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English Church Architecture.

 

WILBURTON, St. Peter  (TL 479 750),

CAMBRIDGESHIRE. 

(Bedrock:  Lower Cretaceous, Lower Greensand Group.)

 

A church situated on the Lower Greensand outcrop, built largely of ironstone.

 

 

 

Before the advent of the canals and (especially) the railways, the transport of heavy goods overland frequently cost more than the goods did themselves.  Builders, therefore, used vernacular materials whenever possible, preferably sourced within a mile or two of the site.  Mediaeval stone buildings consequently reflect the underlying geology and churches in particular provide an approximate geological map of Britain, which is naturally most faithful in areas of less complexity.   This general principle is revealed to good effect along the Lower Greensand ridge which rises along the western edge of the Lower Cretaceous outcrop of south and east England, which is itself very narrow in the southeast/northwest direction, yet extensive and continuous from northeast to southwest, as seen below.   Moreover, the rubble building stones to which the Lower Greensand gives rise, which are generally known as carstone (chiefly in Norfolk) or  ironstone,  are a very distinctive, liquorice-brown colour, which is difficult to miss.  Drivers heading northwest from East Anglia to the Midlands along one of the quieter roads that passes through intermediate villages, will suddenly notice one or two village churches (probably no more) that show they are crossing this outcrop, while someone with a will to do so, might set out from Hunstanton on the north Norfolk coast and, except across the Fens, pick his or her way southwest, at least as far as Leighton Buzzrd on the southern border of Bedfordshire, and encounter one such church after another.  The churches named on the map below, all of which are represented on this web-site, serve to illustrate this.

 

 

 

The Lower Cretaceous Rocks of Eastern England, laid down 146-97 Ma.

 

 
1 = Heacham (Norfolk);  2 = Castle Rising (Norfolk);  3 = Wilburton (Cambridgeshire);    4 = Cottenham (Cambridgeshire);  
5 = Great Gransden (Cambridgeshire);  6 = Bourn (Cambridgeshire);   7 = Gamlingay (Cambridgeshire); 
8 = Everton (CENTRAL Bedfordshire);  9 = Blunham (CENTRAL Bedfordshire);   10 = Eyeworth (CENTRAL Bedfordshire);  
11 = Biggleswade (CENTRAL Bedfordshire);  12 = Edworth (CENTRAL Bedfordshire); 
13 = HOUGHTON CONQUEST (CENTRAL BEDFORDSHIRE);  14 = LOWER GRAVENHURST (CENTRAL BEDFORDSHIRE).
 

 

This is another church built chiefly of ironstone rubble, whose architectural story is essentially one of the fifteenth century reconstruction of a late thirteenth century building of similar size.  Externally, it is much restored, however, so that today it is dependent for its effect on its two-storeyed S. porch  - not, pace Pevsner, a N. porch (The Buildings of England: Cambridgeshire, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1970, pp. 485-486) - and its little W. tower. which rises in three stages supported by angle buttresses to the tall first stage and with a deeply projecting stair turret at the eastern end of the S. wall, which provides access both to the tower bell-stage and  upper room over the porch.  The church consists besides of a nave with a N. transept, and a chancel with a N. organ chamber and vestry, and is lit by Perpendicular-style windows that are renewed almost everywhere.  The transept, indeed, is entirely Victorian (of 1868) apart from the N. window, which is old work re-set, but the principal features of the porch are also mediaeval, including the outer doorway composed of two orders carrying wave mouldings, the inner doorway supported on semi-octagonal responds with castellated capitals, and the square-headed S. window to the upper storey, sitting above a string course and a cinquefoil-cusped blocked niche.

 

The church interior is distinguished by wide, two-centred blank arches around the windows, divided by groups of narrow shafts (as seen in the photograph, right).  There are three bays on the north side of the nave, between the W. wall and the transept, and four bays to the south (of which the westernmost surrounds the door).  Three further, similar bays each side of the chancel show the present nave and chancel were erected in a single phase. That this was nevertheless a reconstruction of an earlier church is demonstrated by the tower and chancel arches, which have late thirteenth century or earliest fourteenth century details, showing the nave at that time was the same length it is now.   The chancel windows seem to be largely original fifteenth century work inside, and the westernmost N. window (illustrated right), which now looks into the organ chamber, appears wholly unrestored, showing the design of the windows was preserved in the Victorian restoration.  In the eastern corners of the chancel, tall cinquefoil-cusped niches set diagonally, once presumably held statues.  The low-pitched chancel roof of couple construction is contemporary, but the attractive, still lower pitched nave roof (viewed left, looking east) is better and has cambered tie beams with brattishing on top, supported by arched braces with open tracery in the spandrels.

 

Finally, a note should be added on a few furnishings and fittings.  The nave retains faint traces of wall paintings in red and black to the north, one of which appears to depict two bishops.  The rood screen is restored Perpendicular work up as far as the new loft, with a dado with applied alternate tracery and carved dragons in the spandrels, and elaborately-cusped open tracery above.  The communion rail with barley-sugar balusters is probably Stuart.