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English Church Architecture -

Cambridgeshire.

 

FORDHAM, St. Peter (TL 634 707)     (July 2009)

(Bedrock:  Upper Cretaceous, Lower Chalk)

 

This is a large but heavily restored and partially reconstructed building, where the main architectural interest now lies in the Lady Chapel to the northwest.  The remainder of the church consists of a tall W. tower, an aisled nave with a S. porch, and a chancel with side chapels.  The earliest work may be found in the northwest corner of the N. aisle, but the chapel is pre-eminent and must be described first.

 

 

This is an exceptional piece of work in Decorated style (shown above, from the north), probably only matched at parochial level in Cambridgeshire by the chancels at St. Peter & St. Paul’s, Bassingbourn, St. Andrew & St. Mary’s, Grantchester and St. Mary & St. Michael’s, Trumpington.  It is a two-storeyed structure with a vaulted undercroft, and was once almost independent of the rest of the church, especially in its upper storey, then reached only by a little external stair to the northwest.  However, in point of fact, the original function of this room does not seem to be very clear, and Pevsner’s description of it as a “Lady Chapel”, while convenient, is merely a reflection of his judgement that its erection was inspired by the Lady Chapel at Ely Cathedral, under construction from c. 1321 - c. 1353.  Yet apart from the congruence of date and thus, in broad terms, also of style, the similarities between these structures are not particularly striking, for the Lady Chapel at Ely is single-storeyed and of different plan and position, to the north of the chancel.  The Lady Chapel here at Fordham, northwest of the N. aisle, seems curiously placed to fill such a rôle, suggesting, at the least, it was intended to double as a great N. porch, or even that its principal intended purpose was something else entirely, the imperative for which has been lost in the mists of time. What is not in doubt is the ambition of the builders, for the work was clearly designed to be prestigious.  Of three bays by one externally, it is lit in the upper storey by a four-light E. window, a three-light W. window, and two, three-light N. windows, all with striking curvilinear tracery, leaving the westernmost bay to the north, blank for the abutting stair.  A doorway in the central bay of the lower storey, admits the visitor into an undercroft (viewed left, diagonally from southwest to northeast), covered by a quadripartite vault formed of two bays by three.  The ribs bear a single flat chamfer and spring from semi-octagonal responds attached to the walls and two compound piers down the centre, with semi-octagonal shafts with capitals to north and south.   A thirteenth century doorway leads from the chapel to the aisle, carrying a complex series of mouldings above responds with an order of colonnettes, and showing the aisle to be older.

 

The rest of the church appears almost a collection of individual mediaeval features set in walls of mixed or uncertain provenance, for it is often impossible to unravel the work of the restorers from that of the original builders.   The earliest masonry - visible inside - is Norman, however, so there was a church on this site from the twelfth century onwards, which appears to have coincided in part of its plan with the northwest corner of the present N. aisle.  It then seems likely that this church was enlarged some time in the thirteenth century, for the next group of features are of this date.  The nave arcades are also thirteenth century in form (though Pevsner described them as Decorated) but do not look trustworthy: they have, at the least, been heavily scraped, but the capitals also appear suspicious, so it is likely they have been reconstructed as a Victorian "improvement" on the original work.

 

Much of the rest of the building is Perpendicular or its nineteenth century equivalent, including the tall W. tower, the S. porch, and the majority of the windows throughout.  An anticlockwise external circuit of the church might begin from the west, where the embattled, angle-buttressed tower rises in two stages with a stair turret at the northwest angle, rising higher than the tower itself.  The W. doorway carries a complex series of mouldings around it, without intervening capitals, and the W. window has a castellated transom, strong mullions, and a non-standard tracery probably set out by the restorers.  However, the bell-openings and two other two-light windows (one each to the west  and south) look old, at least in part, and have straightened reticulation units in the heads, so perhaps the original date of the tower is the late fourteenth century.  (See Appendix 2 for some close-dated examples of the use of straightened reticulation units in window tracery designs in eastern counties of England.)  The buttress to the southeast cuts across the S. aisle W. window, suggesting the tower was a later addition.  The S. porch has a restored outer doorway of two orders, of which the inner is flat-chamfered and supported on circular shafts with castellated capitals decorated with little lions and rosettes.  East of this, the aisle is lit by four, two-light windows, three of which have unusual tracery (illustrated right) formed of four quatrefoils set in a diagonal lattice, above pairs of cinquefoil-cusped lights:  they are hardly Perpendicular in spirit but could be so in date and it is possible a late fourteenth century ascription might fit this work also. The chancel chapels extend flush from the nave aisles and are two bays in length, allowing the chancel sanctuary to project beyond them for a further bay to the east.   The S. chapel is lit by two nineteenth century windows - a south one with supermullioned tracery and an east one with alternate tracery more typical of the West Country.  One is initially inclined to regard this as spurious, therefore, but the N. chapel has a similar E. window which is old in part, and the N. aisle has three more (seen in the oblique view of the church on the left, taken from the northeast.) which continue the design to the re-entrant with the Lady Chapel, so perhaps a mason from the west of England was in charge here for a time.  (Cf. this tracery, in particular, with the predominant Perpendicular tracery in Somerset, seen in simple form at St. Mary's, Chard or St. Peter & St. Paul's, Combe Florey.)  The chancel S. chapel encompasses another of the building’s isolated thirteenth century features in its eastern bay, in the form of a S. doorway with two orders of colonnettes. The sanctuary windows are Victorian.  The nave clerestory is composed of two-light windows with supermullioned tracery beneath segmental-pointed arches.

 

The church interior appears to contain almost nothing that escaped the hand of the restorers completely and it becomes a matter here of deciding the degree to which this has taken place.  The surviving but probably re-set Norman work, takes the form of a tall, narrow blocked window in the W. wall of the N. aisle, and a further one and a half windows in the N. wall (shown right), of which the whole window now opens to the Lady Chapel.  The five-bay nave arcades (seen in the photograph at the foot of the page, viewed from the west) are composed of double-flat-chamfered arches springing from pristinely-cut octagonal piers with capitals in a contrasting stone.  The tower arch carries wave mouldings in three orders, above and around semicircular responds. The chancel arch is similar to the nave arcades to the level of the capitals, but these do not themselves support the arch above but rather a pair of carved corbel heads from which tall corbel shafts reach approximately two thirds as high again before the springing level is reached.  This seems to represent a nineteenth century heightening of the chancel, a phase of work that included the construction of the small Victorian wheel window above.  However, the semi-octagonal responds to the lower section of the arch may also have been restored or "tidied-up" in some way, and the lines of dog-tooth moulding - a characteristic Early English ornament - between them and the E. responds of the nave  arcades, may be the only part of the masonry that has not been re-cut or re-tooled. (See the N. respond, left.)  The arches from the aisles and chancel to the chancel chapels are similar to the nave arcades. The chancel interior now looks wholly Victorian in appearance, including the attractive, colourful paintwork covering the walls and the three-bay stepped sedilia with piscina and credence beyond, recessed in the S. wall.  These, too, are decorated with dog-tooth, but the work here is clearly new.  At the west end of the nave to the north, other major nineteenth century modifications to the building presumably included the cutting through to the Lady Chapel, which today is reached from a modern flight of wooden stairs from the nave.  The upper storey of the chapel, now used as a Sunday school, looks over the nave through a glazed arched gallery, which has doubtless added to its amenity but respected the architecture less.

 

Church furnishings are mostly Victorian and need no description, though they are not unattractive.  The font is octagonal and bevelled, with blank cinquefoil-cusped arches carved in shallow relief on the faces of the bowl and even shallower blank arches on the stem.  Finally, of the various roofs to the church, curiously it is the chancel roof that appears largely mediaeval and so, presumably, it has been re-used.  It is of queen post construction with carved angels on the wall plates and bosses where the purlins cross the intermediate principal rafters.