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English Church Architecture -



SWAFFHAM BULBECK, St. Mary  (TL 555 622)     (January 2018)

(Bedrock:  Upper Cretaceous, Lower Chalk)

The oldest surviving part of the church is the rather humble W. tower, which rises to renewed bell-openings formed of lancet pairs set in blank arches and a shallow parapet above.   Its best feature is the group of three large stepped lancets within an encompassing arch, lighting it from the west (as illustrated below left), but the tower is informative of the history of the building for it was almost certainly the last part of the original church to be raised, when it must have been attached to a twelfth or very early thirteenth century nave and chancel, most probably of modest size. Internally, the tower arch bears a wide flat-chamfered order above semicircular shafts with large capitals.  The nave was replaced by the present nave and aisles c.1300-10, presumably to increase the amount of accommodation. The S. aisle windows (with reticulated tracery) have all been renewed but the N. aisle N. windows with cusped Y-tracery appear essentially mediaeval, as may be the restored three-light E. window with uncusped intersecting tracery (illustrated in the photograph of the church above, taken from the northeast).  Inside the building, both the N. and S. aisle window splays are surrounded by hollows with little broaches at the bottom but the N. windows have additional, narrower hollows on either side of that.  The four-bay nave arcades are composed of arches bearing one flat and one hollow chamfer, springing from octagonal piers with prominent but fairly shallow capitals above astragals.  (The photograph, below right, shows the N. arcade from the southwest.)  Hollow chamfers seem to have been an especially favoured moulding in early fourteenth century work in Cambridgeshire (see also, for example, Rampton, and the S. arcade at Great Chishill), although it should not be inferred they are necessarily confined to it.   A trefoil-cusped piscina recessed in the S. wall of the S. aisle towards the east, shows there was once a chapel here.  The arch between the nave and chancel is formed of two flat-chamfered orders separated by a deep hollow, supported on semi-octagonal responds.
















The chancel is two bays long and appears to have been rebuilt c. 1330-50.   The windows, though heavily restored, nevertheless provide an excellent, archetypical example of curvilinear tracery.  (See the westernmost S. window, below left, and the E. window, below right, illustrated approximately in proportion to one another.)  The  N. and S. windows display inverted daggers at the top of the subarcuated side lights, and a central light with an ogee-point leading up to a pair of mouchettes and a quatrefoil in an arrangement resembling a child's drawing of a flower.  This design is further elaborated in the five-light E. window:  (i) by the subarcuation of the outer lights in pairs, above daggers and pairs of mouchettes which - though touching - are not connected by a "stalk"; and (ii) by an enlarged traceried "flower" in the centre, now with smaller, additional daggers sprouting from the nodes below.















Inside the chancel, the double-cusped, crocketed, ogee-arched tomb recess in the S. wall, and the triple sedilia with piscina beyond, form an attractive combination.   The arches are separated by little buttresses terminating in short crocketed pinnacles beneath a string course decorated with fleurons.  (See the photograph below.)


The nave clerestory is a fifteenth century addition, composed of four pairs of windows with cinquefoil-cusped Y-tracery and very depressed, four-centred arches.  The contemporary couple roof with arched braces and traceried spandrels, is more pleasing inside than out, where it is too low pitched to appear entirely satisfactory and the much steeper, erstwhile gable line is still visible above it, fossilized in the tower E. wall.  Other notable carpentry in the church includes the thirty-four benches described in the church guide (pub. 2009) by Lawrence Butler, who associates them with those at Denston, Suffolk, where there are only eight.  Suffolk, however, is rich in carpentry of this quality and kind:  it is a much rarer commodity in Cambridgeshire.


Finally, a note should be added on the excellent head label stops that decorate the exterior face of the windows, around both the chancel and the nave aisles.  They are worthy of individual examination even though their restoration status is by no means always clear.  (The four examples shown below, come from the easternmost N. window of the N. aisle, respectively left and right, and the easternmost S. window of the chancel, ditto.)