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English Church Architecture.


BARNACK, St. John the Baptist  (TF 079 051),

Peterborough City. 

(Bedrock:  Upper Middle Jurassic, Upper Lincolnshire Limestone.)


A large church with one of the most important Saxon towers in England,

built of stone from the renowned local quarry.


This attractive village is rightly famous as the site of possibly the most important quarry in mediaeval England, from whence was dug the incomparable Middle Jurassic Barnack rag.  Barnack lies between two great fenland rivers, the Welland and the Nene, which approach within one mile to the north and three miles to the south respectively and along which stone could be transported either further inland or out to The Wash, around the coast, and, perhaps, back up other rivers like the Yare.  Thus Norwich, Peterborough and Ely Cathedrals were all largely built of this material, and the quarry, though once covering much of the present village, was almost worked out by the end of the fifteenth century, as a result of which substitutes have had to be found for subsequent restoration work from deposits of similar age and lithology in neighbouring places which have themselves often become synonymous with high quality building stone, such as Ketton in Rutland and Ancaster in Lincolnshire.  Today, a part of the erstwhile Barnack quarry, known for obvious reasons as the 'Hills and Holes', is preserved as a National Nature Reserve, over whose hummocky terrain, pasque flowers bloom in May and marbled white and chalkhill blue butterflies flit in July and August.  (See the photographs at the foot of the page.)


The important church of St. John the Baptist, which is built entirely of Barnack stone, owes its particular fame, however, principally to the W. tower, formed of two square, Saxon  stages, dating from c. 1000, on top of which an octagonal bell-stage was added in the early thirteenth century, with tall octagonal pinnacles rising from broaches and a short surmounting spire which is probably the earliest broach spire England.  The two Saxon stages have characteristic long-and-short work at the angles (quoins set alternately vertically and horizontally) and are constructed of roughly-coursed ragstone that contrasts with the finely cut ashlar used in the church elsewhere.  The four walls are each divided into four narrow sections by projecting lesenes and are pierced by an assortment of round-headed and triangular-headed openings, some now blocked, including a S. doorway that gives direct access to the tower.  A carved decorative panel at the base of the upper stage to the north and south (of which the latter is shown below), feature interlacing and what appears to be a cockerel, and the S. wall also displays a smaller, circular panel at the top of the lower stage, considered to be the remains of a sundial.  Inside the building, the heavy, round-headed Saxon tower arch is formed of two unmoulded orders, springing from wide rectangular jambs with imposts like giant stone sandwiches with the 'filling' recessed in the centre.  (See the N. jamb below.)  These are similar to the tower arch imposts at St. Beneítís church, Cambridge, and suggest, as there, an imperfect understanding on the part of the builders of the structural function of this feature.  The quadripartite ribbed vault underneath the tower, with a round central hole for the bell-ropes to pass through, was inserted to provide extra support when the bell-stage was added. This has two-light, round-arched bell-openings, with central colonnettes supporting Y-tracery and three orders of colonnettes at the sides with dog-tooth moulding alongside those.  The late Philip G.M. Dickinson, in his admirable guide to the church, ascribed this to c. 1200, presumably on the strength of the round arches, but that may be a little too early (Barnack Church, revised J. Martin Goodwin, 1990, p. 22).


The rest of the building consists of an aisled nave with a S. porch, and a chancel with a large S. chapel and a shorter N. chapel and adjoining vestry, beyond which the sanctuary projects one further bay to the east.  The earliest feature anywhere here may be the arch between the chancel and N. chapel (now the organ chamber), which is round-headed and springs from semicircular responds with capitals reminiscent of  waterleaf.  This could date from c. 1180 onwards, although it appears to have been restored.  The three-bay aisle arcades were considered by Dickinson to date from c. 1190 in the case of the N. arcade and c. 1200 in the case of its southern counterpart (Barnack Church, p. 10), but it is a brave soul that attempts such precise dating as this since the stylistic differences between them, though significant, are sufficiently close to one another in the evolution of architectural style as to be equally explicable by the involvement of different masons.  Both arcades are round-arched, but the northern one is supported on relatively slim, circular piers with 'remarkable foliated capitals of unusual design', from which rise arches bearing chevron and keeled rolls - and so if this is the more conservative piece of work in some respects, it is by no means a merely conventional one.  The S. arcade (illustrated left) is supported on fairly broad piers, formed from the clustering of eight unequal semicircular shafts, and has capitals that look forward to stiff leaf and arches bearing a series of unequal rolls.  However, whatever the precise date of this work may be, it is probably the same as the date of the porch and the S. aisle walls to the west, while the date of the N. arcade is probably that of the N. aisle walls (although not the windows in either case).  The S. porch (seen below right) has no side windows but the outer doorway is adorned with three orders of shafts with stiff leaf capitals and the side walls are furnished internally with four-bay blank arcades supported on single colonnettes, above which is what Dickinson aptly described as 'a peculiar  domical rib-vaulted ceiling which seems to have been more than its builder was able to cope with successfully' (Barnack Church, p. 15).  The two-light N. aisle windows appear to have been inserted c. 1300 for they have side shafts internally still of thirteenth century appearance, yet also cusped Y-tracery with trefoils in the heads of the lights and inverted daggers in the eyelets;  the S. aisle windows west of the porch take on a more developed Decorated appearance by including ogees, which suggests they postdate c.1315, but the segmental-arched windows in the S. aisle, east of the porch, may be a little later still, in spite of being otherwise similar to the N. aisle windows, having apparently been constructed when this part of the aisle was widened and given the line of ballflower ornament that runs beneath the parapet.   In any event, also in Decorated times, the N. vestry was added at the E. end of the N. chapel and the present N. and S. windows were inserted in the sanctuary (i.e. where the chancel projects beyond the S. chapel and N. vestry), of which that in the S. wall is similar to those in the aisle west of the porch.  The exceptional five-light E. window to the chancel (below), dating, perhaps, from c. 1300, displays what are possibly the unique features of mullions terminating in tiny finials between the lights and trefoil-cusped crocketed gables topped by  larger finials within.  The S. chapel (below right) is an addition of the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century, and consists of two unequal bays, the western bay lit to the south by two conjoined, two-light windows, and the eastern bay, by a similar but three-light window to the south and another three-light window to the east.  However, the chapel depends for its effect not on its fenestration but on its elaborate openwork battlements and its basal frieze of blank encircled quatrefoils, while internally the E. window is furnished on either side by the most elaborate of canopied niches, of which that to the north appears to retain its original sculptural group, representing - again, according to Dickinson - the Conception of Christ (Barnack Church, p. 13).


Finally, after such detailed architectural description, the furnishings of the building may be quickly passed over, for the church contains no significant old woodwork.  The font is thirteenth century work and exceptionally large and heavy, with a great octagonal bowl decorated with carved foliage and rosettes, supported on eight trefoil-cusped openwork arches that run round in front of a central octagonal stem.  At the other end of the building, recessed in the chancel S. wall, the sedilia consists of three equal, cinquefoil-cusped arches separated by grotesques, one of which was probably intended to represent a devil and the other depicting a man with his arms thrown back to clasp the label.