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English Church Architecture.


HEACHAM, St. Mary  (TF 681 380),


(Bedrock:  Lower Cretaceous, Carstone Formation.)


A church situated on the Lower Greensand outcrop, built largely 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 (CENTRAL Bedfordshire);  12 = Edworth (CENTRAL Bedfordshire); 


This is essentially a cruciform church of c.1300 or, rather, what remains of one, for the transepts were replaced in the early nineteenth century by aisle extensions, the windows have been mostly renewed, and the building has been heavily patched throughout with little concern for appearance.  This is illustrated, for example, by the huge, ungainly N. buttress to the central tower, built roughly of carstone and yet partly galleted, whereby small pebbles are pressed into the mortar between the main stones while the mortar is still wet, in a rather desperate attempt at decoration  (as illustrated in the photograph below right), albeit there may also have existed a vague contemporary notion that this might in some way add to the building's strength.   Elsewhere the masonry is a hotchpotch that includes cobbles, both gault and red bricks (sometimes used as rubble), limestone (for dressings), and areas of carstone/clunch chequer work.  Viewed, therefore, as architecture, this church is not a display of local building materials so much as a complete and utter jumble, from which its plain or worn details are quite unable to rescue it.  Only the wide S. doorway (inside the porch), still firmly in Early English style with two orders of colonnettes with stiff leaf capitals supporting an arch of complex profile, and the five-light nave W. window with curvilinear (and therefore normally Decorated) tracery but  also cinquefoil-cusped lights of possibly early Perpendicular date (i.e. after 1350), have any artistic pretensions. Otherwise the heavily restored, three-light aisle windows display supermullioned tracery above the central lights and inverted daggers above the outer ones, the bell-openings consist simply of open circles, and the rebuilt battlements fail to give the tower a properly finished appearance. The porch once had a quadripartite vault, but this too has been removed, leaving only the springers. 


Inside, the building is a little more attractive but not much.  The five-bay arcades and the four crossing arches are commensurate with an Early English/Decorated transitional date, formed of two hollow-chamfered orders, springing from alternately circular and octagonal piers in the case of the arcades, and from semi-octagonal responds in the case of the crossing arches.  The arch from the S. aisle to the earlier S. transept, is similar, but the corresponding N. arch, like the S. doorway, adopts a more definite, thirteenth century form, its many roll mouldings producing an arch of complex profile, supported below on semi-quatrefoil responds.  It looks as if this arch, together with the S. doorway, predates the bulk of the other work by two or three decades, but it is difficult to conceive a building history where this might actually be.