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CURRY RIVEL, St. Andrew  (ST 392 254),

SOMERSET. 

(Bedrock:  Lower Jurassic, Blue Lias Formation.)

 

One of A.K. Wickham's so-called 'South Somerset' group of churches

with exceptional towers, dateable to the late fifteenth century.

 

 

During the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, Somerset was one of the wealthiest counties in England, growing rich on the wool trade, and this former prosperity is witnessed today in the quality of its churches, and of their towers in particular.  Rising nobly in Perpendicular style in almost every other village, they comprise between them one of the greatest corpora of mediaeval art to be found in western Europe, so it is hardly surprising they have attracted the attention of tourists and writers down the decades, and not only since Pevsner's whirlwind circuit of the county in the summer of 1957.  The more methodical of these visitors have naturally looked for connections between these buildings - for example, in date or style - and a few have attempted to categorize them.  Pevsner's system, however, which sought to classify towers by the arrangement of their windows, added very little to the understanding of their provenance or the sphere of influence of their rich and multifarious designs, and it is telling that after explaining his methodology at length in the introduction to the Somerset volumes of The Buildings of England (republished New Haven & London, Yale University Press, 2003,pp. 34-43), he never referred to it again in either of the volumes.  However, a far more instructive, albeit more limited scheme, had earlier been set out in Dr. J.F. Allen's book The Great Church Towers of England (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1932), and this was subsequently refined by A.K. Wickham in The Churches of Somerset (London, David & Charles, 1965).  In this, Allen identified five groups of churches within the county (reduced from eight in Dr. Allen's work) which are sufficiently homogenous to suggest that while not necessarily built by the same master masons, they are at least the work of distinct schools of artisans in close artistic contact, and these he named 'the Cathedral Group', 'the West Mendip Group', 'the North Somerset Group', 'the South Somerset Group', and 'the Quantock Group', among which, the South Somerset Group considered here, comprises churches distinguished by stately bell-openings extending through the two upper stages of the tower, divided by heavy, ornamented transoms, and notable for their employment of contrasting  steely blue-grey Blue Lias and golden Ham Hill Stone, both from the Lower Jurassic Series, laid down approximately 201-198 Ma and 177-174 Ma respectively.

 

 

 

 

This qualifies as a member of A.K. Wickham's 'South Somerset Group' notwithstanding the fact that the tower was almost entirely rebuilt c.1861, as it is believed it was done more or less faithfully.  Its one real departure today from Wickham's description of the towers of these buildings is that the pinnacles are now missing except to the northeast.  The tower rises in four stages, supported by set-back buttresses and with a stair turret at the east end of the N. wall, which continues slightly higher than the tower itself;  the bell-openings extend through the top two stages and there is a frieze of blank quatrefoils running round the tower between string courses immediately below.  The church is constructed entirely of blue lias with Ham Hill stone dressings. (See the photograph left, taken from the southeast.) The contrast between these materials is striking since the lias in particular remains almost wholly unweathered.  The building consists of a W. tower, a four-bay aisled nave with a two-storey S. porch, and a chancel with a two-bay N. chapel and a cross-gabled S. chapel, now serving as an the organ chamber.  There is a turret for the rood stair in the re-entrant between the N. aisle and N. chapel, rising to a parapet decorated with quatrefoils.  The rest of the church is embattled.  A detailed description of the building follows. 

 

The N. chapel is the earliest of these constituent parts and now takes the form of a Perpendicular remodelling of thirteenth century masonry, perhaps carried out before the complete reconstruction of the rest of the building was undertaken shortly afterwards.  Here the windows have three lights and supermullioned tracery, whereas all other windows to the north and south are four-light with alternate tracery, subreticulation, subarcuation of the lights in pairs, and through reticulation.  (See the S. chapel S. window, illustrated right.)  The lights are ogee-pointed everywhere and, except in the N. chapel, the sublights are trefoil-cusped at top and bottom.  The aisle and S. chapel windows also have transoms halfway up and small encircled quatrefoils in the spandrels of the half-lights below, in the way that can also be seen, for example, at neighbouring Langport.  The chancel E. window and tower W. window are five-light with subarcuation of the outer lights in pairs and a supertransom above and between (crossing, as it were, between lights 2b and 4a).  (See the glossary for an explanation of these terms.)  The S. porch has a three-light supermullioned window with strong mullions in the upper storey, carved figures of musicians at the ends and centre of the string course immediately above, two of which (depicting a viol player and bagpiper) are original, and a frieze of quatrefoils below, containing rosettes and a portcullis badge.  (See the final paragraph of this note.)  The fan vault inside the porch is decorated with blank quatrefoils containing rosettes, set in squares and circles in the centre.  (See below.)  A stair turret is squashed into the northwest angle and the inner doorway is four-centred with continuous mouldings.

 

 

 

Inside the church, the four-bay nave arcades are composed of piers formed of four fairly wide shafts with capitals, separated by casements (wide, shallow hollow chamfers), and arches bearing casements and wave mouldings (see the S. arcade, below left, viewed from the east), and this is also the general form of the two-bay arcade from the chancel to the very large N. chapel (although here the arches are very tall and wide, and the central pier, very narrow), the chancel arch (which is also very wide and tall), the arch from the chancel to the S. chapel, and the arches from the aisles to the chapels.  Only the tower arch, therefore, is significantly different, being of the type with panelled soffits seen at Hinton St. George, Long Sutton, Martock, Muchelney and Norton-sub-Hamdon, among other places.  The fan vault inside the tower (shown below right), just above the W. window, appears to have been retained from the mediaeval work. The N. chapel E. window has an order of internal shafts with dog-tooth moulding round the top, witnessing the thirteenth century origin of some of the masonry here.  The two N. windows have cusped rere-arches with little pendants hanging from the cusps.  However, perhaps the most striking feature of the church interior, is the series of tomb recesses with trefoiled canopies along the N. wall of the N. chapel.  There are six of these, of varying sizes, some containing effigies, which together extend the full length of the wall.  They were probably placed in the chapel a few decades after its original construction, though the largest effigy (which is that of a knight), both from its style and the fact it does not properly fit its allotted space, appears to be older and to have come from elsewhere. There is also a large monument in the easternmost arch between the chancel and N. chapel, dating this time from the seventeenth century, and commemorating Marmaduke and Robert Jennings, father and son (d. 1625 & 1630 respectively).  This features two recumbent effigies with hands clasped in prayer, beneath a coffered arch with blue-painted panels and red roses in the centres, while facing into the chancel above, 'lie two silly cherubs' (Nikolaus Pevsner, The Buildings of England: South and West Somerset, New Haven & London, Yale University Press,  2003,  p. 148).

 

Old woodwork in the church includes, first and foremost, the fine parclose screens between the aisles and chapels.  (The screen between the S. aisle and chapel, is shown at the foot of the page.)  These are composed of four bays each, with deeply-recessed untraceried dados and two orders of slender shafts, set one in front of the other with the foremost detached, supporting fan-vaulted lofts covered in thick vine carving.  The flat aisle roofs may also be old. The bench ends are almost certainly late fifteenth century work and similar to those at nearby High Ham.

 

In conclusion, therefore, it view of the architectural unity of much of the work described above, it seems probable that with the exception of the N. chapel and W. tower, the rest of the church was constructed in a single phase of operations whose approximate date may be taken from the portcullis motif already mentioned, in the third quatrefoil from the left in the frieze above the S. porch outer doorway.  This was the badge of Lady Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry VII, who it may be assumed was then reigning.  Henry became king in 1485 and died in 1509, the same year as his mother, who was his senior by a mere thirteen years, and yet who was already widowed at the time of his birth!

[Other Somerset churches in the 'South Somerset Group'  featured on this web-site are to be found at

Crewkerne, Hinton St. George, Norton-sub-Hamden and Shepton Beauchamp.]