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English Church Architecture -

North Yorkshire.


GILLING WEST, St. Agatha (NZ 182 052)   (January  2013)

(Bedrock:  Carboniferous Dinantian Subsystem, Alston Formation)

St. Agatha is an obscure Sicilian saint, martyred by the Romans c. 251 A.D. (Wikipedia). The church dedicated to her in this modest north Pennine village is a surprisingly large building formed of a chancel, aisled nave and W. tower, with the addition of a N. vestry, S. porch and - the reason it seems especially capacious - second, lean-to outer aisle to the north, which was added in 1845 when the inner aisle was rebuilt and independently-gabled (church guide).  (See the photograph above, taken from the southwest.)  Indeed, on closer inspection, a large proportion of the exterior of the church appears to be of this date, including the entire chancel in pseudo-Norman style, the semi-octagonal stair turret to the tower, and the majority of the windows in all parts of the building.  However, the surviving mediaeval work is not insignificant and includes the tower, porch and vestry.


The tower is unbuttressed and composed of three stages.  It is probably the oldest part of the building, at least in its basic fabric, although whether any of its surviving features can truly be said to be original is possibly rather doubtful. The round-headed arch to the nave (seen left, in the interior view of the church taken from the east) is described as Norman in the church guide (Kenneth Leyburn, revised edition 1996), and the uncharacteristically thin wall is explained away as the result of the arch being cut through still older Saxon masonry.  That is one possible explanation but another might be that what we now see is a Tudor replacement, constructed when the present three-light, untraceried and uncusped, W. window was inserted, and the bell-stage and nave clerestory added, in the late fifteenth or sixteenth centuries.  That does not necessarily preclude a Saxon age for the masonry, of course, and the church guide describes how, when repairs to the original, blocked bell-openings (now visible only internally below the present bell-openings) were carried out in 1995/6, it appeared likely they once consisted of pairs of small round-headed lights, divided by baluster mullions.  Be that as it may, however, what is at least certain is that the tower predates the nave aisles, which partially embrace it.  The tower has been restored in recent years and an appalling plaque on the west face of the turret, reads, "Whilst restoring this tower, which stands here to the glory of God, Dean Emerson fell to his death on 5th September 1995, aged 31".


The early fourteenth century (Decorated) three-bay nave arcades are formed of double-flat-chamfered arches supported on octagonal piers with prominent capitals and corbels at the ends (see the S. arcade, right, viewed from the northwest.), but slight differences in the capitals, north to south, demonstrate that either the two sides are not quite contemporary or that different masons were responsible for each. The chancel arch is also broadly of this time, while the Victorian outer aisle, although constructed in four bays, largely copies the style of its mediaeval counterparts, leaving just the form of its bases and its very neat mortar joints to give its true vintage away. The N. aisle windows, in Second Pointed style, have integral shafts decorating the splays, and the same feature to the east and west windows of the inner N. aisle, which have curvilinear tracery, shows that these too are part of the same phase of reconstruction. In fact, only the internal stonework of the two-light S. aisle S. windows, with falchion tracery, holds out hope that any of the church windows retain their mediaeval form.  The very four-square S. porch is windowless and entered through a disproportionately small outer doorway with a flat-chamfered surround.  It is probably contemporary with the aisle but there is little to date here with confidence:  the roof is of couple construction and the inner doorway is double-flat-chamfered.   The lean-to N. vestry, which runs the full length of the chancel and has no external features of note, was not examined on this visit but is described in the church guide as having "an unusual diagonally-ribbed half-tunnel vault".  The doorway leading into it from the chancel is surrounded by two sunk quadrant mouldings, most particularly associated with the late fourteenth century.


Other features in the church include the large ogee-pointed, early fourteenth century recess in the S. aisle S. wall (illustrated left), which is now little more than a fragment. Wall monuments on this same wall include one to the west of the porch, dedicated to James Darcy (d. 1733) and signed by W. Green of Rotherham (fl. 1731-37), of whom Rupert Gunnis wrote: "[His] designs  are based on London work of the period, with cartouche inscription tablets, architectural details, mourning cherubs, etc., but the carving is first-rate, far above the level of the ordinary provincial statuary..."   (Dictionary of British Sculptors: 1660-1851, pub. The Abbey Library, 1951). This example features heraldic beasts holding a shield against a black marble background. An earlier monument on the nave W. wall, to the north of the tower arch, is composed of a re-set black marble slab, showing full-length figures of Sir Henry Boynton (d 1531) and his wife, Isabella, in low relief, with an inscription in Latin running around the perimeter.


Finally, the font, formed of a round bowl supported on five shafts with capitals described as "waterleaf" on the britishlistedbuildings web-site and as "stiff-leaf" by Pevsner, who ascribed it to "Early English" times, failed to convince the present writer that it is actually mediaeval at all.