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English Church Architecture -

Somerset.

 

HUISH EPISCOPI, St. Mary (ST 427 267)         (October 1998)

(Bedrock:  Lower Jurassic, Blue Lias Formation)

 

This late Perpendicular church is a member of A.K. Wickham's so-called "Quantock Group" (Churches of Somerset, David & Charles, 1965), a full explanation and description of which is given under the entry for St. Mary's, Bishops Lydeard. According to Wickham,  churches in this group have W. towers distinguished by a "wealth and delicacy of detail; rich embattled crowns; exuberance of pinnacles; frequent niches, gargoyles and heads; bands of quatrefoils; a predominance of ogee curves", all of which is certainly true here:  Somerset has many churches with magnificent towers but this one is among the very best and it is a 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 (Faber, 1972), 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.

 

St. Mary's tower, then, rises through four stages demarcated by 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 the set-offs, 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, which are set between demi-pinnacles and 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, and the W. doorway, which seems tiny by comparison, features traceried spandrels inside a label 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 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 quatrefoil and two encircled trefoils above, in which the circles have been left open at the sides, for 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 above, presenting a rather incompetent appearance.  The central pier of the arcade 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 feature of many Somerset churches that their furnishings fail to live up to their architecture, and here only thing need be mentioned in this regard, which 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”  (ibid).