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English Church Architecture -



THORPE ABBOTTS, All Saints (TM 187 790)     (April 2009)

(Bedrock:  Pleistocene, Norwich Crag Formation)


There are approximately one hundred and eighty-one churches with round towers in England, if a few in a ruinous condition may be included.  No less than one hundred and twenty-six of these are in Norfolk, of which the present building has one (shown left, and in close-up, below right), and it is also one of fifty-seven churches (which include St. Mary's, Bexwell in this county and Little Bradley, Rickinghall Inferior and Stuston in Suffolk, all featured on this web-site) where the belfry turns octagonal.  Considered altogether, however, it is possibly true to say that no other group of churches has had so much misleading information written about them, which - depending on authors - frequently includes the dictum they are either all Saxon or else all Norman, whereas over half are probably thirteenth century at the earliest.  Even Pevsner is singularly unreliable in the dating of round towers and his entry (assuming it is his) in the Northwest and South Norfolk volume of The Buildings of England (second edition by Nikolaus Pevsner and Bill Wilson, Yale University Press, 1999) - which is, in any case, only fourteen lines long - is virtually worthless. Fortunately, help is at hand in the form of Stephen Hart's admirable monograph The Round Towers of England (Lucas Books, 2003), which includes a detailed article,  and the visitor seeking a detailed interpretation of this church should certainly consult it.


Explained in brief, the key to the understanding of the building appears to lie in the recognition of a blocked round-headed doorway turned in flint (shown below) about halfway along the nave N. wall, to the 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 also found in the same position in the S. wall.  This seems 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 implication is obviously that the tower which adjoins the extension is most unlikely to have been erected before this date. However, in addition, the two-light bell-openings have straightened reticulation units in their heads, which seems most closely associated in East Anglia with the second half of the fourteenth century (see Appendix 2 for some close-dated examples of this motif) and since Hart could find no trace, either 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 in the late fourteenth century - a conclusion given further credence by the composition of the masonry in the round stage, which includes a number of mediaeval bricks in the matrix and an integral relieving arch above the cinquefoil-cusped lancet window to the west.  In fact, above this stage the tower 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 the bell-openings in its cardinal faces only, and decorated on the ordinal sides by two-light blank openings in flushwork.


The rest of the church can be described more quickly.  The N. windows to the nave include one with Y-tracery that seems partly original, and the S. windows comprise three two-light Perpendicular insertions with drop supermullioned tracery and quatrefoils in the apices, beneath segmental arches.   The chancel windows are wholly Victorian.  The diagonally-buttressed porch (left) is constructed in brick in mixed bond and is probably fifteenth century in date;  both the side windows and outer arch are formed in 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;  the mouldings of the capitals encompass both.  


Finally, the furnishings in the church include a Perpendicular font (right) which is one of many in this region that feature the symbols of the Evangelists alternating with angels holding shields on the bowl, and which is also one of a number curiously aligned with its sides facing east-northeast, east-southeast, south-southeast, etc., instead of the cardinal and ordinal directions.  The Perpendicular rood screen was clearly not designed for its present position to judge from the way it has been hacked about to make it fit;  the dado is now completely missing but the tracery remains.