( back to home page)

English Church Architecture -



BOURN, St. Helen & Mary (TL 324 564)     (July 2003)

(Bedrock:  Lower Cretaceous, Gault)


The valley of the Bourn Brook was an area of major settlement at least as far back as Roman times, and this is reflected today in the cluster of villages that shelter in it, in the lee of the low, clay plateau to the north, west and south.  Bourn itself is one of the largest of these villages, and it has undoubtedly the most important parish church, with a large Norman-Transitional aisled nave and an especially fine, albeit rather broad and short, Early English W. tower.  The building is pseudo-cruciform in plan (i.e. with transepts but no crossing tower) with the addition of nave aisles.  It is constructed of sandstone pebbles and other fieldstones, with limestone dressings.


The best part of the building is the tower (shown left), which rises in three stages to battlements and a lead-covered spire that can compete for crookedness with those at Chesterfield in Derbyshire and Cleobury Mortimer in Shropshire.  The stair turret projecting above the battlements at the southwest angle, is probably a Perpendicular addition, but the bell-openings are formed of pairs of transomed lancets set in the central arches of three-bay blank arcades with bays divided by semi-octagonal shafts with capitals.  The W. window (below right) has two lights and plate tracery, which is helpful in dating the work since plate tracery is rarely encountered after c. 1245.  The impressive W. doorway has six orders of colonnettes and an arch of complex profile formed of roll mouldings with fillets.  Internally, in addition to the great arch to the nave, composed of three flat-chamfered orders springing from responds each formed of five shafts, there are similar, slightly smaller arches to the north and south, between the tower and the clasping aisles, and in the aisles themselves, the lancets in the W. walls are surrounded by yet smaller but similar blank arches of two orders.


The five-bay nave arcades are composed of tall, double-flat-chamfered pointed arches, supported on piers that are alternately circular and octagonal.  (The N. arcade is shown left, and the S. arcade, below right).  The capitals are scalloped to the south and plain on the north, probably indicating a slight difference in date say, c. 1200 for the S. arcade and c. 1210 for the north.  A further arch leads from the S. aisle to the S. transept, but there is no equivalent arch to the north.  This arch to the S. transept has two flat-chamfered orders, the inner of which springs from semi-octagonal responds with capitals.  The date could be the late thirteenth or early fourteenth centuries.  The chancel arch, precariously balanced on corbels, is Victorian.


The windows to the building are an assortment of Perpendicular and Decorated forms, many of which have been heavily restored.  In the E. wall of the S. transept there is a two-light window with curvilinear tracery and, further to the right as viewed internally, another with a straightened reticulation unit in the head, which seems likely to be a late fourteenth century insertion. (See Appendix 2 for the dating of straightened reticulated tracery).  The N. transept has a single E. window with two lights and ordinary reticulated tracery, and the N. aisle windows are three-light, untraceried and Perpendicular.  The clerestory windows are more interesting than these: consisting of five pairs of quatrefoils in circular surrounds, they must surely be contemporary with the arcades below. The porch inner doorway is late Norman work of c. 1190:  the still-round arch of two orders is supported by narrow side shafts.


Significant carpentry in the church includes, first and foremost, the hammerbeam roof above the chancel, where the purlins and principal rafters are mediaeval although the angels are not.  The rood screen in five sections, with ogee arches, supermullioned tracery and a castellated supertransom, is probably early sixteenth century work, and there is a fine manorial pew immediately to the southwest, of seventeenth century date, with typical Jacobean, blank round arches decorating the sides. The nave benches are partly old and there are a lot of them, but it is difficult to distinguish between the original work and the new.