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English Church Architecture -

Dorset.

 

ABBOTSBURY, St. Nicholas (SY 578 853)     April 2007)

(Bedrock:  Upper Jurassic, Corallian Group)

 

This church, like the majority of the village (see the photograph at the foot of the page), is built of Abbotsbury limestone, a golden-coloured sandy limestone dug from pits in the surrounding hills and deriving from the Corallian beds of the Upper Jurassic System (Oxfordian Stage).  The external appearance of the building is very misleading for although the N. front and W. tower  survive from the original, aisleless structure, the remainder of this church was demolished some time in the sixteenth century and rebuilt to a conflicting plan, composed of an undivided nave and chancel, fully aisled on both sides.  The two surviving, original N. windows now lighting the N. aisle, are each formed of two ogee-pointed trefoiled lights set beneath a square head.  However, whether Pevsner was right to conclude they are Decorated (by which he appears to have meant early fourteenth century work) seems very unclear.  They may be contemporary with the diagonally-buttressed tower (shown left, from the northwest), which is lit by a three-light W. window with alternate tracery, beneath a re-set carved panel thought to date back to the eleventh century and to have come from the former abbey.  It may be significant that the semi-octagonal stair turret at the tower northeast angle, terminates in odd horizontal crenulations like those that top the buttresses of St. Catherine’s Chapel on the hill. English Heritage ascribe the chapel to c. 1400 – a date which might fit St. Nicholas's tower also, on which it seems probable the same mason worked. The two-storeyed N. porch may also be attributable to this phase of construction, though little else is, for it is apparent inside that the sixteenth century aisled nave and chancel have been set out to lie entirely behind the former nave N. wall, putting the tower out of alignment with the narrower, replacement nave, and causing the line of the N. arcade to bisect the tower arch in a manner that can only indicate incompetence or a penny-pinching attempt to avoid rebuilding the N. front.  As it is, the N. aisle and nave together, now occupy the space once occupied by the nave alone, leaving only the S. aisle projecting beyond the original building line.  The six-bay aisle and chapel arcades are badly arranged in a west/east direction also, although in this case the problems seem to have arisen as a result of still later, seventeenth century, alterations.  The nave and aisles take up four and a half bays, and the chancel and chapels, the remaining one and a half, the division being marked by a change in floor height only.  In the absence of a chancel arch, this might once have appeared satisfactory, but during the 1630s a certain Sir John Strangeways paid for a cumbersome plaster vault to be installed above the chancel, decorated with relief pargeting, which by terminating in mid bay, not only looks odd, but has also disturbed the symmetry of the clerestory.  Uncusped and blatantly Tudor, the clerestory windows in the four western bays are positioned over the arcade apices, but the fifth pair have had to be squashed up to the west.  The tall arcades are formed of piers composed of four semicircular shafts separated by hollows, and arches of two orders with a hollow between.  The S. aisle and chapel windows are probably contemporary with the chancel vault and dated "1636" in the voussoir above the round-headed priest’s doorway (see the photograph right):  they have flattened round arches above three ogee-pointed, trefoil-cusped lights and uncusped alternate tracery, with the split “Y”s forming the subreticulation now split at the bottom also.

 

Finally, the church contains no monuments of consequence but one fine piece of furniture must be mentioned, namely the Jacobean (or, possibly, Elizabethan) pulpit with tester, supported on a tall backboard, decorated like the pulpit, with round-headed arches.  The large, striking wooden reredos was ascribed by Pevsner to 1751 and features the Ten Commandments picked out in gold lettering;  the broad pediment above is supported on Corinthian columns.