English Church Architecture -
SESSAY, St. Cuthbert (SE 465 747) (April 2013)
(Bedrock: Triassic Mercia Mudstone Group, Keuper Marl)
This is a church entirely by William Butterfield (1814-1900) (illustrated above from the southeast), although it is one of his earlier buildings and among neither his most important or characteristic. It was erected in 1847-8, just four years after his first church at Coalpit Heath in Gloucestershire, and displays little of the structural polychromy for which he was famous or notorious later, but already his confident handling of mass is apparent, together with the ability to perceive the total effect of his designs. The slim tower and wide roofs would certainly feature again in later work. Moreover, as happened regularly with Butterfield’s commissions, the church was only the most important part of the work requested here, for at Sessay he was also responsible for the lych-gate and the school, the latter of which is still in use as such today.
The walls of the church are constructed of a sandy limestone with dressings of magnesian limestone from Burton Leonard on the Permian outcrop, twelve miles to the southwest *. (A detail of the masonry is shown above left.) Limestone slates have been used for the roofs (see the photograph of the porch, above right) and shingles for the broach spire. The building consists of a W. tower with a spire, a nave with a S. aisle and a S. porch, and a chancel with a cross-gabled N. vestry. The windows display a variety of mediaeval and Butterfieldian “Decorated” designs, of which the circular E. window to the S. aisle (below left) and the chancel E. window (below right) are the most original.
The interior of the building is strikingly wide and plain. The four-bay aisle arcade is formed of arches of two orders bearing hollow chamfers that continue all the way round without intervening capitals. The tower arch bears two flat-chamfers which die into the jambs, and the chancel arch is similar but carries one flat chamfer and one sunk quadrant.
Church furnishings are simple, but a few features occur in embryo that will be greatly developed in Butterfield’s later churches. One of these is the tiling patterns in the chancel floor (using Minton’s encaustic tiles from Stoke-upon-Trent) (illustrated above left): a much more elaborate scheme can be seen just a few miles away at Baldersby St. James, built only nine years later, albeit with much more money available. The painted panelling in the roof above the sanctuary re-occurs there too. Finally, here at Sessay, the visitor should also notice the nicely painted organ pipes, the painted frieze on the nave walls at the window springing level, and the odd, narrow-beamed nave roof, of king post type but with ostentatiously curved struts and braces.
(* I am indebted to Janet Ratcliffe, local historian, for this information, who found it in a contemporary newspaper cutting.)