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English Church Architecture.

 

BLUNHAM, St. James & St. Edmund  (TL 153 512),

CENTRAL BEDFORDSHIRE. 

(Bedrock:  Upper Jurassic, Oxford Clay.)

 

An important church erected a couple of miles from the Lower Cretaceous, 

Lower Greensand outcrop, built 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 (CENTRAL BEDFORDSHIRE).

 

St. James & St. Edmund's, Blunham, is one of the best churches in the immediate area, pleasantly situated within the village beside a wide street, on river gravels above Oxford clay.  The church is constructed, however, of some of the deepest, rustiest ironstone from the nearby lower greensand outcrop to be seen anywhere, especially in the imposing W. tower.  This is also the most architecturally important part of the building.  Clearly now almost entirely Tudor or early Stuart (Pevsner claimed it is inscribed somewhere with the date 1583 (The Buildings of England: Bedfordshire, Huntingdon & Peterborough, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1968, p. 57)), it rises in three stages to stepped battlements and crocketed pinnacles, and dominates the churchyard and adjacent streets.  Probably all that remains from the earlier build is the Norman tower arch to the nave, seen inside the building (shown below left), with jambs of characteristic Romanesque thickness and an order of attached semicircular shafts with cushion capitals, and around the arch itself, voussoirs alternately of ironstone and limestone.  Pevsner, in his hurry round the county, considered the round-arched W. doorway to be Norman too (shown below right), but quite evidently it is not:  the slightly recessed jambs are too crisp and delicate, and the voussoirs, too precisely cut, even if one ignores the way they are arranged, in two alternating orders, in imitation of chequerwork.  Rather, the effect is reminiscent of some of the designs for rusticated classical arches drawn up by Inigo Jones, c. 1610-20, few of which were ever executed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The body of the church consists of a three-bay aisled nave, a three-bay chancel with chapels alongside the westernmost bay, a conventional N. porch, and a much odder, rather rustic S. porch to the south ((shown below), with an east/west through-passage beneath, constructed so as to allow processions to circumnavigate the church while staying on consecrated ground, in a situation where the church was built to within a few yards of  the churchyard's southern boundary.  Both the nave and chancel have clerestories, which makes the chancel appear particularly tall.  Windows throughout are mostly Perpendicular and renewed, but the chancel windows to the south, beyond the chapel, are renewed Decorated work, while the restored chancel E. window cannot be much later than c. 1310 in origin:  four cusped lancet lights with secondary subarcuation below, are subarcuated in pairs above daggers and beneath a large quatrefoil in the apex.  The chancel walls are heavily patched and the sandstone of which they are built appears particularly soft, as a result of which the N. wall is closely covered in graffiti, much of it recent, and where this has had as little as five or six years exposure to the elements, erosion is already evident.

 

Inside the building, the nave arcades are Perpendicular, with tall, slender piers of compound section, composed of four semicircular shafts separated by hollows, and arches of two orders bearing wave mouldings.  (Notice that while the bulk of the stone here is limestone, some ironstone has been used in the E. and W. responds, presumably indicating that it was both more workable and judged to be stronger than this stone tends to be on average.)  The chancel arch is based loosely on a local fashion, seen also in tower arches at Everton, Potton and Sutton in this county, and at Great and Little Gransden just across the Cambridgeshire border, where it appears to be roughly associated with the third quarter of the fourteenth century.  In general, these have a complex profile arranged in two orders above two orders of shallow semi-octagonal shafts with superimposed mouldings, although here at Blunham, there is only a single order.

 

The arch from the S. aisle to the S. chapel appears to be early fourteenth century in date and carries two hollow chamfers that die into the jambs.  The equivalent arch from the N. aisle to the N. chapel is surely a little later:  the arch itself carries three sunk quadrant mouldings and rests on responds formed of two orders of shafts separated by hollows.  The arch from the chancel to the N. chapel is similar, though it only bears two sunk quadrants, but the arch from the chancel to the S. chapel is filled with an elaborate stone screen, with Perpendicular supemullioned tracery above five main lights and two narrower ones over the archway.  Further east in the same wall, there is a triple-stepped sedilia, in which a combination of Early English rolls round the arches and trefoil cusping behind, reinforce the dating evidence suggested by the E. window.  Finally, recessed in the N. wall of the sanctuary there is an ogee-arched Easter sepulchre, in Decorated style, while opposite in the S. wall, a tomb slab with a Latin inscription and a recumbent effigy on top, commemorates Susanna Longueville, who died in 1621

 

A brief summing up of this discussion is probably useful.  The tower is of twelfth century origin but was largely rebuilt at the end of the sixteenth.  Construction of the chancel began, perhaps, c. 1300, a date which also fits the arch from the S. aisle to the S. chapel, but the chancel arch itself, and the arches to the N. chapel, are unlikely much to predate c. 1350.  The present nave, aisles and nave arcades, probably belong to the late fourteenth or early fifteenth century.

 

Some woodwork must be considered briefly. The nave roof is new but the chancel roof of very low-pitched, tie-beam construction, probably dates from the fifteenth century.  The small octagonal pulpit on a partly modern base, was considered by Pevsner to be Elizabethan.  Thirdly, the old, panelled screen set in the tower arch, though not of especially high quality, is probably contemporary with the rebuilding of the tower:  it is formed of four bays, of which the inner two are hinged.