(« back to home page)

English Church Architecture.


COTTENHAM, All Saints  (TL 455 686),


(Bedrock:  Lower Cretaceous, Lower Greensand Group.)


A church situated on the Lower Greensand outcrop, built partially 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); 

The W. tower is a famous landmark north of Cambridge, distinguished by its pineapple-shaped pinnacles, and it is here where most of the church’s architectural interest lies for apart from the chancel arch, the rest of this fairly large building is composed of rather ordinary fourteenth and fifteenth century work, externally much renewed.


To begin with the tower then, this was reconstructed after the collapse of its predecessor in a storm in 1617, as witnessed by Arabic numerals inscribed in two places in the southwest buttress (illustrated below right), betwixt and between what are presumably the names and initials of the masons or benefactors, which include 'EIE', 'ETM', 'ERE', 'HJA'  and 'JOHNNORMANMARGRE' (for John, Norman and Margaret?)  The tower is angle-buttressed and constructed in pink and yellow bricks above the first set-offs,  showing where the Jacobean work was raised over the remnant of the mediaeval structure.  The W. window and three-light bell-openings have intersecting tracery and transoms below the springing.  The tower arch is formed of three flat-chamfered orders which continue uninterrupted down the jambs.


The nave and chancel are built partly of ironstone rubble from the underlying Lower Greensand outcrop.   Inside, the chancel arch is the oldest feature of the building, being double-flat-chamfered above semicircular responds, which is a commonplace thirteenth century form.  The three-light chancel windows to north and south, inasmuch as they can be trusted, are probably late fifteenth century work, with their four-centred arches and Perpendicular tracery.  (The E. window is Victorian.) Internally, beneath the easternmost window to the south, a short and viciously-cusped triple sedilia would surely cause serious head injury to any cleric rising quickly from his seat, while a fourth arch further east, encloses a piscina with credence shelf above.  A decorative frieze above the sedilia and piscina is carved with quatrefoils in circles.  The chancel roof, thought to date from c. 1783, is framed with tie beams supporting king posts and “V”-struts.


The five-bay nave arcades (and not, pace Pevsner, four-bay) are formed of double-hollow-chamfered arches springing from octagonal piers - a design that might suggest an early fourteenth century date except that the profile of the capitals with little broaches above, does not seem quite right.  These capitals are not the same everywhere, however, for in the N. arcade, that to the second pier from the west is deeper than its neighbours, and the N. arcade capitals are all slightly different from their counterparts opposite, which may simply be a reflection of the fact that the sculptors working on the building (probably in the late fourteenth century) had a very insouciant attitude towards measuring and drawing.  The three-light aisle windows have tracery like the chancel windows except that the supertransoms above the central lights are now castellated and the windows themselves are shorter and have arches with straight upper segments which thus form triangular points.  (See the N. aisle window, left.)  The clerestory is formed of two-light windows aligned directly above.


As for furnishings, the church had the misfortune to suffer several Victorian restorations which have successfully left it as clean as a whistle, completely devoid of interest.