English Church Architecture.
LITTLE DUNMOW, St. Mary (TL 656 213),
(Bedrock: Eocene, London Clay.)
The former Lady Chapel of an otherwise long-demolished priory of the Augustinian Canons. (The photograph below left and the plan of the former priory are taken without permission from an early anonymous, undated church guide.)
If this should appear a strange little building externally, it is more surprising inside. Here is now a structure consisting of a single cell with only the addition of an utterly emaciated Victorian bell-turret at the northwest angle. The N. and W. walls of the rest of the church are of the same date, but in the S. wall (illustrated above right), the four main windows, alternately of three and four lights, provide an exuberant display of late Decorated tracery which, though ravaged by time, is still quite magnificent. The two four-light windows are four-centred and have subarcuations and squashed curvilinear tracery in their heads, the more westerly three-light, two-centred window has the usual form of curvilinear tracery, and the other (which is also two-centred) actually has supermullioned tracery. This is unlikely to be later than the others but rather a guide to the date of the whole work - probably around 1360, when Decorated forms were increasingly regarded as passé, especially at court, but when little parochial work was being done following the catastrophe of the Black Death. The E. window has been renewed.
It is when one enters the building, however, that one begins to understand this first-seeming, incongruous luxuriance, for in the N. wall - and only visible inside - are the remains of a blocked arcade (shown below left) which is also quite sumptuous, while around the windows in the S. wall, already described, is a considerable display of carving. The explanation is that this is actually the former Lady Chapel of an otherwise now-vanished priory of the Augustinian Canons. The priory church has been shown by excavations to have consisted at its fullest extent of a large nave with a N. aisle and a cloister on the S. side, a crossing tower, N. and S. transepts, the former with two E. chapels, and a choir and presbytery with a N. aisle and this Lady Chapel to the south. (See the plan of this priory church above.) Not surprisingly, the total length of this building was in excess of 230 feet (70 m.).
The interior details of the surviving structure are as follows. The N. arcade is four bays long and composed of arches in Early English style, formed of three orders bearing rolls, keels and hollows, and of piers composed of four major and four minor shafts. The capitals display water leaf on the westernmost, stiff leaf on the third from the west, and leaf volutes on the others. Thus a date at the very beginning of the thirteenth century is suggested. (The priory was actually founded in 1104.) The S. wall displays blank arcading in three tiers between the windows, with archlets sometimes ogee-pointed and sometimes very depressed, which fit the date of the S. windows. More blank arcading beneath the windows has, in some cases, carving in the spandrels, most notably beneath the supermullioned window. (See the photographs above right and below.) Here animals, dragons and people are portrayed, all squashed in with complete disregard for position, but lively and amusing if, perhaps, somewhat inelegant. The windows have side-shafts and hood-moulds rising from head label stops. A blocked arch with semi-quatrefoil responds in the western end of the S. wall, probably once connected with the S. transept, perhaps via another small E. chapel like those known to have existed to the north.