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English Church Architecture -

Dorset.

 

ABBOTSBURY, Chapel of St. Catherine (SY 573 848)     (April 2007)

(Bedrock:  Upper Jurassic, Corallian Group)

This tall, heavily-built little structure with a principal cell just four bays in length, stands silhouetted against the sky on the very top of Chapel Hill, looking southeast down The Fleet and southwest across Lyme Bay.  It is constructed, like the village below, of Abbotsbury limestone - a golden treacle-coloured sandy limestone, quarried from pits dug in the surrounding hills and deriving geologically from the Corallian beds of the Upper Jurassic System (Oxfordian Stage).  It has survived reasonably well in this very exposed position, although as with most old buildings in similar situations, the effects of wind and rain erosion are evident on all sides.

 

According to English Heritage, who are now responsible for the structure, St. Catherine’s was erected c. 1400 as a chapel for pilgrims.  It is an all-Perpendicular building composed of a nave and chancel formed from a single cell, N. and S. porches, and a broad northwest turret rising higher than the rest of the building, which must itself be in excess of 30 feet tall (>9 m.).  The turret, lit only by a few small rectangular openings, at one time contained a tiny oratory. The nave and chancel are lit between them by a solitary window on each side, all four of which have been renewed in wood, although enough old masonry survives behind the wooden frames to show they were once two-light to north and south and three-light to east and west, and filled with alternate tracery with each reticulation unit subdivided by a split “Y”, standing on the mullion below.  The N. porch has a pointed, ribbed tunnel-vault, which prepares the visitor for the chapel’s most important feature, viz. the vaulting of the main cell, in eight hemi-bays, each divided on either side into two tiers of three rectangles filled with blank arches, by ribs mimicking rafters, purlins, and a ridge beam at the apex, with carved bosses decorating the intersections.  Of course, the weight of this roof does much to explain why the chapel was built with such thick walls, supported by such heavy buttresses (set back at the corners), and surmounted by such a massive parapet (to provide support and stability) with its quirky little arched openings resting on a string course, looking through to the steeply-pitched roof behind.  The buttresses terminate in blunt, square turrets, oddly decorated with horizontally-projecting crenulations that find further employment round the tower stair turret of St. Nicholas’s church in the village, half a mile to the northeast and some 260 feet (80 m.) down the hill.  It suggests the same mason probably worked on both buildings, but although the date of St. Nicholas’s tower may be similar, little else of that date in the parish church now remains.