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English Church Architecture.

 

SNAILWELL, St. Peter  (TM 642 676),

CAMBRIDGESHIRE. 

(Bedrock:  Upper Cretaceous, Lower Chalk.)

 

One of 181 churches in England with round towers, of which all but five are in Cambridgeshire (with 2), Essex (with 6), Norfolk (with 126) or Suffolk (with 42).

 

Round church towers were almost invariably assumed by Pevsner to have a Saxon or Norman origin.  That is not necessarily the case, and the form is a function of geology rather than age, for the lack of the ready availability of good building stone to serve as quoins made this a cheap design option by avoiding the expense in the pre-railway age of bringing, usually by horse and cart or at best along the rivers by boat, heavy, bulk materials from afar.  The definitive book on this subject is, and is long likely to remain, the late Stephen Hart's The Round Church Towers of England  (Ipswich, Lucas Books, 2003), to which the notes on these buildings are inevitably, to a greater or lesser degree, indebted.

 

This church, in a pleasant position on the edge of a small village, has one of the only two round towers in Cambridgeshire, in this case of Norman origin.  (See the photograph left.)  Constructed of flint and pebble rubble and entirely plain below the bell-stage, it has narrow round-headed windows in two tiers to the west and similar windows at the upper level to the north and south, while the somewhat larger bell-openings are formed on each side of a single opening divided into two sub-arches by a shaft with a scalloped capital.  A string course above marks the base of the parapet, which may or may not be contemporary, but inside, the tower arch to the nave is pointed and clearly later.

 

The rest of the building consists of a three-bay aisled nave with S. porch, and a chancel with cross-gabled N. vestry.  Almost everything is Victorian externally and in First Pointed style.  Chief exceptions are the N. aisle windows with cinquefoil-cusped Y-tracery to the west and east, and cinquefoil-cusped intersecting tracery to the north, all of which are commensurate with a date around 1300.  They are probably contemporary with the N. arcade, formed of arches bearing a flat chamfer and a hollow chamfer, springing from octagonal piers, but the S. arcade, which is similar except that the arches bear two flat chamfers and the capitals are slightly longer in the neck, may pre-date its northern counterpart by a decade or two, which suggests the outer walls of the Victorian S. aisle may have some resemblance to their original form.  The nave clerestory consisting of three pairs of cinquefoil-cusped Y-traceried windows beneath four-centred arches, is a Perpendicular addition, as revealed by the arch shape, and allows much needed light into the church interior, but the chancel E. window of 1878 with odd curvilinear tracery is less welcome, even though its vaguely Decorated style may copy earlier work.  The partly original nave roof (illustrated below) was presumably constructed when the clerestory was added:  true hammerbeams alternate with false hammerbeams that are unsupported below but which have carved demifigures of bishops and priests on their undersides instead.  The N. vestry, chancel arch and S. porch, are all of Victorian again as, one might suppose, is the plan of the very wide S. aisle.  Yet the church guide says both the aisle and the porch were built 'on the original foundations"]', which seems possible only if it was once independently-gabled and there were windows in the nave S. wall  immediately above, as a lean-to aisle of these dimensions set against the nave before the present clerestory was constructed, would have cast the interior into almost total darkness.

[Other churches with round towers featured on this web-site are Bartlow in Cambridgeshire, Quidenham, Roydon, Rushall, Shimpling and Thorpe Abbotts in Norfolk, and Aldham, Brome, Hengrave, Higham, Little Bradley, Little Saxham, Rickinghall Inferior, Risby, Stuston, Theberton, Wissett and Wortham in Suffolk.]