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English Church Architecture.


SHIMPLING, St. George  (TM 041 444),


(Bedrock:  Upper Creatceous, Upper Chalk.)


One of 181 churches in England with round towers, of which all but five are in Cambridgeshire (with 2), Essex (with 6), Norfolk (with 126) or Suffolk (with 42).



Round church towers were almost invariably assumed by Pevsner to have a Saxon or Norman origin.  That is not necessarily the case, and the form is a function of geology rather than age, for the lack of the ready availability of good building stone to serve as quoins made this a cheap design option by avoiding the expense in the pre-railway age of bringing, usually by horse and cart or at best along the rivers by boat, heavy, bulk materials from afar.  The definitive book on this subject is, and is long likely to remain, the late Stephen Hart's The Round Church Towers of England  (Ipswich, Lucas Books, 2003), to which the notes on these buildings are inevitably, to a greater or lesser degree, indebted.


St. George's, Shimpling, though now in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust, is one of the most pleasant round tower churches to visit albeit it is also another whose church guide (in this case, by Paul Cattermole, 1995) and entry in The Buildings of England (in the 'Northwest & South Norfolk' volume by Nikolaus Pevsner and Bill Wilson, Penguin, 1999, pp. 644-645), should be entirely disregarded, leaving the visitor to turn to Stephen Hartís meticulously observed study instead (pp. 135-138). 


In brief, Hartís account of St. Georgeís constructional history is based on his conclusion that the stair incorporated in the tower wall to the southwest, is contemporary with the tower itself, and that the tower is therefore no older than the bricks used in its risers and newel, although (as he also points out) there are, in any case, quite a lot of bricks used elsewhere in the circular stage of the tower (as well as the octagonal belfry), some of which form conspicuous vertical bands that are most unlikely to have been inserted into earlier masonry.  This clearly implies that the circular stage can be no earlier than the revival of native brickmaking, which may have begun in East Anglia at Polstead in Suffolk c. 1180 but which did not become widespread until the end of the thirteenth century.  Moreover, since there is no evidence of former bell-openings in the circular stage, it seems likely that the octagonal belfry is contemporary, which would allow the whole structure to be dated on the stylistic evidence of the present bell-openings, which have reticulated tracery typical of the early fourteenth century (Decorated) work.   These occupy the cardinal faces of the belfry, while the ordinal faces are decorated with blank flushwork windows of similar design.  The whole tower, therefore, seems very much a companion piece to the tower at Thorpe Abbotts, just three miles to the southeast, and although a late fourteenth century date probably fits better there, such a date is not beyond the bounds of possibility here either, which left Hart to speculate that, perhaps, the 'tower and belfry was the work towards which the rector left the sum of one mark [66p] in 1386'. Internally, the tall pointed tower arch is noticeably off-centre towards the north, and Hart argued that the reason for this was to allow a greater thickness of wall to the south in which the stair could be set.


The rest of the church consists of a chancel, nave and N. porch.  The porch (shown right), like the steeple and tower W. window, is Victorian, although in this case, it replaces an earlier structure that had become very dilapidated: an attractive little addition, it is half-timbered in mock-Tudor style, with brick-nogging infill between the studwork and nicely carved bargeboards.   The chancel, however, is characteristic of Early English times, with Y-traceried windows to the north and south, and a three-light window with intersecting tracery to the east, but the  chancel roof (shown at the foot of the page, viewed from the west) is now a replacement of 1633, as announced on an inscribed tie beam, which also carries the initials 'N.C.' and (possibly) 'I. B.'.  The rafters are tied together with purlins one third and two thirds of the way up the pitch, which alone distinguishes it from the differently-framed nave roof with castellated wall plates, arched braces, and single purlins halfway up the pitch (as illustrated left, viewed from the east) for there is no chancel arch to separate them



[Other churches with round towers featured on this web-site are Aldham and Bartlow in Cambridgeshire, Quidenham, Roydon, Rushall and Thorpe Abbotts in Norfolk, and Aldham, Brome, Hengrave, Higham, Little Bradley, Little Saxham, Rickinghall Inferior, Risby, Stuston, Theberton, Wissett and Wortham in Suffolk.]