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English Church Architecture.


THORPE ABBOTTS, All Saints  (TM 187 790),


(Bedrock:  Pleistocene, Norwich Crag Formation.)


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.


This is another church with a round tower that turns octagonal at the bell-stage and another where the account in the 'Northwest and South Norfolk' volume of The Buildings of England (second edition by Nikolaus Pevsner and Bill Wilson, New Haven & London, Yale University Press, 1999, pp. 725-726) - which, in any case, is only fourteen lines long - is virtually worthless.  Fortunately, help is at hand from Stephen Hart again, whose The Round Church Towers of England includes a detailed article on the building (pp. 129-131).


Considered in brief, the key to the understanding of the building lies in the recognition of a blocked round-headed doorway turned in flint about halfway along the nave N. wall (seen left), east of the present N. doorway of early thirteenth century form (illustrated below right).  Presumably, the former was the entrance to the church before the latter was constructed, and just west of the blocked arch, at a distance of 19' 6" (5.9 m.) from the nave northwest corner, Stephen Hart noticed a straight vertical joint, just discernable in the masonry - a feature he then found in the same position in the S. wall.  This appears to be incontrovertible proof that an original Romanesque nave was lengthened westwards in the thirteenth century - perhaps the first quarter to judge from the existing doorway, the obvious implication being that the tower, which adjoins the extension, could obviously not have been erected earlier than this date.  Moreover, in addition, the two-light bell-openings have straightened reticulation units in their heads, a form which is most closely associated in East Anglia with the second half of the fourteenth century, and since Hart could find no trace, inside or out, of a join between the tower's round and octagonal stages (indeed, the change of shape inside takes place about 5' 6" higher up than outside), it seems reasonable to conclude that the whole tower was built in a single phase at this time, a conclusion given added credence by the composition of the masonry in the round stage, which includes a number of mediaeval bricks used at random in the matrix and in an integral relieving arch above the cinquefoil-cusped lancet window to the west.  Above the round stage, the tower actually has two octagonal stages for before the bell-stage is reached, there is a short blank stage about 8' high (2.4 m.), divided off between string courses, presumably to enhance its appearance.  Both the octagonal stages have brick quoins and the bell-stage is pierced by bell-openings in its cardinal faces only, and decorated on the ordinal sides by two-light blank openings in flushwork as also seen, for example, at Theberton in Suffolk.


The rest of the church can be quickly described.   The N. windows to the nave include one with Y-tracery that seems partly original, perhaps of late thirteenth century date, and the S. windows comprise three two-light Perpendicular insertions with drop tracery and quatrefoils in the apices beneath segmental arches.   The chancel windows are wholly Victorian.  The diagonally-buttressed porch (shown right) is constructed in brick in mixed bond and is probably a fifteenth century addition;  both the side windows and outer arch are composed of moulded brick.  Inside the church, the tower arch is narrow but extremely thick, as a result of being formed by the meeting of two walls (i.e. of the nave and tower).  The chancel arch consists of two orders bearing two wave mouldings on the inner order, carried on semi-octagonal responds, and a continuous quadrant moulding on the outer order, while  the mouldings around the capitals extend to encompass both.  


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