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English Church Architecture.

 

ABBOTSBURY, St. Catherine's chapel and St. Nicholas's church

 (SY 573 848 and SY 578 853),

DORSET.

(Bedrock:  Upper Jurassic, Abbotsbury Ironstone Formation.)

 

A church and chapel on the Jurassic Coast, built c. 1400, probably by the same mason.

 

 

The coastal parish of Abbotsbury at the northwest end of Chesil Beach is situated above a region of late Middle to middle Upper Jurassic mudstones, calcareous sandstones and sandy limestones, laid down during a period ranging from around 168-152 million years before the present.  From among these, it is the Abbotsbury Ironstone Formation from the Upper Jurassic Kimmeridgian Stage (157-152 million years b.p.) that provides the best building stone, and most of the village is built of it, as well as the two structures considered below.

 

St. Catherine's, which was erected as a chapel for pilgrims, stands alone on a bare hill looking down The Fleet.  Ascribed by English Heritage to c. 1400, it is a tall, heavily-built little structure, consisting of a structurally undivided nave and chancel, shallow N. and S. porches, and a broad, northwest, octagonal turret, which rises above the roof of the principal cell and is topped by a flat cap.  The N. porch with its pointed, ribbed tunnel-vault, today provides passage into the stone-vaulted main cell, comprising eight demi-bays decorated with rectangles filled with blank arches, divided by ribs that mimic the rafters, purlins and ridge beam of carpentry work.  Its weight is the obvious explanation for the chapel's thick walls, heavy buttresses set back at the corners, and tall surmounting parapet providing additional support and stability, and through the base of which, quirky little arched openings resting on a string course, look through to the steeply-pitched roof behind.  The buttresses terminate in blunt, square mini-turrets, oddly decorated with horizontally-projecting crenulations, and it is these that suggest the same mason was responsible for the original village church of St. Nicholas, half a mile to the northeast and approximately 260 feet (80 m.) below.

 

Today, only the W. tower, N. wall of the N. aisle, and N. porch, remain of this latter building, but the probable clue to their contemporaneity with St. Catherine's lies in the idiosyncratic crenulations atop the tower's northeast stair turret (pictured right), which are virtually identical to those on the chapel's buttresses. The N. wall of the N. aisle was originally the N. wall of the nave for this was once an aisleless church until the decision was made to enlarge it, some time in the sixteenth century, when everything south and east of the N. front was swept away and a fully aisled nave and chancel was constructed, thereby throwing the tower out of alignment to the north and causing the line of the N. arcade to bisect the tower arch from the east, in a way that either indicates incompetence or very serious penny-pinching (by avoiding the need to rebuild the N. wall) - perhaps both.  The six-bay aisle and chapel arcades are also badly set out in a west/east direction, although in this case the problem appears to have arisen as a result of still later - seventeenth century - alterations.  The nave and aisles are four and a half bays long, while the chancel and chapels occupy the remaining one and a half, the division being marked internally by a change in floor height.  As there is no chancel arch, this might once have appeared satisfactory, but during the 1630s, a certain Sir John Strangeways paid for the installation of a cumbersome plaster vault above the chancel, decorated with relief pargeting, which by terminating in mid bay, not only looks odd, but also upsets the symmetry of the clerestory.  Uncusped and very Tudor in appearance, the clerestory windows in the four western bays remain positioned above the arcade apices as one would expect, but the fifth window along is now squashed up to the west.   The S. aisle and chapel windows probably belong to this same phase of building, assignable to the date scratched in the stonework above the wide, round-headed priest’s doorway:  "1636".  The church contains no monuments of consequence but the pulpit with tester and backboard is a fine piece of woodwork of Jacobean or possibly Elizabethan date.