case across every church in England. Having visited churches in every English county except Cornwall, I’ve experienced very different situations when planning my trips. Some counties, such as Norfolk or Wiltshire, when you ring up a church custodian to ask about access, they can almost be slightly confused why you’re calling. For them, the default setting for a church is open – why would it be anything else? In contrast, in somewhere like Cheshire or Northamptonshire, you’ll be barraged with questions – who are you? When will you arrive? How long will you be? When I am staying for a few days in an area for research and visiting multiple churches in a day, those last two questions are almost impossible to answer without the fear of causing serious inconvenience when you inevitably get held up.

Not telling you where this is but I found it open at 7:30am once

Not telling you where this is but I found it open at 7:30am

I suspect a surprisingly large number of rural parish churches are left open all night. As convenient as this can be for me, if I am honest it’s just as bad as keeping them locked, because it’s borderline neglect. The widely-reported theft in 2013 of rood screen panels from Torbryan in Devon (since recovered), a church looked after by the Churches Conservation Trust, could only be ascertained to have happened “between 2 and 9 August”. An entire week of no one checking the building is hardly an acceptable level of care. There have always, and will always be, people who steal and damage other’s property. People are unpredictable – that’s what makes life interesting. This is why I always dislike the modern mantra of “can’t be too careful these days”. There probably aren’t a higher proportion of thieves and vandals around than at any other point in history, just a higher level of general distrust and lack of faith. But of course, one has to manage risk and lock churches at night – if only to check up on them.

Again I'll not tell you where this is but the key just hangs on a house near the gate to the field the church is in

Again I’ll not tell you where this is but the key just hangs on a house near the gate to the field the church is in

I have the uptmost respect for people who open and close churches at dawn and dusk every day – especially because I never meet most of them to say thanks. But for infrequently-visited churches, the only alternative is for them to advertise a keyholder in the porch who will lend you the key on request. This, I find, is an increasingly rare arrangement. Mainly, it prevents idle damage and kids messing about. The biggest problem with it is that it places responsibility on the person who looks after the key. If anything did go wrong, it would be their decision to let someone into the building that would prove their liability. This is why very few businesses, such as pubs and hotels, provide this service anymore: a great shame, but the result of a more suspicious, litigious and bureaucratic society.

The heartbreaking sight of a padlock, which is essentially a declaration of escorted visits only, since no visitor can be entrusted to put it back on properly. Padlocks give off entirely the wrong message and have no place on supposedly public buildings.

The heartbreaking sight of a padlock, which is essentially a declaration of escorted visits only, since no visitor can be entrusted to put it back on properly.
Padlocks give off entirely the wrong message and have no place on supposedly public buildings.

Custodians of churches that are normally kept locked nearly always insist on meeting me at the church at a pre-arranged time, and hover over me for the entire duration of my visit, locking up the building the instant I am finished. This means I do not particularly enjoy the experience, am constantly feeling I am being a burden, and no one else benefits from the whole ordeal (except perhaps Flickr, which receives a plethora of photos of elevations, moulding details and Romanesque nook-shafts later in the week). A much happier arrangement for both parties would be to leave the church open in the morning and lock up later on – but apparently some churches are frightened leaving their building alone for even a few hours.

St Thomas Aquinas R.C., Ham, Richmond. A converted school hall with obviously quite limited resources for liturgical furnishings. Found open and totally empty.

St Thomas Aquinas R.C., Ham, Richmond. A converted school hall with obviously quite limited resources for liturgical furnishings.
Found open and totally empty.

What causes the massive variation in whether churches are open or not? One factor is churchmanship. You will frequently find that Catholic churches, even ones that are no more than a wooden box with a carpet, an altar and a few plastic statues, are always kept open. This is because the church building for Catholics is more than just a meeting place, it is a holy space for personal devotion, facilitated by images. Except sometimes for Sunday afternoons (when, after people have fulfilled Sunday obligation, there’s no reason for them to be in church), it’s a poor do to find an R.C. church locked up, especially if it has an adjacent presbytery. For worshippers of a reformed low-church persuasion, there is essentially no reason to visit a church outside of collective acts of worship, so churches tend be kept locked. Although that doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t welcome visitors, I find that they often don’t quite understand why anyone would want to visit their church recreationally.

Another is geographical, which I can only assume is based on local consensus on how things have been done in recent memory. Priests may move between parishes across England through their career, but church opening I find is usually more down to the churchwardens who’ve lived in the village all their lives. Urbanised counties, such as Lancashire, Cheshire, and the Midlands, are full of locked churches, with no formal arrangements for access outside of services. Ecclesiastical, the primary provider of church insurance, encourages open churches and says that premiums will not increase because of an open door policy. It’s noticed by many that locked churches are the site of far more serious thefts than open ones, mainly because a building which is only used once a week appears an easier target than one that is continually supervised. Especially since the biggest threat to churches, the seemingly unstoppable spate of metal-thefts from roofs, doesn’t require access to the interior, encouraging visitors to your church all week round may actually help protect it.

Keyholder on Android - when grumpy Lancashire gives way to Cumbria

Keyholder on Android – when grumpy Lancashire gives way to Cumbria

So what do I recommend for budding churchcrawlers? Well firstly, I’d like to say, There’s An App for that: the Keyholder app developed by extremely well-travelled churchcrawler C. B. Newham. This Android app (Apple version in development) displays all the CoE churches in England as dots, either red (locked), blue (open) or yellow (location of key advertised by the door). It has the advantage of giving you the local knowledge to know whether a journey is worth making without a phone call. The coverage is impressive, but not complete, users are invited to fill in the gaps where they can. The data is kept reliable currently via a subscription which works out about £1.60 a month – but if you crawl regularly that’s basically the petrol money or public transport fare to the church in the first place, and the amount of money you should be leaving in the almsbox afterwards anyway.

St John, Hillingdon, west London, is a rare example of a suburban medieval church that makes a big effort to stay open.

St John, Hillingdon, west London, is a rare example of a suburban medieval church that’s recently changed its policy and makes a big effort to stay open 7 days a week.

And from the churches – one thing I would love is for those that do welcome visitors to make this known via their website (partly superceded by the marvellous A Church Near You, perhaps the most successful project the CoE has instigated since the Reformation) and signage, rather than assuming their open door is common knowledge. But do I dare say that more churches should be kept open at reasonable hours just in case someone like me happens to come by? Well, quite frankly, yes. The greatest grassroots evangelisation tool that the Church possesses is its buildings. What could be a greater comfort for someone at the end of their tether to stumble across an unlocked church and a quiet space for prayer? What is greater proof of Christ’s Church than the innumerable splendid buildings built by the enduring faith of its members? If only one person a week enters a building and feels some sort of profound spiritual upliftment (which does not debar them from using a camera and a tripod – photography can also be a practice of devotion) then the church is doing its job above and beyond a shelter for the altar. Yes, there are risks, and bad things may happen, but it’s worth balancing these risks with a greater good. If you think anyone would have faith in such a thing, it would be the custodians of churches.

What I’ve learnt: The hows of church photography

Crosby Garrett, Cumbria

A rare “pretty picture” for me

As daylight saving cruelly drags us back to GMT, shutting churches earlier, I’ve been catching up on uploading my images from an Indian summer of churchcrawling. I know I haven’t quite been updating this blog as much as I should with my amazing (!) adventures, but the sheer volume of things I’ve been visiting means that south-east views of chancels would rapidly get rather tedious unless I frame them in an interesting way. I would like to do a series of reflections: on the hobby of churchcrawling, the problem open and locked churches, as well as my continuing research, but first I’d like to do a guide to the sort of prosaic photography that suits architectural historians, rather than someone gunning for Flickr favs.

Well obviously I took this picture via an incredibly elaborate arrangement of mirrors

Well obviously I took this picture via an incredibly elaborate arrangement of mirrors

For many years now (since mid-2012) I’ve been using a Panasonic Lumix FZ48, a bridge camera with 24X zoom. Until this summer, I had basic rules for the dial. If I was shooting freehand, I have it on “P”, which means the aperture and shutter speed are set for you by the light sensor with this in mind. If I had the camera on a tripod, then I would shoot on “A” – that is, aperture priority, which means you choose the aperture size, and the camera takes a long exposure if necessary. If it was very dark and I needed a very long exposure (more than 10 seconds) I put it on S, “shutter priority” and set it that way.

Coleshill, Warwickshire

Perp chancels, with their massive windows, are a nightmare for photography – especially when they’re cluttered up with nasty MFI furniture for a wedding – but I still took a load of crap pictures.

This was the extent of control I had over the camera. But when I came back from Warwickshire in August for a two-day trip, I found I did have an unfortunate number of duff shots: blurry arcades and over-exposed chancels. I decided to up my game and shoot almost entirely on M:  full manual, in that I set both aperture and shutter speed for every shot. And since all cameras are basically the same – they let light through a hole of a specified size for a specified amount of time onto a light-sensitive surface – there might be someone out there who might benefit from me twaddling on for a bit.

Lichfield Cathedral

Another rare, “aesthetic” picture: the crazy abundance of dogtooth in Lichfield nave

First thing that improved my photos: when shooting on a tripod, set the ISO sensitivity to the lower number possible. This was originally done, in the olden days, by changing the film. Now there should be a button on the back of the camera where you can either lock it at one speed, set it to auto, or choose a maximum value. The only reason you want a higher film speed is if you are shooting freehand in low light or working with a moving subject. Unless you’re working with liturgy there’s no reason you need to this. Your pictures will come out so much sharper.

Audley, Staffordshire

I could not find the light switches here even though the vestry had the key left in the door and they had to be somewhere. Nevertheless, pictures mostly came out okay – just took twice as long as it should have had.

Next, setting the shutter speed. The first time you’re in a dark church and realise you can get great pictures by just taking 10-15 second exposures on a tripod is a marvellous dawn. Sometimes you’re going to want to turn off the lights where possible, as bright bulbs often over-expose and mess up your shots. But it’s also worth controlling the shutter speed when outside too. Cameras are very intelligent these days, but it can only go so far. A black box can’t know that you’re interested in the dark walls rather than the bright windows. However, I’ve found that’s always better to under-expose than over-expose. If it’s a bit dark, you can rescue it at home with some post-processing and upping the contrast and gamma correction. Whiteness means the information has been totally destroyed, and only a magic Blade Runner zoom-enhance-zoom-enhance computer could do anything.

Church Eaton, Staffordshire

Here we have sun on the W tower so it’s possible to balance it with the sky

The same goes for outside: when you’re taking a north side of a church in shade against a bright sky, there’s no way the light sensor know you’re more interested in the dark building than the bright sky. At the expense of over-exposing the blue sky and losing the pretty clouds, you can actually bring out your subject that would get lost in the dark. There’s really no excuse not to set your shutter speed manually all the time. While in filmic past, when plastic bags were free at Marks and Spencers and Pets Win Prizes was top Saturday-night viewing, you wouldn’t see your results until you unpegged them and took them out of your red-lit developing room, you can see them instantly on your camera’s LCD screen.

The other thing to remember is that cameras are like your eye, not like your brain. You might think you can see a dark wall and a bright stained glass window at the same time, but actually, you can’t – you’re seeing them separately and experiencing them together. The only way to get a picture of something bright and something dark in the same picture is to use a tripod and take two different exposures, and do a composite of them in an imaging program when you get home.

Bakewell, Derbyshire

Burlison and Grylls glass enhanced by short exposure to bring out the painting

Stained glass should always be taken on manual shutter speed. But not all stained glass is created equal – a blazing boiled-sweet Wailes in the chancel at sunrise is not the same as a bit of medieval glass cradled in the vestry. You need to get a balance between the luminosity of the glass and capturing the painting. For sunlight directly through glass you can be shooting a 1/1000 of a second. It’s also interesting how you can make quite bad Victorian window look really good by reducing the glare effect of the thin panes – the camera never lies, indeed.

Checkley, Staffordshire

Medieval glass tends to let a lot less light through than Victorian glazing

Nearly all digital cameras have a preview function where if you lightly hold down the shutter button it will show you what it thinks the image will look like. Of course, this isn’t perfect – it won’t work for things that have very low light – but it certainly gives you a good idea how long you need.

St Giles R.C., Cheadle

Pugin’s Cheadle has a very difficult lighting system to work with

Finally, understanding the aperture. Beyond the film speed, there’s only two things to understand how a camera collects the light: how big the hole is, and how long it’s open for. Aperture is measured by F-Stop number. The lower the F-Stop number, the wider the hole that lets the light in. This, I find, is more of a matter of practical advantages and disadvantages in church photography than the general benefits to your images with longer exposures. If you’re in very low light, then the necessary length of your exposures become a lot shorter (obvious, really). However, a higher F-Stop means a deeper depth of field and sharper focus. My F-stop only goes up to 8 anyway, which isn’t very good, so it’s not really something I’ve explored. Therefore, unless I want to highlight something in shallow focus or can’t find the light switches, I shoot on high F-Stop.

Kirkby Wiske, North Yorkshire

Curse the mason who came up with that string course

One exception I find is a perennial problem for me shooting my pet subject, sedilia. Sedilia are always built into the south wall and very often have a window directly above them. This means they are sometimes bloody frustrating to take a picture of because of the composition of dark wall with sunlight blazing in behind. While sometimes shooting them with a wide aperture and short exposure helps, sometimes all you can do is the ultimate cheat: flash them.

Acton, Cheshire

This flashed picture looks awful, but shows the re-masoned wall behind the two missing sedilia more clearly than anything

Ah, the flash. All those pictures of demon-eyed children round their birthday cake in the kitchen. For a professional photographer, it’s like a chef using a microwave oven. But like all but the most conceited gourmet will admit about microwaves, the flash has its uses. Essentially for any sort of aesthetic photography a flash is no-no because it absolutely destroys the ambience and subtleties of natural light. But for sculpture, this can be extremely useful for architectural historians. The intense light can bring out breaks and joins that can’t be seen with the naked eye. It can also highlight folds quite beautifully sometimes. It ain’t going to get on the cover of National Geographic, but it’s still wise to pop up your flash for a few close-quarter shots occasionally.

Chebsey, Staffordshire

The headdress distracts from her fine pair of ears

If you want to take decent interior pictures, you’ve gotta get a tripod, I’m afraid. It might make you look like a nerd, but on the other hand it does look a little bit like a you’re carrying a rifle, which might appeal on some level, and also if you got accosted by a ne’er-do-well you could always brain them with it. Most of the time I carry a plastic one that cost about £15. Generally this is totally fine – the main problem you will find is using it on high zoom, when it becomes difficult to move the mount steadily and get that perfect frame you want. Also, moving the camera 90 degrees and not having it be a bit wonky is also difficult. I have a metal one that had a former life as a telescope stand, weighs a tonne, but makes me look like I know what I’m doing.

Which of course, I don’t, really. I only have a bridge camera, so I don’t have a clue about the wide world of lens and SLRs. I hope this serves as a bit of an introduction on how to take the sort of dry, boring photos of churches that are useful for architectural and art history. But if this was the how to take pictures, there’s also the what to take pictures of, which I’ll save for another post.

Selby: the wonkiest abbey in Yorkshire

Selby Abbey, West Yorkshire

The original wonky arch: the eastern bay of the north arcade, early twelfth century. The third storey was added in the third major campaign to finish the nave a century later.

Selby featured at the very top of my infamous great mistakes post which may prove to be the early highlight of my career. While most of the “great mistakes” were due either to changes of plan, or the medieval building process of establishing decorative systems rather than designing a whole building down to the last detail, Selby’s most alarming semi-collapsed arch is due to bad planning and surveying. I re-visited the Abbey a few weeks ago, and discovered that the bad land caused the Abbey problems well into the fourteenth century, and also that it has some of the most eccentric architectural designs you will ever find in medieval England. It also seems to be the only church in the world to make such a comic turn out of a choir aisle vault.

Selby Abbey, West Yorkshire

The west bays of the nave south arcade, showing not-quite-as-severe, but still rather alarming differential settlement

Selby is a crap market town in the West Riding. It doesn’t even have a Marks and Spencer, that’s how grim it is, people. Yet it does have one of the few abbey churches of a great monastery that has survived largely complete despite not being upgraded to a cathedral. The earliest parts of Selby Abbey date from the beginning of the twelfth century, when across the country the Norman conquerors were consolidating their power by bulldozing Anglo-Saxon cathedrals to make way for colossal Romanesque arcades. We know from a local monastic chronicle that it was the second abbot of Selby, Hugh, who decided to move the monastery across town and construct something approaching the scale of what was going up at Durham Cathedral. It claims that he even rolled his sleeves up and helped the workmen out by carrying stones and mortar. Whether that’s literally true or not, it shows that he certainly was decisive in getting Selby Abbey a church among the top rank. Problem is that Hugh did not get very far with his thumping great Romanesque arcades. In the nave today, you’ll see only two bays of the nave were completed in the Romanesque style, along with the standing piers of the next bay. The reason for this is that as soon as they started building up the central tower, the west piers of the nave began to sink into the high water table under Selby, leaving the arcades showing what architectural historian Roger Stalley called “a spectacular example of differential settlement”. The open arches of the elevation of the nave were blocked in, and basically much of the twelfth century must have been spent by the monks looking at what had been built whilst sucking air through their teeth.

Selby Abbey, West Yorkshire

The Early Gothic/Transitional Romanesque gallery of the north arcade, with “carousel” pier in the centre, 1180s. Here constructed over Romanesque piers from the early twelfth century.

Towards the end of the twelfth century, probably the 1180s, is when the monks finally regained the confidence to call the builders back in. Architecture had obviously changed a lot in that time. But unlike what was going on at Ripon with fancy Frenchified Gothic, what Selby got was a lot more along the lines of old-fashioned Romanesque to match what had been built already: still very much big round arches and old motifs such as that old chestnut zig-zag. The most curious feature is in the gallery, where the massive yawning openings over each bay are connected by lots of freestanding piers around a core, which look bizarrely like a merry-go-round. Putting something basically so fiddly, clunky and let’s be honest here, downright daft into a building would have reduced a French architect at this time, accustomed to accentuating height and slenderness, to hysterics (although there are weird compound piers in the gallery of Noyon, they’re not this weird).

You’d think at this point everything would go well and they could finish off the nave. However, for unknown reasons, these builders stopped before they’d started the galleries on the south side. This means that the nave must have left looking very odd for a good number of years. It’s difficult to explain so I’ve gone and done a picture. The arcades on the north of the Abbey church would be raised to gallery level, but only to first-storey on the south, making it absolute puzzle how they would have put a temporary roof on, if indeed they did.

The Abbey Church (I've sort of ghosted in the cloisters that would have been there) in the early thirteenth century after the departure of the second campaign. It is not a cutaway. The north gallery is roofed, as is the Romanesque bay of the south, the rest is open. The tower was definitely not that wonky but since this isn't being peer-reviewed I thought it might be funnier if it was.

The Abbey Church (I’ve sort of ghosted in the cloisters that would have been there) in the early thirteenth century after the departure of the second campaign. It is not a cutaway. The north gallery is roofed, as is the Romanesque bay of the south, the rest is open. The tower was definitely not that wonky but since this isn’t being peer-reviewed I thought it might be funnier if it was.

Selby Abbey, West Yorkshire

The hybrid elevation of the south nave arcade – Early Gothic arches of the 1180s and Early English gallery and clerestory, 1220s-30s.

So it would be around another half-century until the next lot of builders came in to finish the job. By then Gothic architecture had become established in England; but not as Early Gothic in the French sense, but as the peculiar national style we call Early English. In the 1220s or 30s (not documented, we’re going off style here), this lot added a second-storey gallery to the south side, and then a third storey all the way round. The weird thing about the new south gallery, is that for reasons difficult to fathom, they decided to superimpose a great whopping drainpipe-like pole that slices through the elegant subdivided arches and their quatrefoil spandrel to support the ceiling. This vertical articulation is essentially the sort of thing that French architects were always trying to do with their vaults. This is an unhealthy combination of English horizontality combined with French verticality. But you don’t really need to know that to realise it somehow manages to look even more daft than the carousel piers on the other side.


Selby Abbey, West Yorkshire

The south choir aisle, looking east, probably c.1310s

Their nave finally complete, the Benedictine monks of Selby did not rest on their wonky laurels. Instead, possibly because a passing Cistercian made an unkind remark about their totally out-of-date apse and how they need to get to the times with a square ambulatory, the monastery embarked on yet another drawn-out campaign. The interior aisle walls of the choir are one of the most spectacular survivals of medieval vegetative carving outside of Southwell Chapter House. Every arch of the pointed dado arcade rests on a capital of stunning undercutting, a forest in stone. Yet the cohesive feeling you get is misleading. The windows above show subtle changes in style. Those in the north aisle are of the late thirteenth century, with what was then rather up-to-the minute bar tracery of slender quatrefoils. The windows of the south aisle however are reticulated – a net-like pattern of the same motif spread over the head of the window – a date in the early decades of the fourteenth century. The east window and great arcades that wedge through the choir however, are of the most pure Yorkshire Curvilinear Dec of the 1330s. Essentially, much like the nave, there are at least three different sets of contractors working here on the choir, but with much shorter gaps. What is left is a slightly uneven mix of styles, as if you’d got dressed so slowly that you put some flared bell-bottom trousers on in the 1970s, but not got round to your top half until you could afford to put a Nirvana t-shirt and plaid flannel jacket in the early ’90s.

This is really quite fascinating because it again needs an “artist’s” “impression” of what it would have been like. Presumably the aisle walls were built around the old apse, which was kept in use and not demolished until the main arcades were built inside. The north aisle in particular must have stood as a completely useless wall doing nothing for a good few decades, as I show here, with commencement of the south aisle.

Selby Abbey, from the east in the early fourteenth century, with the north aisle wall standing and the south aisle in slow progress, behind is the aisled Romanesque apse and apsed chapels of the transept, all later demolished

Selby Abbey, West Yorkshire

The real north aisle and completed choir

N aisle vaulting

A totally exaggerated and completely unmeasured demonstration of the potential problem with the vaulting of the north choir aisle

This is what no doubt led to the following problem in which quick thinking averted a complete cock up. Presumably because the north aisle had been standing free for so long, it appears to have settled into the water table again – it can be seen from the outside to be rather wonky. When the final workshop came in in the 1330s to build the arcades, demolish the apse, refashion the Norman transepts and top off the aisles it posed a huge problem.

Aesthetic concerns about things being straight are all well and good to dismiss, but it really matters for vaults. If the two essential arches that make up a rib-vault are not equal, you’re going to have problems in the two balancing each other out. Because the north aisle wall is not perpendicular with the choir arcades, it’s fine in the middle bay, but in the west bay, the vault overshoots the wall responds, and in the east bays, it undershoots them.

What to do? Rebuilt the wall and start again? Well, since this is Selby Abbey, which couldn’t even be bothered to demolish those horrendously semi-collapsed arches of the nave, they’re not going to lose all those lovely windows and capitals. Instead they came up with an ingenious solution: vault it as if the wall was straight, but just alter the responds.

In the west bays, it’s not too bad. The vault sits towards the back of the respond. Sure, looks a bit disconnected, but no one will notice.

Selby Abbey, West Yorkshire

The “overshot” western bays of the north choir aisle vault

In the eastern bays, if you shot the vault over from the choir it would miss the capitals completely, and land on the floor inside. So what the masons did is send out a curve to catch the vault on tiny ickle capitals, then start a new arch from there that would accurately cover the space. Now, you might not find this as funny as I did, but you have to admit it is pretty funny.

Selby Abbey, West Yorkshire

The “undershot” bays of the north choir vault, with miniature capitals “catching” the ribs

Selby Abbey, West Yorkshire

North aisle vaulting, arcade side – vestigial mini-capitals

On the arcade side of the springs, the masons have put vestigial little rings intended to balance out the mushroom-like eccentricities on the other side to try and convince you it was supposed to be like that all along. Now I’ve pointed it out, it looks completely ridiculous. But it’s rarely noticed. Even Pevsner does not mention it. It’s all somehow incredibly stupid and extremely clever at the same time.


Selby Abbey, West Yorkshire

Looks cool no? Unfortunately it was completed in 1912, so like a good medievalist we’re going to have pretend it isn’t there

Selby had no major rebuilding after the magnificent Decorated choir was finished, except for some fifteenth-century tidying-up of the north transept with a honking great Perp window. The central tower finally gave way in 1690 and toppled to the south-east – ironically totally away from the most famous wonky arch – taking out the south transept and part of the south aisle. The Abbey had a plethora of work done to it by the Victorians. The south transept was rebuilt in a pure 1330s Dec style that undoubtedly never was and the humble 18th-century belltower was re-medievalised. A fire ripped through the Abbey church in 1906, causing enormous damage. Despite what the church might say in their guide books, in the east window – which had previously been one of the most magnificent Jesse Tree windows in England – not a shred of medieval glass remains. What we have now is what stained glass specialist David O’Connor called a “very clever fake” made by the stained glass firm Ward & Hughes in 1909. Anything that looks old has been artificially aged with acid pitting: all that survived the fire were figures that Ward & Hughes had taken out in their 1891 restoration (hence why they knew the window so well), and some panels that had been pinched earlier (preserved in the Nelson collection held by National Museums Liverpool). So although you have a good (but still altered) facsimile of the programme, and indeed many of the figural compositions are accurate, the true jewel-like quality of the medieval glass is gone forever from Selby’s east window. It is a great shame that the church continue to pretend (or quite frankly, flat-out lie) otherwise, as it does both the original glass and the restorers’ work a disservice.

The west front in 1816, by the very reliable Buckler. British Library.

The west front in 1816, by the very reliable Buckler who is a better draftsman than I. British Library Add. MS 37121. You can see the ickle gable of the then much lower-pitched nave roof behind.

Selby Abbey, West Yorkshire

The west front today

The west front was also mucked up a bit. Before it was a very stumpy thing that was intended to have flanking towers but never received them, and had been tied up as best it could with a bit of crenellation. After George Gilbert Scott raised the roof pitch and added a funny Salisbury-lite gable (which Pevsner actually thinks is medieval, ho hum, Selby is not one of his best accounts), the idea came around to raise the towers up. After the fire his son J. Oldrid Scott built some Dec-lite towers (preserving the Perp pinnacles on top) that give the west front a cathedral-like grandeur. Problem was, it’s still in Selby. If only he could have built them a Marks and Spencer too.


Now this is the product of a two-hour visit to the Abbey (that’s how long you can park for free at Sainsbury’s) and an afternoon in WordPress. Don’t cite it, but check out these folks who’ve looked at it way more than I have.

  • Nicola Coldstream ‘The Development of flowing tracery in Yorkshire c.1300-1370’. Ph.D. thesis, The Courtauld Institute of Art, 1973, 32 ff.
  • Eric Fernie ‘The Romanesque Church of Selby Abbey’ in Yorkshire Monasticism, Archaeology, Art and Architecture British Archaeological Association Conference Transactions 15, ed. L. Hoey, 1995
  • Stuart Harrison and Malcolm Thurlby ‘Observations on the Romanesque Crossing Tower, Transepts and Nave Aisles of Selby Abbey’ in Yorkshire Monasticism
  • Charles Clement Hodges ‘The architectural history of Selby AbbeyYorkshire Archaeological Journal 12,1893
  • David O’Connor and Henrietta Reddish Harris, ‘The East Window of Selby Abbey, Yorkshire’ in Yorkshire Monasticism
  • Nikolaus Pevsner and Enid Radcliffe, Yorkshire West Riding, 2nd ed., Buildings of England Series, 1967, pp.435-442 [As noted, this description is far from satisfactory when compared to the cathedral accounts of the BoE, treating the building almost as a large parish church rather than the extremely significant monastic surviva that it is. A revised description will be included in the new West Riding: South volume, which appears to be perpetually a way off being finished]
  • Roger Stalley ‘Choice and Consistency: The Early Gothic Architecture of Selby Abbey’ Architectural History 38, 1995, pp. 1-24

Although do check out my Flickr album from my daytrip up the M62 to Selby and other sundry Yorkshire locations

Garuniad-esque erratum: Because basically I think in the country in terms of Pevsners, I originally said Selby was in “West Yorkshire”. It is actually in North Yorkshire. I meant of course, it was the pre-1974 administrative county of “County of York, West Riding”. You can stop sending me angry comments about this now.
Also yeah Selby isn’t that bad. There are much worse towns. The Morrisons is quite good. You can park there for free and cut through for the Abbey, then bugger off and go to Howden or something. Wait, that probably didn’t help. Never mind.