BIGGLESWADE, St. Andrew  (TL 188 446),

CAMBRIDGESHIRE. 

(Bedrock:  Lower Cretaceous, Woburn Sands Formation.)

 

A town church situated on the outcrop of the Lower Greensand,

Woburn Sands Formation, built largely of ironstone.

 

Before the advent of the canals and (especially) the railways, the transport of heavy goods overland frequently cost more than the goods did themselves.  Builders, therefore, used vernacular materials whenever possible, preferably sourced within a mile or two of the site.  Mediaeval stone buildings consequently reflect the underlying geology and churches in particular provide an approximate geological map of Britain, which is naturally most faithful in areas of less complexity.   This general principle is revealed to good effect along the Lower Greensand ridge which rises along the western edge of the Lower Cretaceous outcrop of south and east England, which is itself very narrow in the southeast/northwest direction, yet extensive and continuous from northeast to southwest, as seen below.   Moreover, the rubble building stones to which the Lower Greensand gives rise, which are generally known as carstone (chiefly in Norfolk) or  ironstone,  are a very distinctive, liquorice-brown colour, which is difficult to miss.  Drivers heading northwest from East Anglia to the Midlands along one of the quieter roads that passes through intermediate villages, will suddenly notice one or two village churches (probably no more) that show they are crossing this outcrop, while someone with a will to do so, might set out from Hunstanton on the north Norfolk coast and, except across the Fens, pick his or her way southwest, at least as far as Leighton Buzzard on the southern border of Bedfordshire, and encounter one such church after another.  The churches named on the map below, all of which are represented on this web-site, serve to illustrate this.

 

 

 

 

The Lower Cretaceous Rocks of Eastern England, laid down 146-97 Ma.

 

 
1 = Heacham (Norfolk);  2 = Castle Rising (Norfolk);  3 = Wilburton (Cambridgeshire);    4 = Cottenham (Cambridgeshire);  
5 = Great Gransden (Cambridgeshire);  6 = Bourn (Cambridgeshire);   7 = Gamlingay (Cambridgeshire); 
8 = Everton (CENTRAL Bedfordshire);  9 = Blunham (CENTRAL Bedfordshire);   10 = Eyeworth (CENTRAL Bedfordshire);  
11 = Biggleswade (CENTRAL Bedfordshire);  12 = Edworth (CENTRAL Bedfordshire); 
13 = HOUGHTON CONQUEST (CENTRAL BEDFORDSHIRE);   14 = LOWER GRAVENHURST (BEDFORDSHIRE).

 

This is a large town church, predominantly Perpendicular in style but heavily restored by William Butterfield (1814-1900), who, however, has left little here that is distinctive of his style.

 

The church is situated on river gravels above the Woburn Sands Formation, and it is this that has provided much of the stone.  Pevsner’s description of this material as 'ironstone' (The Buildings of England: Bedfordshire, Huntingdon & Peterborough, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1968, p. 55) is the only fitting one here, for the colour is precisely that of a sheet of rusted iron.  In the walls of the chancel, it has proved capable of being cut into blocks and brought to courses, but the aisled nave and S. porch are built of uncoursed ironstone rubble and fieldstones, while when the W. tower was constructed in the eighteenth century, grey limestone ashlar was used. Pevsner gives the precise date for the latter as 1720 but it is not work of high quality – perhaps because being at the end of the church furthest from the road, it was thought to matter less.  The rest of the building is on a rather grander scale and appears to date chiefly from the late fourteenth/ early fifteenth century, except for the two-storeyed S. porch with ogee-arched outer doorway (shown right), which must be later.  (Dr. John Harvey considered the use of the ogee on a large scale in Perpendicular work to be indicative of a backwash of continental ideas into England following the conclusion of the hundred years war in 1453, and which was given further impetus by the return of Edward IV from exile in 1471 (The Perpendicular Style, London, Batsford, 1978, pp. 197-208).)  The lower storey has a tierceron vault. Windows around the building are all renewed and three-light, but some have supermullioned tracery, some, straightened reticulation units in the heads, and some, secondary subarcuation over the outer lights and supertransoms above the central light. (See The Perpendicular Style, p. 71, for a definition of these terms.)  The chancel N. wall has a part cross- and part transversely-gabled vestry built against it, dated 1954, and there is a large, modern suite of rooms to the north of the nave, connected by a corridor.

 

Inside the building, the four-bay nave arcades consist of arches bearing two sunk quadrant mouldings separated by casements (wide, shallow, hollow chamfers), springing from piers composed of four similarly separated, semicircular shafts, which are narrower to the north and south than they are towards the openings.  The tower arch, however, is a thirteenth century survival bearing three flat chamfers above semicircular responds, and the blocked arch in the W. end of the S. aisle S. wall may be contemporary with this, although the piscina at the E. end of the same wall, appears to be Decorated. Presumably, the repointing of the masonry in the nave walls above the arcades is due to Butterfield, who must also have been responsible for the nave roof.  The nicely panelled chancel roof with painted purlins and principal rafters, and the equally attractive painted screen and wooden altar in the N. aisle, may be eighteenth century work.