English Church Architecture -
GREAT PAXTON, Holy Trinity (TL 210 642) (April 2015)
(Bedrock: Upper Jurassic, Oxford Clay)
This is one of the truly great parish churches of England (shown above, from the southwest), found quietly situated and largely unvisited in a scenically dull corner of the former county of Huntingdonshire. Among the country's other half-dozen pre-eminent Saxon churches, not even All Saints, Brixworth (Northamptonshire) can be said to surpass it, other than on account of age. Holy Trinity is generally ascribed to c. 1000, whereas All Saints' dates back to seventh century Mercia, yet astonishing as the latter is, it wasn't cruciform in plan like this church, and the blocked arches to its former aisles, remarkable for their day, are divided by plain wall pieces, not fully formed compound piers as here.
That said, no hint of any of this is evident at Great Paxton from a circumnavigation of the building, taken at close quarters where the nave clerestory is out of view. It comprises a W. tower and chancel at either end of what presents itself as a three-bay aisled nave with a porch adjoining the westernmost bay to the south. The windows are Perpendicular with minimal tracery or no tracery at all, apart from the four-light E. window to the chancel with outer lights subarcuated above inverted daggers and supermullioned tracery over the central two, and the westernmost N. window, with intersecting tracery in the style of the late thirteenth century. The embattled and angle-buttressed tower rises in three stages, accessed from a polygonal stair turret in the re-entrant with the S. aisle. All this is mundane, but step back a couple of dozen paces and the clerestory becomes visible, formed of two and a half round-headed windows, turned in ironstone from the lower greensand a few miles away. The half arch towards the west was obviously blocked and truncated when the tower and stair turret were built, perhaps late in the fourteenth century to judge from the bell-openings with straightened reticulation units in their heads, but equally striking is the clerestory's failure to extend more than halfway east, along the nave, and the way in which, behind the parapet, the easternmost aisle bay is covered by its own, independent, leaded roof. Here lies the first suggestion that this might originally have been an early Norman or late Saxon pseudo-cruciform church (see Appendix 3), with transepts adjoining the easternmost bay of the nave, and two contemporary bays (three before the tower was built), whether aisled or not, continuing to the west.
Of course, this is precisely how things turn out on entering, where the nave proves to be both Saxon and aisled - a combination more than sufficient to establish a place for the church among England's pre-Conquest remains. (Pevsner said that the only other aisled Saxon naves in England are at Brixworth and Lydd in Kent.) However, still more extraordinary than these bare facts are the forms of the piers and responds comprising these arches, and it is necessary to describe them in detail. The nave arcades consist today of two and a half bays on either side, with the half bay to the north, blocked, and the half bay to the south, rejigged from the original masonry to retain a portion of the original arch as well as the W. respond. This and the E. responds to both arcades, are "built up of long and short stones rather like Late Anglo-Saxon quoins" (Pevsner) and have finely moulded capitals above. (See the internal view of the church, looking east, above, and the photograph of the N. arcade, below.) However, the piers are particularly unusual, formed of four round shafts in the ordinal directions, separated either by four narrower round shafts in the cardinal directions in the case of the eastern piers, or by pointed spurs in the case of the western piers. The capitals to the principal shafts are bulbous and rather shapeless, the abaci above are square and two-stepped, and the round arches they support are composed of two unmoulded orders. Yet these fascinating arches are dwarfed by the arches to the transepts and chancel immediately to the east, which are approximately two and a half times as high. (There is no arch across the nave, to the west of the transept arches, and thus the transepts open directly into the nave rather than into a true crossing.) The jambs to the transept arches are decorated with four semicircular shafts in the same plane, separated by narrower shafts, while the wide, round-headed N. transept arch above is formed of a single unmoulded order. The S. transept and chancel arches above the springing are probably thirteenth century replacements: they are pointed, triple-flat-chamfered with little broaches where the chamfers rise from the capitals, and, stylistically in keeping with the window with intersecting tracery in the chancel N. wall. The chancel arch responds are decorated on each side (i.e. towards the chancel and the nave) with four orders of semicircular shafts similar to those to the transept arches, but in this case, recessed slightly away from the arch opening in the manner familiar in Norman and Early English work. However, they have also been seriously hacked about, apparently to accommodate a former rood screen and the stair to the rood loft, excavated in the masonry north of the chancel arch. The entrance to the stair, in the southeast corner of the N. aisle, opens eight feet (2.4 m.) from the ground and was obviously once reached by means of a wooden ladder.
Finally after all this, carpentry and furnishings in the church are not of much consequence. The nave roof is reputedly dated 1637 on one of its beams (British Listed Buildings website) but looks largely restored. The two-bay stepped sedilia with a piscina beyond, recessed in the chancel S. wall, would fit c. 1300. The large wooden reredos (below) features tabernacle work rising between panels portaying a nativity scene in low relief in the centre and angels on either side, but whether it is Victorian or later, it would be good to know the name of the artist of whom there appears to be no record.