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HUISH EPISCOPI, St. Mary  (ST 427 267),

SOMERSET. 

(Bedrock:  Lower Jurassic, Blue Lias Formation.)

 

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

with exceptional towers, dateable to the mid-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 Quantock Group considered here, is probably the foremost in terms of grandeur, expense and ornamentation, distinguished by a 'wealth and delicacy of detail, rich embattled crowns, exuberance of pinnacles, frequent niches, gargoyles and heads, bands of quatrefoils, and a predominance of ogee curves', while, like all Somerset churches, they are notable also for their colourful display of Somerset's geological riches, most notably in the use of red Otter Sandstone from the Triassic Sherwood Sandstone Group (laid down from around 247 million to 237 million years ago (Ma)),  steely blue-grey Blue Lias from the Lower Jurassic (laid down approximately 201-198 Ma), and golden Ham Hill Stone, also from the Lower Jurassic (laid down about 177-174 Ma).  These factors between them ensure that Somerset's mediaeval churches are among the finest in the country.

 

 

The church tower at Huish Epicopi is among Somerset's very best and so it is a particular pity that the trees hemming it in, make it so difficult to photograph satisfactorily. The building material is a combination of blue lias for the main fabric with Ham Hill stone for the dressings, which produces a striking but most attractive effect, the views of Alec-Clifton Taylor notwithstanding.  Writing in The Pattern of English Building (London, Faber & Faber, 1972, p. 93), he described the contrast between these stones as 'excessive' and 'shrill', but then he found it hard to say anything good about blue lias as a building material, whereas it can actually be a very pleasing one when married to a stone of warmer colour, besides being completely evocative of this corner of England, where the rolling Jurassic hills interdigitate with the brooding Somerset Levels below.

 

The tower rises through four stages demarcated by rich bands of quatrefoils enclosing shields and rosettes, to a surmounting crown of openwork battlements with groups of pinnacles at the corners and single pinnacles at the wall mid-points, in the manner seen also at St. Mary's, Ile Abbots and the still more closely related church of St. Martin’s, Kingsbury Episcopi.  It is supported by set-back buttresses with tall crocketed pinnacles placed diagonally on each of the off-sets, and has a projecting semi-octagonal stair turret adding further interest to the elevation from the north. (See the photograph, left.)  Save only on this side, there are two bell-openings per wall, set between demi-pinnacles, each two-light and transomed, with ogee lights, alternate tracery with subreticulation, and open quatrefoils (the so-called 'Somerset tracery') filling the main lights instead of wooden louvre boards.  The three-light, third stage openings, set between tall canopied niches, are filled with more of these quatrefoils, which are large enough here to hold pierced lozenges in their centres.  The main W. window is transomed, with alternate tracery, subarcuation of the outer lights in pairs, and through-reticulation (see the entry on Dartington for an explanation of some of this terminology), and the W. doorway, which seems tiny by comparison, features traceried spandrels inside a label (square-headed dripstone) and a frieze of quatrefoils enclosing flowers above. The N. and S. walls have more canopied niches in their blank second stage walls.

 

The rest of the church - which, inevitably, seems less impressive by comparison - is formed of a chancel and nave, with a N. transept, a once two-storeyed S. porch, and a two-bay S. aisle (or, more precisely, a former S. transept that has been extended westwards to link up with the porch).  The N. transept is Decorated work dating, perhaps, from c. 1320 (i.e. just after the appearance of the ogee arch form), to judge by its odd N. window (illustrated bottom left), composed of three stepped cinquefoiled lights, with a small quatrefoil and two encircled trefoils above, in which the circles have been left open at the sides, to allows mouchettes to push into them.  Perhaps the S. transept displayed work of similar date once, but if so, it has long since been swept away.  The nave is lit from the north by two, three-light windows with alternate tracery and subreticulation.  The chancel E. window (which is set high up in the gable) is similar, but the other chancel windows are square-headed and untraceried except for one to the south which finds space for a little supermullioned tracery.  The  tall, embattled aisle is lit by three, four-light windows (one to the east and two to the south), each with its own variant of alternate tracery.  (See the two S. windows illustrated centre and right at the foot of the page.)  The adjoining porch communicates with a large and presumably re-set, Norman inner doorway (the W. jamb of which is shown, right), constructed of Ham Hill stone reddened by fire.  This consists of a round arch with a plain tympanum, bearing two wide orders of chevron moulding around it and supported on jambs decorated with more chevron and two orders of shafts with carved capitals.  The inner shafts display a spiral patterning of flat bands alternating with nailhead. 

 

Inside the building, the arch to the N. transept and the two arches to the S. arcade, are each made up of two lower arcs and two straight sections, presenting a rather incompetent appearance.  The arcade's central pier is composed of four shafts with capitals, separated by casements, and the arches carry wave mouldings separated by a hollow.  The more westerly S. window to the aisle has an internal order of shafts at the sides and a casement moulding inside that, while the more easterly window is somewhat simpler, with just a wave moulding going all the way round.  The chancel arch bears a series of mouldings, formed largely of hollows, which continues all the way round, uninterrupted by capitals.  The nave has a painted wagon roof.

 

Finally, it is a regrettable feature of many Somerset churches that their furnishings fail to live up to their architecture, and here the only item that needs to be mentioned is the admirable glass in the chancel E. window, ascribed by Pevsner to Edward Burne Jones (1833-98) and apparently erected a year after his death.  Depicting the Adoration of the Magi, it forms 'a very complete statement of [his] later style'  (The Buildings  of England: South and West Somerset, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1958, p. 202).

 

 

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

Bishop's Lydeard, Ile Abbotts and Kingsbury Episcopi .]