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CLUN, St. George  (SO 300 806),

SHROPSHIRE. 

(Bedrock:  Middle Jurassic, Fullers Earth Formation.)

 

A heavily restored church of Norman origin,

in a village made famous in the poetry of A.E. Housman (1859 - 1936).

 

    'Clunton and Clunbury,
    Clungerford and Clun,
    Are the quietest places
    Under the sun.'
 

 

This is another place, like Adlestrop in Gloucestershire, where its literary associations have greater resonance than its architecture.  Alfred Edward Housman (1859 - 1936) wrote A Shropshire Lad, a cycle of fifty-three poems about love and loss set in the Shropshire landscape, in 1896, and poems such as 'Loveliest of trees', 'When I was one and twenty' and 'On Wenlock Edge' and phrases such as 'those blue remembered hills' and 'With rue my heart is laden' quickly seared themselves into readers' consciousnesses, especially after the Great War and then the coming of the motorcar, seemed to blow away 'the land of lost content' about which Housman had written so evocatively.  Clun was one of the places that Housman revered.  However, although its church is certainly an ancient structure with origins in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, it has been so heavily restored that it is difficult now to know which features to trust.  The building consists of an aisled nave and chancel with an extremely wide and squat west tower, and an almost equally massive N. porch from which an ungainly projection to the east houses the stair to the upper storey.   The W. doorway to the tower is clearly of Norman and most of the little windows to the tower seem also to be unaltered but the aisle windows and S. clerestory, at least on the outside, are today wholly due to the excessive ministrations of George Edmund Street in 1877 (Nikolaus Pevsner, The  Buildings of England: Shropshire, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1958, p. 108). 

 

To deal with these parts of the church in turn, the tower is approximately thirty feet square and truncated just above the nave ridge by a pyramidal roof that rises in two tiers, separated by a short upright section of timber panelling.  It is constructed beneath of coursed rubble and a large amount of re-used Roman tile.  The large round-arched W. doorway is composed of three unmoulded orders, and there is a broad round-headed window above, which is obviously also old.   At the time of this visit, the tower was locked off from the nave inside, presumably because it now serves as a vestry, so it was not possible to examine the interior, but since only a doorway connects it to the nave, it seems likely to have been an addition to a pre-existing building.

 

The aisles are asymmetric, with the N. aisle and chapel, wide and independently-gabled, and the S aisle and chapel, shallow and of lean-to construction.  The sanctuary projects beyond these to the east for two short bays, lit on either side by two tall Victorian lancets, and to the east, by a stepped group of three.   In fact, the nave and chancel are very tall themselves, and the group of three lancets sit on a string course some fifteen feet (almost 5 m.) from the ground.  The external face of the N. wall of the N. chapel contains the remains of a cinquefoil-cusped tomb canopy recessed within it, decorated with what the mason probably fondly imagined to be ball-flower.  (See the photograph below left.)  This does very little to beautify the work but probably helps to date it (to the Decorated period of the early fourteenth century). The massive N porch has a double-chamfered outer doorway with chamfers dying into the jambs, and a pair of Victorian windows lighting the upper storey, beneath a half-timbered gable which appears to have been a fanciful invention of Street's. The inner doorway is its best feature and probably mid to late twelfth century work. Composed of two unmoulded orders resting on abaci with concave under-edges, it is supported by jambs of two orders with rolls down the angles. 

Inside the church, the aisled nave is massively Romanesque in style, but to what extent can it still be considered truly Norman and to what extent the work of Street?  Save only for a single bay, the four-bay arcades are supported on circular piers with very large square scalloped capitals, while the arches themselves are slightly pointed and decorated on the outer order by horizontal chevron moulding.  (The photograph above right, shows the S. arcade, viewed from the northwest.) The exception is the easternmost arch of the N. arcade, which is round-arched and unmoulded.  Pevsner assumed that this was earlier than the other arches, for which the date is probably c. 1180 - 1200, and suggested it originally led to a transept, but since the voussoirs have since been heavily scraped or retooled at the very least, this can only be a matter of speculation.

 

Street appears to have been almost entirely responsible for the chancel but it is not an especially rewarding example of his workmanship.  The internal splays to the lancets round the sanctuary have an order of grey marble side-shafts.  There is a sedilia formed of three equal bays, recessed in the S. wall, and a double piscina to the east.  According to Pevsner, the pulpit is Jacobean, although it stands on a modern base and is another feature that has conspicuously failed to escape the restorer's hand.  Perhaps this church was in a particularly precarious state when Street was let loose on it in 1877, but great artist though he was when designing a building from scratch, in restorations Street was always too ready to seek to 'improve' the work of his forebears, however sanctified it was by age.  He even expressed himself willing on one occasion to take down the exceptional W. front of St. Michael's, Stewkley, Buckinghamshire, and move it further westwards (a proposal, mercifully, that was never carried out) when it was mooted there was a need to increase the accommodation (Arthur Edmund Street, Memoir of George Edmund Street, London, John Murray, 1888, pp. 97-99), so it need not surprise anyone that he showed little sensitivity here.  Housman's evocation of the place had little or nothing to do with its architecture however.
 
 1.  'In valleys of springs of rivers                          2.    We still had sorrows to lighten
      By Ony and Teme and Clun,                                  One could not be always glad,
      The country for easy livers,                                    And lads knew trouble at Knighton

      The quietest under the sun,                                     When I was a Knighton lad.

 

 3.   By bridges that Thames runs under,                4.    And if as a lad grows older

       In London, the town built ill,                                 The troubles he bears are more,

      'Tis sure small matter for wonder                           He carries his griefs on a shoulder

       If sorrow is with one still.                                     That handselled them long before.

 

 5.  Where shall one halt to deliver                         6.   'Tis a long way further than Knighton,

      This luggage I'd lief set down?                                A quieter place than Clun,

      Not Thames, not Teme is the river,                        Where doomsday may thunder and lighten

      Nor London nor Knighton the town.                       And little 'twill matter to one.'