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English Church Architecture -



HIGH HAM, St. Andrew (ST 425 311)     (November 2008)

(Bedrock:  Triassic Penarth Group, Westbury Formation)


The village of High Ham overlooks the Somerset Levels from the northern end of a large, well-wooded hill, and the countryside around is particularly atmospheric on a wet late autumn or winter's day.  The church itself  (shown left, from the southeast) faces south across an attractive green, and appears largely dateable from an entry in the church register of 1598, by the then rector, Adrian Schael, who wrote: "The Church of Higham....was builded anew from the foundation and troughly finished in the space of one yeare, which was from the Nativity of Criste, 1476, and this was performed by John Selwood, then Abbot of Glaston".  If this claim - i.e. that the entire building, save only for the short W. tower, was erected in just twelve months - seems likely to be an exaggeration, it is at least supported by the fact that St. Andrew's is one of the most uniformly designed churches in the district, which is constructed throughout of the usual local mixture of Ham Hill stone and blue lias, and which consists, besides the tower, of an all-embattled three-bay chancel and five-bay aisled nave with S. porch adjoining the central bay.  The aisle and chancel windows, apart from the E. window, are everywhere three-light with ogee-arched lights and alternate tracery; the clerestory windows, which are correctly aligned with the arcade arches below, have squat supermullioned tracery set in four-centred arches; and the chancel E. window is formed of five ogee lights with subarcuation of the outer lights in pairs, through-reticulation, and a supertransom crossing above lights 2b to 4a (which is to say, between the apices of lights 2 to 4).  (See the photograph, right.)  The S. porch has an outer doorway decorated with a pair of narrow side shafts with capitals, and outer casement and wave mouldings;  there is a niche above this doorway, and inside, a nice contemporary roof with a pair of carved angels decorating the principal rafters, rosettes on the wall plates, and a castellated cambered tie beam at either end.  The inner doorway is four-centred. 


On entering the nave, the aisle arcades prove to be supported on piers of the usual south Somerset form consisting of four semicircular shafts with capitals, separated by casements that continue uninterrupted round the arches. They exhibit a number of masons' marks that might prove to be good material for detailed local study.  The chancel arch displays a narrow shaft at each angle of the soffits, and between is another feature so often seen in churches in the region, namely a two-bay-wide band of blank cusped arches, which rise in this case in two tiers to the springing, and then in two more between the springing and the apex.  (See also St. Mary’s, Chard, St. George's, Hinton St. George, Holy Trinity, Long Sutton, All Saints’, Martock, St. Peter & St. Paul’s, Muchelney and St. Mary’s, Norton-sub-Hamdon.)  The aisle windows are decorated with hollows round their splays.


The excellent, steeply-pitched nave roof, of king post construction (shown left, from the west), is composed of timbers among which only the common rafters are neither carved nor moulded;  there are carved bosses where the principals cross the purlins, and the spandrels above the tie beams are filled with wide, trefoil-cusped open arches.  The chancel roof now looks largely renewed but is a good piece of work nonetheless, in broadly similar style and again of king-post construction, with purlins here at the ¼, ½ and ¾ positions.  There is also, however, more very fine, late mediaeval carpentry at a lower level, of which the rood screen, replete with fan-vaulted loft, is pre-eminent. This is a magnificent survival, probably dating from the early sixteenth century, which shows close similarities with the rood/parclose screen at St. James's, Halse, some eighteen miles to the west.  The vault is supported on clusters of the narrowest shafts rising between the five bays, each of which is divided into four cinquefoil-cusped, narrow ogee lights, subarcuated in pairs, while the vault itself is decorated with blank, cusped fish-shaped arches in the spandrels, and the top rail and cornice feature four tiers of carving topped by brattishing.  The lectern could be equally old but it is impossible to be sure: Pevsner asked, "Jacobean?" The bench ends are thought to be late fifteenth century work and are certainly very attractive. Mediaeval bench ends can be seen at a number of Somerset churches, including St. Andrew's, Curry Rivel, about four miles away, where the work is thought to derive from the early sixteenth century.  Here, perhaps, the detail is somewhat less finely executed as well as less well preserved, but it is sufficiently alike to be the work of the very same man.


After all this discussion, the earlier W. tower still remains to be described. Attributed to the reign of Edward III (d.1377), it is diagonally buttressed - itself quite often an indication of an early date - and constructed in three short stages.  Inside, the massive arch to the nave bears two wave mouldings that continue all the way round without intervening capitals, and above this can be seen the gable line of the former and obviously humble, nave roof.  The tower was surrounded in scaffolding at the time of this visit.


Finally, the oldest feature in the church - as so often the case - is the font.  This is Norman, as shown by the cable moulding beneath the rim of the circular bowl.  The cover was designed by F.E. Howard, who was responsible for the soaring covers at St. Edmund's, Southwold and Bury St. Edmunds Cathedral, in Suffolk, of which the former was executed in 1935.