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English Church Architecture.


CASTLE RISING, St. Lawrence  (TF 667 249),


(Bedrock:  Lower Cretaceous, Sandringham Sand Formation.)


An important church situated on the Lower Greensand outcrop, built of carstone.




Before the advent of the canals and (especially) the railways, the transport of heavy goods overland frequently cost more than the goods did themselves.  Builders, therefore, used vernacular materials whenever possible, preferably sourced within a mile or two of the site.  Mediaeval stone buildings consequently reflect the underlying geology and churches in particular provide an approximate geological map of Britain, which is naturally most faithful in areas of less complexity.   This general principle is revealed to good effect along the Lower Greensand ridge which rises along the western edge of the Lower Cretaceous outcrop of south and east England, which is itself very narrow in the southeast/northwest direction, yet extensive and continuous from northeast to southwest, as seen below.   Moreover, the rubble building stones to which the Lower Greensand gives rise, which are generally known as carstone (chiefly in Norfolk) or  ironstone,  are a very distinctive, liquorice-brown colour, which is difficult to miss.  Drivers heading northwest from East Anglia to the Midlands along one of the quieter roads that passes through intermediate villages, will suddenly notice one or two village churches (probably no more) that show they are crossing this outcrop, while someone with a will to do so, might set out from Hunstanton on the north Norfolk coast and, except across the Fens, pick his or her way southwest, at least as far as Leighton Buzzard on the southern border of Bedfordshire, and encounter one such church after another.  The churches named on the map below, all of which are represented on this web-site, serve to illustrate this.



The Lower Cretaceous Rocks of Eastern England, laid down 146-97 Ma.


1 = Heacham (Norfolk);  2 = Castle Rising (Norfolk);  3 = Wilburton (Cambridgeshire);    4 = Cottenham (Cambridgeshire); 
5 = Great Gransden (Cambridgeshire);  6 = Bourn (Cambridgeshire);   7 = Gamlingay (Cambridgeshire); 
8 = Everton (CENTRAL Bedfordshire);  9 = Blunham (CENTRAL Bedfordshire);   10 = Eyeworth (CENTRAL Bedfordshire);  
11 = Biggleswade (Bedfordshire);  12 = Edworth (CENTRAL Bedfordshire); 


This remains a most important Norman church, even after three heavy nineteenth century restorations.  It was begun by William d'Albini, Earl of Sussex, shortly after he initiated work on the castle in 1138 which involved the demolition of the old church, thus making only right and just the founding of a replacement.  d'Albini was by no means cheeseparing, however, for the new building was an impressive one, as is still witnessed by the W. front in particular. The original plan was axial, which is to say the church consisted of an aisleless nave, a central tower and a chancel.  A S. transept was added in the thirteenth century by knocking an arch through the tower S. wall, and this arch remains even though the transept was entirely rebuilt in the third Victorian restoration of 1883. Other Victorian additions to the present building include the S. porch, also of 1883, and the upper stage of the tower (as seen in the photograph left, taken from the southwest), which was designed by George Edmund Street (1824-81) in 1860.  Street was one of the very best Victorian church builders but this is not an especially good example of his work.  The church is constructed of a mix of materials, chief of which, in terms of quantity, is Norfolk carstone from the lower Cretaceous strata immediately below the red chalk.  In addition, a significant amount of flint has been used, besides Barnack stone for the dressings.


The W. front of the building (shown below right) must be described in some detail for it furnishes an exceptional display of Norman decorative work.  The W. doorway is formed of three orders decorated with three-dimensional chevron and rolls, of which the outer two orders are each supported on a pair of shafts with scalloped capitals.  The W. window above (shown in detail below left) has three orders of mouldings formed from different sizes and combinations of chevron in two planes, and two orders of shafts covered with chevron and cable moulding and with faces decorating the capitals.  On either side of this there is a blank arcade in two layers, the outer formed of intersecting round arches and the inner, of three little enclosed bays, all surrounded by further chevron and supported on capitals of generally scalloped form which nevertheless include a couple of carved heads.  However, the upper tier of blank arcading and the circular window in the gable, are the elaborations of Anthony Salvin (1799-1881) in the first restoration of 1845.  Salvin was by no means a bad architect so why he felt it necessary to insert this work here, when it could not possibly add to the Norman work below, is difficult to say.  The nave windows are also his, but quite a lot that he did was subsequently undone in later restorations.  Other external features of the building to notice include the fine thirteenth century group of three stepped lancets in the chancel E. wall, each with an order of the slenderest possible colonnettes. The nave has a Norman doorway on each side (of which that to the south is now inside the porch), but these are quite simple, with chevron  round the arches and just one order of shafts. Finally, Street's central tower, like Salvin's additions to the building, is not a particularly happy invention either.  Its saddleback roof, said to have been based on the roof of a castle forebuilding, is nevertheless ungainly, and the bell-stage below (in First Pointed style) is constructed of an even-textured ashlar that is conspicuously at odds with the more homely mix of materials employed elsewhere.  


Inside the church, it is inevitably the massive tower arches that are the building’s most striking feature.  The round-headed W. arch is formed of two orders on each side, decorated with chevron and cable moulding, and supported by semicircular shafts to the outer order and much thicker shafts to the inner, all with cushion capitals with superimposed scrolling.  The E. arch looks later and of c. 1200, for the arch shape is pointed although the roll mouldings and shafts with cushion capitals are still wholly Norman forms. This raises the question, of course, of why it is or how it can be different.   If the church was begun at the W. end so that work proceeded eastwards, that would have been the opposite of the usual practice.  Perhaps the E. arch had to be reconstructed just a few decades after it was originally built, but that also seems unlikely.  There is, at least, no mystery about the S. arch, which is a straightforward thirteenth century insertion and one on a grand scale - very tall, and with a complex profile above responds made up of three orders of semicircular shafts.  The tower has a quadripartite rib vault, high up, with more chevron moulding, while above the W. arch is a three-bay arcade supported on short but very thick circular columns, opening to a wall passage.  Further notable Norman work can be seen at the W. end of the building, where either side of the W. window there are blank arches with tall side-shafts with scalloped capitals.  They imply that before the W. front blank arcading was added, there were for a short time, three round-headed windows in this wall.  However, whatever the date of this presumed change of plan, the large square font below predates it, for although brought here in more recent times, it came originally from the excavated remains of the earlier church, demolished when the castle was built. Its W. face features what must surely be the faces of three cats, grinning broadly. The earlier church, interestingly enough, was dedicated to St. Felix.


Finally, there remains some more thirteenth century work to describe, chiefly in the chancel.  Here the stepped E. lancets are set in elaborate arches with keeled rolls and dogtooth moulding around them and with two orders of colonnettes with stiff leaf capitals at the sides.  In the S. wall, the three-bay stepped sedilia with piscina beyond, with trefoil-cusped arches and detached circular shafts, also appears to be old, although this is the part of the building that was most extensively restored and so caution is needed.  Returning to the nave, to the right of the Norman tower arch there is an indisputably thirteenth century recessed arch with dogtooth moulding and an order of colonnettes with stiff leaf, clearly constructed to hold an altar and create a tiny side chapel, while left of the tower arch there is a smaller Norman one.