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English Church Architecture -



KIRKBY LONSDALE, St. Mary (SD 612 788)     (April 2009)

(Bedrock:  Carboniferous Dinantian Subsystem, Great Scar Limestone)

Kirby Lonsdale can fairly be counted among the most attractive small towns of northern England and its situation in the extreme southeastern corner of Cumbria on the “wrong” side of the M6, enables it to preserve a distinctly quieter atmosphere than most places in the Lake District National Park.  The church (shown above, from the southeast) is its principal building but, being broad and low, it remains hidden behind the grey-stone shops and houses of Market Street until one is almost upon it, whereat it suddenly reveals itself behind ornamental iron gates, in a large churchyard which, on a breezy day in April, really does seem full of “dancing daffodils”.  Immediately to the northeast, the land drops steeply away to give an exceptional view across the valley of the meandering River Lune, towards the blue-grey fells of Whernside.  (See the photograph at the foot of the page.)


St. Mary’s is comprised of a W. tower, a narrow nave and chancel without structural division, lean-to N. and S. aisles which are wider than the nave and extend the full length of the building from the W. wall of the tower to the E. wall of the sanctuary, an independently-gabled outer N. aisle of similar length, and a little S. porch.  Its history of construction is complicated and ambiguous, and almost impossible to unravel from visual inspection alone without recourse to Pevsner’s “Buildings of England” (“Cumberland  and Westmorland” volume, pub. Penguin, 1967) or the church guide (by Marjorie Mellor, pub. the Friends of St. Mary’s, Kirkby Lonsdale, 2001), but the latter is itself a muddled piece of work, notwithstanding its glossy format, which begins in the way it is destined to continue, with a building plan printed on the inside of the front cover, drawn in colours that fail to correspond with those set out in the key.  In fact, this is a church whose external appearance tells such a partial story of its development, that it is more instructive to begin its examination inside.  This comes as a dramatic surprise, although it is easy to be overwhelmed by complications as one examines the church in more detail, not least because although all three arcades are seven bays long, not a single bay of the nave and chancel arcades is the same width as the next, while the arcade between the inner and outer N. aisles manages not only to cover the distance of the nave and chancel arcades but the breadth of the tower also.


To describe the work in approximate date order requires a detailed systematic approach, beginning with the most important feature - the three western arches of the nave N. arcade, which are massively Norman and reminiscent of the arcades at Durham Cathedral, suggesting the date may be similar also, c. 1100-20.  (See the photographs:  left, taken from the south;  and below right, taken from the southeast.)  Pevsner appeared to think these represented a false start (i.e. work begun and then broken off, perhaps for lack of funds) but that would imply the builders approached their task in a very peculiar order, especially as it was the usual practice in the Middle Ages to build churches from east to west and, very often, the outer walls first.  However, these three arches are certainly the oldest work surviving here now and they are clearly only a fragment of what was intended at that time.  In detail, they are formed of: (i) a compound W. respond and second pier to the east, each with two orders of shafts with scalloped capitals towards the arch openings; (ii) circular first and third piers with lozenge decoration, marked out by three parallel shallow lines in the former case, and by a single, deeper groove in the latter; and (iii) round arches above, bearing various mouldings, respectively from west to east - around the first arch, three equal rolls beneath the soffit and a wide flat chamfer to the outer order, around the second arch, two narrow flat chamfers, and around the third arch, a combination of a roll with hollows.  The circular first pier has a square scalloped capital carved with beasts and a Green Man peering out between scrollwork.  (See the thumbnail left, taken from the southeast.)  The compound second pier, in addition to the shafts towards the arch opening, has another shaft facing the nave, which ends abruptly at the springing level, suggesting that the original plan may have been to throw a vault (probably of wood) across to a similar arcade opposite.


If so, it never appears to have been built and instead, when operations resumed, perhaps around 1160-90, a somewhat less bulky form of construction was preferred.   Thus the three western bays of the S. arcade, though of similar height to their northern counterparts, are formed of arches bearing two narrow flat-chamfered orders, springing from a rectangular respond to the west and round piers of narrower diameter, and perhaps it was also at this time that work began on the tower, as suggested by the W. doorway (illustrated below right), composed of four orders, clearly once all differently carved though very worn today, supported on circular shafts with leaf volute capitals, the two outer orders of which have been renewed. The tower (shown left from the west) rises unbuttressed, in four stages, enclosed within by walls on either side (i.e. instead of being carried on arches), and seems to have been encompassed by the aisles from the outset, as indicated by the round-headed window in the S. aisle W. wall and the corresponding lancet in the N. aisle, suggesting that the date could scarcely have predated c. 1190 (but see the entry on Ripon Cathedral for what appears to have been an even earlier employment of the pointed arch in northern England). That the aisles were then very narrow is probably witnessed by the positions of these windows, off-centre towards the tower.  (The narrow round-arched doorway in the N. aisle W. wall seems likely to have been re-set.) The upper stages of the tower now have Perpendicular or Tudor details but inside the building, the tower arch to the nave is Norman, formed of a simple flat-chamfered order supported on abaci, while above, a restored window consists of two round-headed lights carried on shafts with scalloped capitals, set within a larger round arch surrounded by another chamfer.  Then - according to this scenario - once construction of the tower was underway and the three western arches of the S. arcade were complete, it would appear that the eastward extension of the nave and aisles was undertaken, involving the addition of four further bays to the nave arcades, now in pointed, Early English form, with double-flat-chamfered arches supported on piers alternately circular and octagonal.  The building was then finished with a flourish with the construction of an excellent group of tall, very slightly stepped lancets in the chancel E. wall, set in deep splays and adorned with detached shafts in shaft-rings, with capitals based on waterleaf and stiff leaf.


With this long narrow building thus completed, perhaps around 1210, matters seem to have rested for a while, but in the early fourteenth century, the decision appears to have been taken to widen the aisles, as indicated today by their three-light E. windows with (admittedly distinctly diminutive) reticulated tracery (see the photograph of the E. front, immediately below).  The two and three-light, trefoil-cusped square-headed windows in the S. aisle S. wall are clearly later (fifteenth century?) insertions, while whatever N. windows once existed in the N aisle were obviously swept away when the outer N. aisle was added in the Tudor period.  (The round-headed priest’s doorway in the S. wall of the S. chapel and the S. doorway inside the S. porch have been reset.)  The windows in the outer N. aisle, with uncusped round lights set in square frames, would fit almost any sixteenth century date judged purely on stylistic grounds, and the form of the outer N. arcade provides no useful guide for it is formed merely of double-flat-chamfered arches supported on circular piers with slightly-projecting round capitals in what appears to be an insouciant attempt to copy pre-existing work.  (In fact, the outer aisle may originally have extended only to the end of the nave and been continued later to end level with the sanctuary:  note the change from circular to octagonal piers in the two easternmost bays.)  The clerestory is formed of three-light trefoiled windows above the outer aisle which, predictably, take no account of the position of the arcade arches below.



Fortunately after this lengthy attempt to unravel this perplexing building history, a description of the furnishings of the church can be given briefly, for in this respect, there is little here that really demands attention.  The most important item is probably the pulpit (shown in the thumbnail, left), whose interest is enhanced by its being dated “1619” on the board below the desk, but if one is suspicious of its small size at such a time, formed of only two tiers of panels, one is right to be so, for the church guide declares it to be a reconstruction produced in 1866 from pieces of a former three-decker.  The wrought iron screens around the chancel are Victorian, as is the attractive reredos with mosaic panels set in an alabaster superstructure, featuring an Agnus Dei in the centre and, on either side, roundels containing the symbols of the Evangelists.  Finally, the building displays a number of eighteenth century wall monuments, one of which requires particularization.  This is a very affecting Classical monument dedicated to "Jane, wife of Francis Webster, architect, and daughter of George Slater of Spital, yeoman, died 26th August, 1805, aged 34".  It is almost certainly carved by her husband who, together with his sons, ran a firm of "builders and marble-cutters"  in Kendal, that continued in business from around 1790 to 1850 ("Dictionary of British Sculptors: 1660-1851", by Rupert Gunnis, pub. The Abbey Library, 1951).