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English Church Architecture -



CROSBY RAVENSWORTH, St. Laurence (NY 148 628)      (April 2009)

(Bedrock:  Carboniferous Dinantian Subsystem, Alston Formation)


Crosby Ravensworth is one of a number of delightful little villages nestling quietly in the relatively unvisited dales of eastern Cumbria, but its church (shown left, from the southeast) is also surprisingly big, suggesting the parish was once of greater importance than it could claim to be now.  The building consists of a W. tower, a nave with N. and S. lean-to aisles, cross-gabled transepts and porches, and a chancel with a Victorian N. vestry formed of two distinct parts.  The tower rises in three stages, supported for the first one and a half by diagonal buttresses, and contains the only genuinely mediaeval feature now visible outside, namely its three-light Perpendicular W. window with supermullioned tracery, for St. Laurence’s is one of several churches in this region whose interior tells a different and much earlier story than its exterior.  Here, with the exception of the lower stages of the tower, everything else outside is nineteenth century in date, yet this is not without interest for it is the product of two separate building phases, of which the first was undertaken around 1811 (as inscribed above the outer doorway to the S. porch [shown right], together with the initials of the masons who constructed it), in the earliest “pre-archaeological” stage of the Gothic Revival, before the studies of Thomas Rickman (1776 - 1841) in particular, enabled  mediaeval architecture to be better understood.  The architect here was Sir Robert Smirke (1781 - 1867), whose most important contributions were the S. porch, the priest’s doorway in the S. wall of the chancel, and the bell-stage of the tower. Smirke was the architect of a number of dramatic country houses, of which Lowther Castle (built 1806-11) between here and Penrith was probably the most important, but he seems to have struggled to convert his grandiose domestic schemes into something appropriate for a church.  That his work is curious rather than successful is evident in his extraordinary treatment of the priest’s S. doorway, which in the Middle Ages was usually a modest – even inconspicuous - affair, provided solely for reasons of practicality, but which in Smirke’s hands has been elevated into an entrance better suited to a Renaissance villa, with its deep round-headed arch creating a second, shallow porch, distinguished by a bold inscription above declaring “Ecce sponsus venit” (“Behold the bridegroom cometh”) and by massive angle buttresses which terminate in crocketed pinnacles and make this appear the principal feature on the south side of the entire building. (See the photograph, left.)  As for its style, this is probably best described as “Classical-Gothic” for considered in isolation, it is neither one thing nor the other.  It altogether outdoes the S. porch to the nave, which is also very strange but designed on a more modest scale.  Finally the tower bell-stage features another of Smirke’s “fortified mansion” inventions in the form of the little stair turret corbelled out at the northeast angle, which rises to a conical roof.


This leaves all the later nineteenth century work at St. Laurence’s - which includes the aisles, transepts, chancel and vestry – to the credit of J.S. Crowther of Kendal (1832 - 1893), joint author of The Churches of the Middle Ages (pub. 1857), who appears to have produced his designs in the 1850s or soon after, in what is - after a fashion - a First Pointed or "Early English" style.  Yet Crowther’s work cannot claim much historical authenticity either, for while most of his windows are lancets or provided with geometrical style (frequently decorated around the arch heads and connected at the springing level by a line of dog-tooth ornament), there are a good many oddities, such as the rather ungainly wheel windows in the gables of the transepts or the four curious dormer windows in the roof over the nave, one on either side of the N. and S. transepts.


However, of interest though all this is, the interior of the church is more significant, for this reveals itself to be the remains of a cruciform Norman-Transitional building, whose north, west and south crossing arches and somewhat later nave arcades, survive in their original form.  The latter are constructed in three-bays, of double-flat-chamfered arches supported on quatrefoil piers with fillets (see the photograph of the S. arcade, right), one of which to the south has nailhead on the capital – a form commensurate with almost any date in the thirteenth century after c. 1220.  Yet the three surviving crossing arches can hardly be later than c. 1200-10 for although they are pointed too, their three flat-chamfered orders spring from responds formed of two orders of shafts, the inner of which is keeled and all of which have the most primitive of capitals, which curve out sharply to meet wide rectangular abaci.  (The photograph, left, shows the crossing viewed from the nave.)  The renewed E. crossing arch is presumably by Crowther but an arch like the other three  (although shorter now) between the N. transept and N. aisle (right), could be the original arch re-used.  In contrast, the arch between the S. transept and S. aisle, is narrower (in fact, lancet-pointed) and composed of two flat-chamfered orders above renewed circular responds.  Perhaps this is contemporary with the nave arcades and the S. aisle S. doorway (inside the porch), which carries a series of rolls and dog-tooth moulding above responds with two attached orders of colonnettes.  (See the thumbnail, left.)  This may also be the date of the tower arch to the nave, which was surely erected for an earlier tower than the present one, judging from its crude construction and the single flat chamfer that continues all the way round, without intervening capitals.


Finally, almost all the church's other internal features appear Victorian or later.  They include the blank arcading round the internal walls of the S. transept, the internal detailing of the windows, the roofs throughout the building, the sedilia and piscina in the S. wall of the sanctuary, the stone pulpit, and all the remaining woodwork.