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English Church Architecture.


LOWER GRAVENHURST, St. Mary  (TL 111 353),


(Bedrock:  Lower Cretaceous, Gault.)


A church situated close to the outcrop of the Lower Greensand,

Woburn Sands Formation, built of very rusty 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 Buzzrd 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 (Bedfordshire); 


St. Mary's, Lower Gravenhurst, is a pleasant little building, now in the care of the Redundant Churches Fund, and there is enough to see here to justify going to fetch the key.  The building consists of a fairly bulky W. tower with substantial octagonal stair turret at the southeast angle, and a nave and a chancel built as a single unit.  It is constructed of roughly coursed ironstone and situated about a mile and a half from the lower greensand outcrop, on boulder clay above gault.


Externally the building may be quickly described.  The tower is Perpendicular and has a simple three-light W. window and two-light bell-openings.  The north and south doorways to the nave are Perpendicular (of which the former is blocked) and so is the chancel E. window, but the three windows with cusped Y-tracery (two to the north and one to the south) and the two-light S. window with a form of curvilinear tracery, are clearly Decorated, even though the cinquefoil- (as opposed to trefoil-) cusping, suggests the date is late within the period.


In fact, though, deductions of this kind are unnecessary for once, for, most unusually, inside the building in the chancel S. wall is an original inscription in Old French (shown at the bottom of the page), declaring that St. Mary's was built at the expense of Robert de Bilhemore, who is known to have died c. 1361.  His church, which replaced an earlier one on the same site, may have been begun shortly after 1320 but was still unfinished at his death.  The tower is an addition of  c. 1400 and not part of the original plan.


The chancel is separated from the nave internally by a screen composed of seven trefoil-cusped sections that the Redundant Churches Fund believes to date from the fifteenth century.  It considers the benches to be contemporary, apart from the two northeastern ones which were added in 1901 to the designs of the recently deceased Sir Arthur Blomfield (1829-99).  The octagonal pulpit is Jacobean and retains its nicely carved tester (illustrated right).  The hourglass stand that was presumably once part of it (hourglasses were used to time sermons) has long since been attached to the rood screen. The roof is of king-post construction and largely original.


Finally, two other items to notice are:  (i) in the chancel S. wall, a two-bay sedilia and a small ogee-headed piscina; and (ii), opposite in the N. wall, a monument to Benjamin Pigott (d. 1606) and his three wives.