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English Church Architecture -



WALPOLE ST. PETER, St. Peter (TF 502 169)     (October 2018)

(Bedrock:  Upper Jurassic, Ampthill Clay Formation)


This is a huge and chiefly Perpendicular church, where only the tower belongs to a different architectural period.  This is Decorated, with upper parts possibly a couple of decades later than the lower.  This is believed to be the only part of the church not swept away by floods in 1337, which may offer a reason for the partial reconstruction of the tower shortly after.  However, although it is large, it is not otherwise remarkable and rises in three rather plain stages to battlements, supported by angle buttresses, lit from the west by a modest two-light window with flowing tracery above an equally modest doorway (as seen in the photograph left.) The bell-openings are transomed and have reticulated tracery.  The tower arch to the nave is triple-flat-chamfered and supported on responds formed of three shafts with fillets, separated by hollows, a style which a later and greater master mason replicated for the nave arcade piers (although not the capitals or arches).


It is immediately east of the tower that the glory of the church begins.  The nave and aisles are seven bays long and the chancel extends a further five bays beyond that, producing a building 161’ in length (49 m.).  All parts are embattled, including the two-storeyed S. porch adjoining the second nave bay from the west and the single-storeyed S. porch opposite.  Most striking, however, is the fenestration in all parts, for this is truly a “Perpendicular glasshouse”  in which the windows seem to fill almost the whole of the walls (as seen in the photogrpah of the church, right, viewed from the south), save only for the spaces for the buttresses between.  The aisle windows to N. & S. are three-light with supermullioned drop tracery and castellated transoms about two-fifths of the way up and again at the springing level, and to E. & W., four-light with subarcuation of the lights in pairs, through reticulation, and supertransoms inside the subarcuations and, higher up, above lights 2b & 3a.  (See the photograph of the N. aisle E. window below left.)  The chancel windows to north and south are three-light with supermullioned tracery, transoms at the springing level above lights 1 & 3 and a latticed transom above the central light in between, while the sills which step up towards the east, so to allow a curious four-centred, vaulted passageway to pass under the sanctuary of the kind more usually found beneath a tower or porch to allow the processional circuit of the church when it abuts the churchyard boundary. (See the thumbnail, below right.) The chancel E. window is seven-light and transomed with subarcuation of the outer lights in threes, through reticulation, and a supertransom above lights 3-5.  This is the only obviously four-centred window, the others being two-centred, again suggesting an early fifteenth century date.  The clerestory is formed of two, two-light windows per bay, positioned internally above the spandrels of the aisle arcades.  The battlements to the nave, aisles and chancel, which were almost certainly added later, are covered in small blank arches forming a single row beneath the embrasures and a second interrupted row across the top of the embrasures.  The E. end of the nave terminates in two projecting rood stair turrets topped by crocketed pyramidal spirelets in the manner of St. Mary’s, Saffron Walden (Essex), which Pevsner thought might have derived from those at King’s College Chapel, although here the date is earlier than either.  There is also a little open bell-cote with surmounting crocketed pinnacle on the apex of the gable, and the whole arrangement is balanced for the eye by two prominent crocketed pinnacles at the furthermost corners of the chancel.


The two-storeyed S. porch is another proud piece of work (as shown below left).  Here too there are angle buttresses at the corners, pinnacles above, and battlements decorated with the same blank arcading, but here also there are carved niches in the forward edges of the buttresses, a row of cinquefoil-cusped blank arches above the four-centred outer doorway, and an upper-storey S. window with a castellated supertransom above the central light, set between large blank niches with crocketed pinnacles and carved animals supporting the pedestals.  Nevertheless, perhaps the most striking conceit is the fact that that the upper storey as well as the lower is lit by side windows in each of its two bays.  These are roofed in the lower storey by two square bays of tierceron vaulting (illustrated below right), which can generally be regarded an earlier stage in the development of the vault, appearing prior to the lierne form.  The bosses are intricately carved with scenes from the Passion, Assumption etc. and a menagerie of semi-mythical beasts.  The N. porch is a relatively simple affair, just one bay in depth.


Inside the church it is, naturally, the nave arcades that are initially most striking.  The piers are formed of four shafts separated by hollows, with fillets running down the foils and a semi-octagonal capitals to each foil (see the photograph of one of the N. piers, below left), while the non-standard arches above carry a pair of rolls separated by a deep hollow on each of their two orders.  The chancel arch is similar but here the most interesting features are the doors alongside the southern faces of the responds, with crocketed ogee hood-moulds opening into the rood turrets, that to the north opening above at the level of the former rood loft, and that to the south, higher up, at the springing level of the arch, suggesting there was once a loft here also.

The internal view of the chancel is dominated by the rise from the choir to the sanctuary, up no less than nine steps (as illustrated above right).  The N. and S. walls are decorated with cinquefoil-cusped blank arcading (shown in the photograph at the bottom of the page) which naturally encompasses the sedilia and piscina on the S. side towards the east, and the windows are separated by nodding ogee-arched niches with little open arches in the spandrels.  However by this stage it is likely the visitor’s attention will have been drawn to the church woodwork, beginning with the excellent choir stalls immediately in front, covered in blank arcading formed of two-light bays with straightened reticulation units in their heads (itself sometimes an early Perpendicular indicator) set between narrow buttresses, and elaborately carved, winged beast arm rests (to use the term loosely).  The chancel roof is of simple couple construction with close-set rafters, albeit still rather too steeply pitched to look wholly secure without collars or tie beams.   The long nave roof is also quite simple and has tie beams between the bays and purlins halfway up the pitch only (as opposed to the and stages in the chancel roof), but there is plenty of interesting woodwork here also.  The hexagonal pulpit and tester are Jacobean, the former decorated around the drum with the commonplace blank round arches and the latter with consoles and hanging pendants at the angles.   The font has a very nice pyramidal octagonal cover of the same date, rising in four carved tiers, albeit it cannot to be compared in quality with such mediaeval marvels as the late fifteenth century font covers at St. Gregory’s, Sudbury, or St. Mary’s, Ufford (both in Suffolk), with their elaborate tabernacle work.  The church contains a number of screens but the most unusual is that stretching right across the church to the west, which is again of early seventeenth century date, with pediments above the large square doorways into the tower and W. ends of the aisles, and panels in between with blank arches below and turned balusters supporting a rail decorated with little blank arches above.   The alms box is carved in large block letters on each side with the legend “REMEMBER THE POORE” and the date “1639”.