English Church Architecture.
ICKLETON, St. Mary Magdalene (TL 496 438),
(Bedrock: Upper Cretaceous, Upper Chalk.)
The church with the best Norman interior in Cambridgeshire.
This is still really a cruciform building in spite of the fact that, to external appearances, the N. transept has since been subsumed within the aisle. Outside, the church is not particularly remarkable for most features are restored or renewed, the chancel is Victorian, the S. transept had to be rebuilt after a notorious fire started by an arsonist in 1979, and the windows elsewhere provide a poor basis for reliable dating. Indeed, that is probably still true even if some bits of the tracery, at least within, are considered original, for the large, rather ungainly reticulation units opening up like flowers from the stems of the window mullions, might better fit a post-Decorated interpretation of Decorated style than the Decorated style itself, and the church guide (anon., Ickleton, Cambridgeshire, undated, Ickleton Parochial Church Council, – which is one of the better examples of the genre – goes some way to acknowledge this by ascribing the windows to the early to mid fourteenth century. That may not go far enough, however, and the late fourteenth century may well be a better guess. Modest supporting evidence might be provided by the large rere-arch to the westernmost S. window, bearing a wave moulding, and, outside, by the blocked N. doorway into the aisle, with two very worn sunk quadrants around it. Immediately to the west of this doorway, an out-and-out Perpendicular window retains its original supermullioned tracery.
These speculations notwithstanding, however, three specific parts of the church seen from the outside, are worthy of attention. (i) The nave W. doorway is Norman and the harbinger of the much greater glories of the church interior: the round arch is formed of two orders bearing rolls springing from shafts with cushion capitals (outer order) and rounded jambs (inner order). (See the photograph below left.) (ii) The crossing tower from the level of the nave, chancel and aisle roofs upwards, is Decorated, as is evident from its Y-traceried bell-openings with ogee cusping and little daggers above. It is surmounted by a leaded broach spire which was partially reconstructed, in keeping with the original, in 1991-2, and the church guide discusses its structural carpentry at some length (ibid., pp. 5-6). The porch 'was built at the same time as the aisle [i.e. in the early to mid fourteenth century] but its vaulted roof was added later in the fourteenth century' (ibid., p. 4), but there is little real evidence for this and no good reason why the tierceron vault (illustrated below right) - springing from corbels and decorated by figure and floral bosses at the intersections of the ribs - should not be considered part and parcel of the original design. That might be late fourteenth century as suggeted above, or indeed - perhaps with equal justification - fifteenth. The two-light, square-headed windows, though largely renewed, are Perpendicular in form, and the double-flat-chamfered outer doorway could be almost any age.
All this pales into insignificance, however, when the church is examined inside, for here is without doubt the best Norman interior in Cambridgeshire and the equal of any in East Anglia. Moreover, the date is early within the period, around the turn of the eleventh century, and the circular piers and semicircular responds, of varying thicknesses, supporting the unmoulded round arches of the four-bay nave arcades, are clearly older still – perhaps not re-used Roman columns as was once believed (chiefly on the strength of the discovery in 1847 of a substantial Roman villa nearby) but possibly late Saxon. (The photograph below left shows the nave from the west, and the photograph below right provides a close-up of one of the S. arcade piers.) The responds are formed of Barnack stone, a substantial distance from home but presumably brought here by boat, down the Welland to The Wash and then back up the Great Ouse to the inchoate River Cam, which passes St. Mary’s barely a hundred yards to the southeast. The piers 'are built of alternate courses of Roman tiles and Barnack stone' (ibid., pp. 3-4), although this is not evident beneath their nineteenth century rendering. 'The capitals are of cushion type but flatter than usual, and that also contributes to the sixth century Doric impression the columns give' (Nikolaus Pevsner, The Buildings of England: Cambridgeshire, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1970, p. 411).
Leaving these arches for a moment, to consider those of the crossing tower, only the east and west arches still display Norman work and these only up to the level of the springing. These responds are very substantial, however, being each formed of three orders, unmoulded in the outer two, but with shafts with cushion capitals attached to the jambs of the inner order - two in the case of the W. arch (viewed below left, from the nave) and one in the case of the E. arch. Above the springing, both arches are now of much reduced thickness, pointed, and triple-flat chamfered, and the N. and S. crossing arches are entirely in this style, with semi-octagonal responds supporting the arches themselves. Stylistically, this work belongs to the thirteenth century, but almost all of it appears re-tooled or rebuilt. Inside the chancel, one early feature that has survived is the large flat-chamfered arch springing from shafts, surrounding the westernmost N. window, showing this to have been the site of an erstwhile chantry chapel. (The W. respond of this arch is shown below right.)
Turning back to the nave, it should be noticed how narrow it is: it is significantly narrower than the S. aisle, and barely double the N. aisle, which is a very cramped little thing indeed. Since the western part of the N. aisle wall is itself Norman, it is possible to envisage the original dimensions of the church, when the S. aisle was of equal width on the other side. This was thus a much less spacious building in the twelfth century than it is today, and a much gloomier one too, for above the apices of the nave arcades are the little round-headed windows of the former clerestory that once looked out above the aisles and supplied their meagre contribution to the church’s internal lighting. Above these again, arranged determinedly out of synchronization, are the five pairs of circular windows (set, internally, in pointed splays) of its Gothic successor. These are of no great interest, but on the N. side, around the Norman clerestory windows below, one positive effect of the fire can be seen in the form of the large areas of wall painting, contemporary with the arcades, that were only revealed when the church was thoroughly cleaned afterwards. These are illustrated in the church guide and interpreted as, above, scenes from the Passion (specifically, the Last Supper, the Betrayal, the Flagellation, and Christ carrying the Cross), and, below, from left to right, the martyrdoms of SS. Peter, Andrew and Laurence. They are inevitably in poor condition but their age ensures they are important survivals. The 'Doom' painting high up above the W. crossing arch is two or three centuries younger. (The photograph below left shows part of the scene of the Last Supper, left of the Norman clerestory window, and part of the scene of the Betrayal on the right. The photograph below right shows the best preserved part of the 'Doom' painting over the chancel arch.)
Fortunately (if that is the correct term) the disgraceful conflagration of 1979, started in the S. transept, spread chiefly to the east before being brought under control, so doing the worst of its damage to the Victorian chancel rather than the ancient nave. Curiously, however, the tall Perpendicular rood screen beneath the E. crossing arch, survived (but perhaps it was differently positioned on that fateful night), which, though by no means one of the best in the county, is still a significant piece of mediaeval woodwork, with two cinquefoil-cusped painted arches on the dado either side of the central opening, and supermullioned tracery with strong mullions and three tiers of reticulation units above the lights. Other carpentry in the church includes a number of fifteenth century(?) benches with fleuron friezes round the bench ends and, in the case of four of them in the centre of the nave, with figure and animal poppyheads. (Again, see the photographs below.) The principal timbers of the nave roof are old and frame it in seven cants, with scissor bracing above the collars and three tie beams linking the wall plates. The church font consists of a plain octagonal bowl on a plain octagonal stem, but the font cover is mediaeval.