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English Church Architecture -



GREAT ABINGTON, St. Mary (TL 531 489)     (August 2003)

(Bedrock:  Upper Cretaceous, Upper Chalk)


This church stands barely a quarter of a mile across fields from St. Mary's, Little Abington, and like that building displays within a small structure something from almost every period of English church architecture.  St. Mary's, Great Abington, consists of a W. tower rising in two stages, a nave with S. aisle and porch, and a chancel.  As at Little Abington, Saxon evidence is limited to quoins laid in what is probably long-and-short work, seen here at the W. angles of the tower and the northwest angle of the nave.  If this is indeed what it is, then some of the other masonry is likely to be contemporary, but much is probably Norman even though the evidence for this period is also ambiguous.  A lot depends on what one makes of the chancel windows, which to north and south consist of very small lancets set internally in round-headed arches, together with a much bigger lancet on each side towards the west set in larger pointed arches, and a two-light S. window consisting of two lancets with a quatrefoil above (shown left in the view of the chancel from the south).  The E. window is a three-light Perpendicular insertion but internally it has the remains of a tall, blank and very Norman-looking arch on each side.  There is also a round-headed window in the E. end of the nave N. wall, set internally in a pointed arch (shown below in the view of the chancel/nave junction from the north).  A note about the building's history pinned up inside the church attempts to resolve some of this confusion by declaring the chancel to be Norman-Transitional work of c. 1200, but surely that is too simplistic. Instead, what we see today seems more likely to be the result of haphazard thirteenth century alterations made to previously part-Saxon, part-Norman work, undertaken with no consistent plan. Elsewhere in the church, thirteenth century features include the group of stepped lancets in the tower W. wall, the bell-openings composed of lancet pairs set in larger arches with chamfered surrounds, a single lancet in the nave N. wall and, internally, the double-flat-chamfered tower arch springing from semi-octagonal responds.  There is no chancel arch.


The Decorated style is represented at Great Abington by the four-bay S. arcade, consisting of arches bearing a flat chamfer on the inner order and small rolls with fillets on the outer, springing from quatrefoil piers.  Curiously there appear to be no contemporary windows, the rest being a motley assortment of Perpendicular forms,  much restored and renewed.  The N. wall alone would make a good case study:  in particular, there is a three-light window here (again, see the photograph above right) with strong mullions, supermullions splitting to form "Y"s, secondary subarcuation of the outer lights, and a supertransom above the central light, unsupported by archlets, in the unusual manner of the aisle windows at Balsham, where the work was done at the expense of John Sleford, rector from 1378-1401.  In the same wall further to the west is a two-light window with supermullions above cusped Y-tracery that looks transitional in form between Decorated and Perpendicular.  The S. aisle windows are rather more straightforward, being supermullioned and variously two and three-light, though with the former about the same width as the latter.  The S. porch is also Perpendicular, and probably late fourteenth century in date.  The church was restored in 1897 and again three years later.


The building has a few internal features to notice, including the worn double piscina recessed in the chancel S. wall, with the central shaft missing, and the aumbry opposite, with Early English mouldings and two orders of shafts.  However, rather more striking is the large monument and tomb chest against the N. wall, commemorating Sir William Halton (d. 1639), featuring a recumbent effigy with a hand on his sword and a lion at his feet.  The most important piece of carpentry is the pulpit, attributed to1634.