(« back to home page)

English Church Architecture.


WEST WALTON, St. Mary  (TF 471 134),


(Bedrock:  Upper Jurassic, Ampthill Clay Formation.)


Perhaps the finest thirteenth century parish church in England.


This is the primus inter pares of thirteenth century parish churches and a truly magnificent building although it has suffered some unfortunate alterations.  The building (shown left and below) consists of a three-bay chancel, a six-bay nave with exceptionally wide, low-pitched aisles and a shallow S. porch, and, most remarkably, a detached bell-tower, standing some fifty yards to the south and rising up in three stages.  The two parts of the building are tied together stylistically and chronologically by polygonal clasping buttresses running up the angles of the tower and S. porch, and formerly, the W. doorway. The church is situated prominently on a corner between two roads - a very arresting sight.


The bell tower (but not the church itself) is now in the care of the Redundant Churches Fund. The ground stage is open in all four directions through arches of somewhat greater elaboration to the north and the south though all four bear an assortment of rolls, flat chamfers and bands of dog-tooth above responds of three orders. Small but heavily-constructed gabled niches with side-shafts, project  from the buttresses on all the external angles and doors are set in each angle within, of which that to the southeast opens to the stair and the others,  into tiny vaulted cells.  The second stage of the tower is pierced in each wall by a tall triple lancet arcade, behind which runs what Nikolaus Pevsner described  as a 'wall passage' (Nikolaus Pevsner  & Bill Wilson, The Buildings of England: Northwest and South Norfolk, New Haven & London, Yale University Press, 2002, p. 771), although only a midget could pass along it.  The bell-stage has openings each composed of two lancet lights and an open circle set in an encompassing arch with plate tracery, consistent with c. 1240.  (See also St. Helen & St. Mary's, Bourn, Cambridgeshire.)  The polygonal buttresses running up the tower angles are surrounded by three tiers of blank arcading, the lowest two of which continue the rhythm of the second stage arcades and the lancet bell-openings respectively, linking them from side to side around the corners, while the third tier provides a decorative frieze above and around the springing, reaching up to the parapet.  The present parapet and crocketed pinnacles are, predictably, later additions.  The original terminations of the tower's polygonal buttresses are probably illustrated by the surviving conical pinnacles on the buttresses of the S. porch (shown in the second photograph below, on the left).


Evidently these also existed once on either side of the nave W. doorway, although here they have been replaced by massive conventional buttresses in a ham-fisted structural repair, probably carried out in the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century.  The W. doorway itself comprises two lancet-pointed openings divided by a trumeau, set in a larger round arch surrounded by rolls and dog-tooth and with six orders of side-shafts with renewed stiff leaf capitals.  Fragments of blank arcading remain at the sides. The very large five-light W. window to the nave is Perpendicular but, again, remnants of its Early English antecedent can be seen beside it, especially within.  The S. porch once had four orders of shafts and dog-tooth moulding decorating its outer doorway, and its side walls display one and a half truncated bays of blank arcading within, in clear witness of the widening of the aisles, probably in the fifteenth century, when the elaborate N. doorway (shown below right) and S. porch inner doorway, both with blank arches either side, were re-set further forward, and the overlarge, ungainly and untraceried three-light Perpendicular windows were inserted in the west wall of the nave, the end walls of the aisles, and the S. wall of the S. aisle east of the porch.  (The N . doorway is illustrated below right.)  Presumably the attractive two-light thirteenth century window with lancet lights and the adjacent priest’s doorway in the eastern end of the S. aisle were contemporaneously re-set, along with the two, two-light S. windows with curvilinear tracery west of the porch, unless (just possibly) the aisles were actually widened in the early fourteenth century and these windows constructed then.  Either way, the thirteenth century clerestory remains, albeit blocked to the north, composed of lancet lights set beneath every third arch of a continuous blank arcade but so arranged that they appear within, inside every second arch of the blank arcading.  Unfortunately, the windowless chancel has been shortened and shorn of its erstwhile chapels, as shown by the blocked arches on either side. The four-bay E. window is a very poor affair with thin intersecting tracery which Pevsner ascribed to 1807 (ibid.).



The interior of the building is glorious to behold, notwithstanding that it actually contains relatively few features of interest apart from the magnificent nave arcades, for mainly clear glass ensures it is well lit and this enables the arcades to be seen to best advantage.  They are formed of pointed arches bearing many rolls and hollows, supported on circular piers with four detached Purbeck side shafts, held in place by shaft-rings and, at the top, elaborate conjoined stiff leaf capitals.  The chancel arch is a larger version of the same thing and the blocked two-bay arcades to the former chancel chapels, which are still visible, are slenderer versions for here the central piers are now only shafts themselves. (See the interior view of the church below, viewed from the west.)  It is worthy of note that there is absolutely no correlation between the position of the nave arcades and the clerestory windows above, even though they are coeval. 


As for the carpentry or furnishings of the building, there is little to say.  There are four bays of blank arches on either side of the sanctuary, which might have been intended to function as sedilia.  The bays of the nave roof are separated by tie beams and subdivided into three each by false hammerbeams decorated with carved figures which, perhaps because they were not angels, have been suffered to remain.  The roundels in the arcade spandrels date from the eighteenth century and depict the twelve tribes of Israel.