Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Impressions and Textures

You arrive in a village looking for the church.  You see the tower poking above trees in the distance.  You lose track of it as you get nearer but then there it is, framed by trees and surrounded by its graveyard.  Immediately you get an impression of the church and whether it is well cared for, still loved.  You get a rough idea of its age, its former glory, its history.  Churches come in all shapes, all sizes, large, small, some grand, others humble, some endearing, others forbidding.  They reflect the vicissitudes of changing times, or sometimes just the personal whims of rich patrons. 

Some churches in the region, maybe many, have a pre-Conquest origin, though as the first churches were often built of wood all traces will long since have vanished.  By the10th century stone was more often used and traces of some of these early buildings can still be found in churches across the East Midlands, not only in more substantial survivals such as at  Brixworth and Earls Barton in Northamptonshire, but in surviving remnants, such as the tower arch at Market Overton (Rutland) or reset windows at Westborough (Lincs).  But the division between Saxon and Norman is not always so clear and, for example, herring bone masonry which is still found in many East Midlands churches, as at Averham (Notts) and Marton (Lincs), could be characteristic of the crossover period immediately before and after the Conquest.  And this in a roundabout way leads me to note how the materials that churches are built of also add considerably to their character, a character that often reflects the local area and a character which over time changes as buildings become weathered and decayed, or are patched up or rebuilt.

I’ve touched on this before in my article about churches around Melton Mowbray where the ironstone not only brings a distinct colouring to churches but also the erosion of the softer stone that produces what I can only describe as a “knobbly” effect as at Kirby Bellars.  There are ironstone churches across a wide path through eastern Leicestershire, Rutland and parts of Lincolnshire, the stone varying in colour from almost orange around Melton (e.g. Kirby Bellars, Welby, and Wartnaby) to a much darker colour in other places, such as Lyddington or Stoke Dry (both Rutland).  But decayed as they might be now these churches must have been pristine when first built.  And that brings me to another point, today we see finely cut 19th century stonework in many churches and perhaps dismiss it as less valuable than original crumbling medieval stonework.  But when churches were built they were not as they are now and decay is a quality that is valued for itself in our time, as witness the continuing fascination for ruins and to quote Pevsner in his comments on Ab Kettleby church (Leics), “of ironstone in a nicely decayed state.”

Stoke Dry

Limestone is used widely in Lincolnshire, particularly Ancaster stone.  It weathers well and is almost invariably grey.  It comes in various forms, often as finely dressed ashlar, which in more prosperous churches often makes up the majority of the building.  Elsewhere it picks out the edges, such as the corners of towers where more strength is needed and it can form patterns, particularly in combination with contrasting materials such as ironstone or flint.  

Patterning at Caythorpe (Lincs)

Skerry at Sutton on Trent (Notts)

In Nottinghamshire sandstone is commonly used, varying between light brown and pinky brown, i.e. “red” sandstone.  But many Notts churches were also built of whatever stone was to hand so limestone is also used together with the widely used skerry stone, a form of mudstone, grey and hard.  In many descriptions of Notts churches the term “rubble” is used to denote the use of a mixture of materials and size of blocks.  This  produces an interesting effect, particularly with the unifying factor of the patina of age, which adds rather than detracts from the fascination and aesthetic quality of the building.

Egmanton (Notts)

Norwell (Notts)

Another distinctive stone is often employed in the lower Trent Valley where the river forms the border between Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire.  This is blue lias, a grey rough cut stone that produces a rubbled and decayed texture, much loved in places by masonry bees that burrow into holes and crevasses in the stone, e.g. at South Collingham (Notts) and  Marton (Lincs).  

South Collingham
 Most churches were not, of course, built to any single design and the changes of centuries often make up a fascinating texture, incorporating whatever materials were to hand when building or repairs were done.  At Brixworth (Northants) substantial amounts of Roman tiles were re-used when the church was built in Saxon times.  Other churches, often in historically poorer villages, show the use of many kinds of stone, often recycled, or sometimes incorporating brick, slate, or whatever was to hand, reflecting the many times that repairs have needed to be done, e.g. at the fascinating little church at Brooke (Rutland) or at Stragglethorpe (Lincs).



Red brick also has its place and looks good in simple Georgian designs such as at Morton (Notts), Allington and Stapleford (both Lincs), but when used as the main building material in large Victorian Gothic churches such as at Tur Langton (Leics) and Winthorpe (Notts) the impression is, at least to me, rather unsympathetic to the rural landscape.  But hey, who am I to complain?  Some people like wind turbines….


Another fascination is to see the tooling marks on stonework made by medieval masons, or indeed by modern masons where repairs have been made.  No doubt an expert can tell what tools were used or how old the work is from these marks.  For me the pattern and feeling of connection with the masons of long ago is enough.  

Tooling Marks: Frisby on the Wreake (Leics)
Graffiti: Westborough (Lincs)

Graffiti on stonework is something else to look out for, not so common on exteriors, quite common in porches and sometimes found inside particularly on columns.  I remember the thrill of discovering my grandfather's initials carved on a tree in his home village, done he told me some 60 years before.  Carved on stone graffiti lasts much longer and provided it doesn't destroy someting of great antiquity or quality (e.g. graffiti on alabaster tombs) to me it's just another fascination amongst many.


Long Bennington

Finally just a mention of the wonderful colours and textures produced by lichens.  Here are two examples, on gravestones at Manton (Rutland) and at Evedon (Lincs).  And I must also make mention of boundary walls around churchyards, often overlooked but sometimes of high quality in their construction.  Here’s a fine example of a drystone wall at Long Bennington.


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