English Church Architecture -
ASHWELL, St. Mary (SK 866 137) (June 2008)
(Bedrock: Lower Jurassic, Marlstone Rock Formation)
This church (shown left), consisting of a W. tower, an aisled nave with a S. porch, and a chancel with shorter chapels, was heavily restored in 1851, making it difficult today to tell how much of the present architectural detail has a mediaeval basis. However, there is undoubtedly work of the late twelfth, thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries here, along with plenty of scope for uncertainty. The restoration was carried out under the direction of William Butterfield, but there is little here that is characteristic of the architect unless (in the light if his interest in the use of contrasting building materials) it was he who first introduced the stripy effect created by the two types of stone employed in the facing of the tower, in which case it is not one of his happier inventions.
To begin, then, with the late twelfth century (Norman) part of the building, this is only apparent internally now, where it consists of the round, double-flat-chamfered western arch of the three-bay N. arcade, and the circular pier supporting it to the east (right), of wider section and with nailhead round the capital.
However, nailhead also decorates the eastern pier of this arcade, from which spring pointed arches to the east and west, and the piers and responds of the four-bay (sic) S. arcade (illustrated below left), the tower and chancel arches and the arches between the aisles and chapels, and the two-bay arcades between the chapels and the chancel. Pevsner’s assessment of all these appears to have been that the two eastern bays of the N. arcade are thirteenth century work but that the other arches are early fourteenth century in date and thus, presumably, that the use of nailhead there represents the late employment of an earlier form of decoration. Yet surely a more admissible explanation would be to ascribe these arches to a range of thirteenth century dates, such as might result from a protracted period of construction, and to leave open the possibility that some remodelling was carried out when new windows were inserted in the building in Decorated times or subsequently. The S. arcade piers and central piers of the chapel arcades are octagonal in section but almost nothing is exactly the same as its counterpart elsewhere, suggesting either that construction work proceeded very slowly or that several masons were engaged on the building, who collaborated only poorly. Thus, for example, the responds at the ends of the S. arcade - but not elsewhere - are keeled, and even the capitals of the central piers of the chapel arcades differ, north from south, with the former having a conspicuously taller neck.
However, be this as it may, most of the exterior of the building is certainly consistent with the Decorated period, as shown by the windows especially and by the profusion of ball flower which decorates the arches of many of them and runs in a frieze round the sanctuary, about a metre below the eaves. It is hard to tell how much of this ornament is original but the details are rather course and large, and one quickly grows tired of it. The windows are another assortment but include a five-light chancel E. window and a four-light S. aisle S. window, both with reticulated tracery and ball flower, and two three-light N. aisle windows with flowing tracery formed from the intersection of the ogee subarcuations of the lights in pairs like that at George Richardson’s church (of 1782) at neighbouring Teigh and the early fourteenth century church at Madingley, Cambridgeshire. The tower is unbuttressed and rises in three stages to restored bell-openings with cusped Y-tracery and battlements.
Finally a brief note should be added on furnishings. The sanctuary has a renewed three-bay sedilia recessed in the S. wall (shown right), with cinquefoil-cusped arches and more ball flower above, and there is a double-piscina beyond with openwork tracery. A large blank arch in the N. wall that was probably once an Easter sepulchre, has a roll moulding around the arch, little “T” motifs decorating the soffit, and small gabled blank arches in shallow relief facing the opening from the sides. The chancel roof (or more precisely, the sanctuary roof), of trefoil-cusped section formed by the arched braces, is Butterfield’s, but apart from the tiled floor and alabaster reredos, he appears to have been wise enough not to attempt much else in the way of internal decoration here, for it would have been rendered quite lifeless by the oppressive stained glass.