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English Church Architecture -

Bedford (U. A.).


SWINESHEAD, St. Nicholas (TL 058 659)     (July 2009)

(Bedrock:  Upper Jurassic, Oxford Clay)



This is to all appearances a Huntingdonshire church and it is interesting to learn that until 1888 the parish of Swineshead was indeed a detached part of that county - downgraded in 1974 to an administrative district of Cambridgeshire - in consequence of having once formed part of the manor of Kimbolton, three miles to the northeast. The principal reason the church seems to belong across the border is, inevitably, a result of geology, for this is a building flushed with the buttery tones of Jurassic limestone, and the qualities of this material have enabled the tower to be topped by a recessed stone spire, not dissimilar to those found in a number of nearby, undemonstrative but pleasant Huntingdonshire villages, including neighbouring Tilbrook and (to a lesser extent) Kimbolton, and others a little further afield, from Fenstanton in the southeast to Wansford in the northwest.


However, the comparison between this church and those at Tilbrook and Kimbolton is apposite for another reason for all three boast towers and spires in chiefly Decorated style (as indeed do the neighbouring churches at Dean and Yelden in Bedfordshire), suggesting this was a prosperous little area in the first half of the fourteenth century, whose parishioners sought to emulate or rival one another in the matter of church building.  The most characteristic of Decorated motifs is the frieze of ballflower ornament and Huntingdonshire and some other parts of present-day Cambridgeshire are among the best places in the country to see examples of it, but the church here at Swineshead also has an excellent example which runs beneath the parapet around the S. aisle and porch and the S. side of the chancel, formed not only of the archetypal ball enclosed by three petals but also of the heads of beasts and other creatures, including such fanciful characters as what looks like a little pixie, peeping nervously through his fingers (shown below, in the photograph of a section of the frieze over the chancel).

St. Nicholas’s church (illustrated top right, from the southeast) consists of a chancel, an aisled nave with a S. porch, and a W. tower with a spire.  The chancel is lit by two, two-light windows to the south, of which the easternmost has been renewed and the westernmost (shown in the thumbnail below right) consists of trefoil-cusped lights subarcuated above trilobes, with a quatrefoil in the apex.  This may be early Decorated work of c. 1320 for although the ogee arch is employed for the heads of the lights, it plays a very minor part in the design overall.  The three-light E. window with curvilinear tracery and the two, two-light N. windows to the chancel, with slightly squashed reticulated tracery, are Victorian now, and may not be a reliable guide to what was here originally, but the square-headed N. aisle windows with reticulated tracery seem essentially mediaeval, and the aisle E. wall is particularly interesting for it is pierced by a small rectangular window sitting immediately on another, marking the position of a former two-storeyed vestry replete with fireplace, which must raise the possibility that it might long ago have served as the dwelling of a hermit or acolyte priest, like similar extensions in the same northeast position, which are hardly any bigger, at Gipping, Hessett and Hitcham in Suffolk, for example, or - on a slightly larger scale - at Toddington in this county.   The N. wall of the N. aisle thickens west of the N. door.


The W. tower rises in five stages, supported by angle buttresses to the first four.  It is distinguished not only by the spire with its two tiers of lucarnes above an attractive parapet pierced by open quatrefoils, but also by the very shallow W. porch (shown left), barely three feet deep, and a bell-stage with two, two-light openings in each wall, which Pevsner considered to be Perpendicular - a theory he may have nurtured to give weight to his thesis that the thickening of the N. aisle wall west of the doorway and the “two-plus-one” arrangement of the N. arcade (described below) shows the original intention of the builders was to erect a northwest tower where the westernmost bay of the N. aisle stands now.  If so, plans were changed in short order, for not only are the lower parts of the existing W. tower of no conspicuously different date from the rest of the building (the three-light W. window with supermullioned tracery and strong mullions is the commonplace later insertion in this position), but the impressive bell-openings also, have characteristic early fourteenth century reticulated tracery to the east, north and west, and only differ to the south, where the reticulation units are straightened in the manner seen, for example, in the bell-openings at Houghton Conquest, Bedfordshire, and Castle Acre, Norfolk, where the  work can be dated 1392 and 1396 respectively.  (See also Appendix 2 for further dated examples of the use of this tracery shape in eastern England.)  The weathering of the much more steeply-pitched, pre-clerestory nave roof, remains fossilised in the tower E. wall.


The S. aisle is lit by a square-headed window to the west and three, two-centred reticulated S. windows, west and east of the porch.  One head label stop remains, showing a lady wearing a wimple.  The porch windows are small and rectangular but there is a niche in the gable above the outer doorway, and the ballflower frieze above that.  (See the photograph, right, showing the section around the apex.)  The inner doorway carries a sunk flat chamfer and a wave.


Inside the church, the three-bay arcades are formed of double-flat-chamfered arches springing from broad octagonal piers with nicely moulded capitals, contrasting with responds at the ends supporting the inner order only, allowing the outer order to continue down the jambs.  (See the internal view of the church below this paragraph, taken from the west.)  However, the N. arcade is more accurately described as a two-bay arcade joined by a short wall piece (shown left) to a third arch in similar style to the west, providing grounds for Pevsner’s theory, although other explanations are surely possible, such as the simple interruption of the work, perhaps following the death of the master mason, or a problem with structural movement of the kind that sometimes arose from the too early attaching of the tower to the nave before the heavier structure had been given time to settle on its foundations. (However notice also that the capital of the only true pier to the north, is not identical to its southern counterparts, so the two-bay section of the N. arcade may not be exactly contemporary with the S. arcade anyway, or - alternatively - the work of the same man.)   The tower arch consists of three flat-chamfered orders, the inner two of which die into the jambs.  The chancel arch, which is a little depressed, perhaps as the result of settlement, carries two unequal flat chamfers supported on lively figure corbels depicting two writhing mediaeval rustics (illustrated at the bottom of the page) who squirm beneath the great weight they carry on their backs.  There is an opening for the rood stair, in the nave N. wall, northwest of this arch.  The nave clerestory is a Perpendicular (and probably fifteenth century) addition, consisting of four pairs of two-light, square-headed windows with minimal supermullioned tracery.  However, it is the elaborate chancel interior that is most worthy of attention for the windows here (including the renewed E. and N. windows) have rere-arches replete with slightly differing, mediaeval side shafts supporting mouldings above, the easternmost S. window has a lowered sill forming a stepped sedilia and piscina to the east, and between the N. windows there is a double-cusped tomb recess (left) with a curious doorway on the left, looking like the entrance to a crypt but which actually leads west through the wall to the vestry discussed previously.  



Finally, furnishings in the building include the restored and probably somewhat altered, Perpendicular screen, composed of five divisions, of which the central one forms the opening and the outer four have two-light, open tracery rising from a solid dado below.  There are several misericords behind (i.e. to the east) and most of the nave benches are also old, though they are not particularly remarkable.  The large font in the northwest corner of the nave, consists of a plain octagonal bowl supported on a plain octagonal stem.  The very low-pitched nave roof of simple couple construction, appears contemporary with the clerestory (apparently it was repaired in 1706 and, again, in 1841) but the chancel roof framed in six cants, is hard to date from the ground.  The S. aisle contains the mechanism of a seventeenth century clock, like nearby St. Mary's, Felmersham.