English Church Architecture.
ASHWELL, St. Mary (TL 267 398),
(Bedrock: Upper Cretaceous, Lower Chalk.)
A major church with the dubious distinction of being one of the very few
constructed immediately before and after the Black Death of c. 1348-49.
This is a splendid building, built - except for the lower stages of the tower - almost entirely of clunch. This is not surprising for Ashwell stands right above the outcrop of the narrow horizon in the lower chalk known as Totternhoe Stone in Bedfordshire and Burwell Rock in Cambridgeshire - two villages between which Ashwell is, in fact, almost equidistant. This relatively hard chalk seam was dug from a series of open pits a mile west of the village centre (at TL 253 395). The site is now a nature reserve which many plants typical of chalk grassland are slowly recolonizing and a permit can be obtained to visit it (Ashwell Quarry, Hinxworth Road) from the Hertfordshire and Middlesex Wildlife Trust.
The glory of St. Mary's lies especially in the W. tower, which at 176' (53.6 m.) is the tallest in Hertfordshire. Divided into four stages, it obtains its effect partly from the whiteness of the clunch, partly from the way in which the unbuttressed fourth stage contrasts with the seemingly wider section of the angle-buttressed stages below, and partly from the very narrow surmounting lantern with leaded needle spire - the so-called 'Hertfordshire spike'. The pairs of two-light, transomed bell-openings in each wall, have straightened reticulation units (i.e. quatrefoils with straightened sides) in their heads, which was generally a conservative hangover in this area of an essentially Decorated form into early Perpendicular times. Taken by itself, this would seem to suggest construction during the second half of the fourteenth century and, in fact, an inscription states the tower was finally completed in 1381. However, the church guide quotes a tradition that the upper half of the tower was only added after the Battle of Agincourt (1415) (anon., St. Mary's, Ashwell, undated, p. 3), a legend that could refer, if it is correct at all, simply to the unbuttressed final stage above the bell-openings. What is certain, however, is that the majority of the church was erected in the middle of the fourteenth century and that building was interrupted by the cataclysm of the Black Death that first reached Britain in the autumn of 1848 and did its lethal worst through the course of 1349. One piece of graffiti to be seen inside the tower on the N. wall, records this graphically:
First, then, the work completed before the plague will be described. This includes the lower parts of the tower and the three central bays of the five-bay nave arcades, which comprise arches of two orders - the outer order bearing one sunk quadrant moulding and the inner order, two - springing from piers of quatrefoil cross-section with narrow, semicircular shafts separating the foils. (See the S. arcade, right.) It has been suggested that while these arches were being constructed, the chancel from an earlier building was still being used for worship and that it was intended to join the new nave to a new chancel and to the new tower at a later stage of operations, but if so, it seems likely that before the plague struck, work had advanced as far as the demolition of this chancel and the completion of the nave and aisles up to the line of the new chancel arch, for the N. aisle E. window has curvilinear tracery in late Decorated in style (typical of c. 1325-48), and the eastern arches of the arcades differ from the central three in having thicker piers and by being slightly wider. However, the western arches linking the nave and aisles with the tower differ more radically and probably represent the resumption of building after a substantial time interval (say, c. 1365), for these are much wider and the piers are composed of four broad, flat, semi-octagonal shafts. That such a change should have been introduced part-way through construction, even after a long pause, may possibly seem surprising, but we can probably assume a new mason was in charge and that the very spirit of the times had changed significantly. Besides the earlier mason seems to have been extremely casual in setting out his building, for the position of the tower and the completed sections of the nave arcades appear to have made it impossible to make all the arches equal! Moreover, another piece of graffiti left by a mason on the pier nearest the S. door, which seems also to indicate dissatisfaction with the earlier work, reads 'Cornua no sunt arto compugente-sputo' meaning 'The corners are not pointed correctly - I spit' .
Nevertheless, the new mason completed these western arches and extended them by wall pieces to join the nave to the tower, and tried to make the best of a bad job by decorating them with blank arches filled with 'supermullioned' tracery, fully as high as the tower arch itself, in a not very successful attempt to make them look as if they had been intended all along. Whether or not the upper stages of the tower were being constructed simultaneously, it seems certain that the new chancel was, for work here is known to have been in progress in 1368. The chancel windows have been renewed externally, but notice here the piscina, externally in the N. wall outside the chancel (shown left), which witnesses the one-time presence of a former chantry chapel here, known to have been demolished removed in 1799.
To all the foregoing, the porches are fifteenth century additions. The N. porch is not special except for its display of chalk rubble masonry (on the inside but still essentially open to the elements). The two-storeyed S. porch, however, is very impressive. It stands taller than the aisle to which it is attached and has an octagonal stair turret projecting above it at the northwest angle (sic) and a lierne vault inside, renewed in 1858.
The church contains two significant items of woodwork, namely the fifteenth century parclose screens along the west and north sides of the chapel formed in the east end of the south aisle, and the pulpit, which actually bears the date on a wooden boss on one of its sides - 1625. Of the original rood screen, only the dado survives. The roofs were replaced in the eighteenth century. The roof to the chancel has openwork tracery above the tie beams.