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English Church Architecture -



BARFRESTONE, St. Nicholas (TR 264 502)      (September 2009, revised July 2012)

(Bedrock: Upper Cretaceous, Upper Chalk)

This is a small but exceptionally rich and well preserved Norman church (shown above, from the south), with a profusion of carved ornament of such quality as may serve to exemplify the late twelfth century style at its best in southern England. It was the subject of one of the early victories of The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings over the vicar and architect of a proposed restoration, John Pollard Seddon, in 1888-90, and might have been a much less important building today had the battle gone otherwise.  The Society's Annual Report in July 1888 contains this note:

"[St. Nicholas's, Barfrestone] is a most wonderful little church, and well worth going a long way to see.

"The nave is 16ft. 8 in. wide and 23 ft. 8 in. long and the chancel 13 ft. 8 in. wide and 17 ft. long.  The chancel is Norman and has a square end, with a rose window and three windows below it.  There are two windows in the north and two on the south side, and a continuous arcade embraces the windows.  The nave has a Norman doorway on either side, and an Early English wall arcade with two windows piercing it on each side.  There is a tall chancel arch with a recessed arch on each side.  The whole building is covered with most elaborate carving, representing animals such as rabbits, boars, bears and the like.  Plans for its restoration have been prepared, but the Committee is in hope that they will not be carried out.

"We may be able to give more information about this case next year."


In fact, the church had been visited by Detmar Blow and Allen Walker Starling on behalf of the Society, on the 19th March, and their prompt intervention, when plans were at an early stage, was probably the key to subsequent success.  In April, another member of the Society, Ernest Gimson, wrote to his mother,

"Blow and I have been making ourselves objectionable to J.P. Seddon, architect for the restoration of Barfeston [sic] Church.  Blow has been the active worker, I have simply looked on and suggested.  We mean, if possible, to rid Barfeston of Mr. J.P. Seddon and have no restoration at all."  (Quoted from an essay by Alan Crawford, Supper at Gatti's:  The SPAB and the Arts and Crafts Movement., in From William Morris:  Building Conservation and the Arts & Crafts Cult of Authenticity, pub. Yale University Press, 2005.)


The next mention of the church in the society's annual report actually came two years later, in June 1890:

"In 1888, the archaeological and artistic world were startled by a report that it was proposed to restore the unique Norman Church of Barfreystone [sic], near Dover, which is well known from the illustrations in Britton and Pugin's Antiquities, and Parker's Glossary.  The Committee ascertained that it was proposed to remove the sixteenth century window in the west front, and to replace it with a circular-headed window, to carry up a flue on the outside of the west front, to put a new bell-turret to the western gable, to put a new roof to the nave and chancel, and other works.

"The roof of the chancel has been removed and a new ornamental roof has been substituted.  The eaves of the chancel roof have new lead gutters with ornamental lead gargoyles, which very much detract from the harmonious appearance of the exterior.  It is proposed to remove the roof of the nave, and to replace it by a new roof of an ornamental design.  The present roof is modern, but it is apparently sound, and all that is required is to re-point the tiling and repair the plastering of the inside.  The rebuilding of the west front appears to have been abandoned."


In fact, this replacement of the roofs was all that was done and nothing of great historic value was harmed.


St. Nicholas's church consists of a nave and chancel only, and since the two parts are contemporary, the remainder of this entry can be devoted purely to their description, assisted by the accompanying photographs. The walls are divided into two almost equal stages by a string course decorated with nailhead inside cable moulding, and faced with flint rubble below and Caen stone ashlar above.  Windows north and south are confined to the upper stage, and there is also a second, narrower string course at the window springing level.  The nave is a few feet taller than the chancel.


The nave S. doorway (illustrated left) is a tour-de-force hardly outdone in a building of this size, anywhere in the country, although Sir Alfred Clapham condemned late twelfth century tympana in England in general for their “extraordinary lack of variety in subject” (English Romanesque Architecture: After the Conquest, pub. Oxford University Press, 1934).  Perhaps that is so, but there were plenty of variations on the limited number of themes, which, as here, was frequently Christ in Majesty.  (See the enlarged photograph beneath this paragraph.)  He sits, in this work, surrounded by a profusion of little figures, including a couple of angels, a king and a queen, and four mythical beasts, while around them all, comes: (i) an inner roll carved with foliage, (ii) an outer roll decorated with fanciful scenes in medallions, including a man and a hare, a bear playing a harp, and another bear drinking (shown in close-up, at the foot of the page on the left, working round from the left), and (iii), a wide rectangular order bearing fourteen further scenes in ovals, including a man-at-arms and, supposedly, King David forcing open the jaws of a lion (shown at the foot of the page on the right, working round from the right).  The rolls are supported by two orders of shafts with capitals bearing further intricate carvings, most of which, here as elsewhere on this doorway, are listed in detail in F. H. Worsfield's little guidebook to the building (publication date unspecified).   Considered altogether, therefore, the S. doorway is a most extraordinary and lively piece of work which demonstrates that although Norman masons in general may have been less skilled in carving than the Saxons before them, there were some very notable exceptions.  The blocked N. doorway (right) is relatively plain but still features an unusual chevron pattern around the edge of the tympanum, and then around that, a roll, horizontal chevron, and a hood-mould decorated with carved foliage, while at the sides, an order of shafts with carved capitals depicts a dragon on the left and two dancing girls holding a head by the ears (ibid) on the right.  The inner faces of the rectangular door jambs within, are carved with faces.



The upper stages of the nave and chancel are lit to north and south by a series of small round-arched windows which alternate  in no consistent manner with larger blank arches, and where the latter step up over the nave S. doorway, they assume a pointed form, giving evidence of a late date (perhaps c. 1190).  The Victorian nave and chancel roofs are supported on a corbel table composed of a line of billet with figures below (short pieces of which are shown below), some of which may be renewed.










The chancel has a priest's doorway in the S. wall, with chevron round the arch, a carved figure at the apex, and nook-shafts at the sides, with leaf volute capitals and dog-tooth on the abaci.  However, the other part of the church exterior that warrants most careful attention beside the nave S. door, is the chancel E. front (illustrated below left), where the finest work is the outstanding wheel window in the gable (shown enlarged, below right).  (Cf. Castle Hedingham, Essex.)  This has eight round spoke shafts radiating out from a central ring, each with a carved head capital, and around the whole, an exceptional frieze, delicately carved with a riot of figures and mythical beasts, in an admirable state of preservation - a monument not only to the skill of the artist more than eight centuries ago, but also to the durable qualities of Caen stone.  The lowest stage on the E. side appears to have been renewed and is now supported along its length by a sloping set-off cut by two large blank arches.















The church interior may be described rather more quickly.  A feature that appears inside the church as well as out, is the string course running along beneath the windows on the N. and S. sides of the nave.  This is carved with repeated patterns only on the S. side,  but on the N. side it carries lions, dragons, monkeys, rabbits, figures and flowers, in a continuation of the wonderfully inventive work seen externally.  A similar string course running round the chancel is decorated with Greek key or meander ornament, which Sir Alfred Clapham cited as one of the few examples of its use in England. However, the tall chancel arch (shown left, from the west) is the feature the visitor will first notice  on entering the building, bearing different forms of chevron surrounded by a hood-mould decorated with billet, and with nook-shafts at the sides, with more chevron and cable-moulded shaft-rings.  The chancel was partially rebuilt in 1841 but mostly with great faithfulness.  This arch, however, is not really convincing, so perhaps the original work was too ruined to provide an adequate guide to its form.  The blank arches on either side are probably broadly correct, and presumably held side altars:  they carry three-dimensional chevron, which also appears renewed, but when this is compared with the dog-tooth moulding around the rere arches of the nave windows, which is generally regarded as a thirteenth century moulding, it shows how readily the one might have evolved into the other.