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NORTON-SUB-HAMDON, St. Mary  (ST 473 176),

SOMERSET. 

(Bedrock:  Lower Jurassic, Junction Bed.)

 

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.

 

 

 

Standing in the shadow of Ham Hill, from whence the golden stone of which it is built was dug, this is an attractively situated church in what was once a very fine village before it was marred around the edges by some very unsympathetic modern development.   The five-stage tower (seen left from the southwest) has two finely carved canopied niches set one above the other in the south wall.  The W. window features five ogee lights, a transom, and subarcuation of the outer lights in pairs, the W. doorway has continuous mouldings and carved spandrels beneath a label with blank quatrefoils above.

 

The four bays of the nave and aisles are spanned under a single roof and lit by four-light windows to north and south with alternate tracery, subreticulation, subarcuation of the lights in pairs, and through-reticulation (as illustrated below left).  (See the glossary for an explanation of these terms.) The two-bay chancel has one-bay side chapels and the chapel windows and N. and S. windows of the sanctuary projecting beyond, have three lights, alternate tracery and subreticulation, while the chancel E. window has four lights, a transom, subarcuation of the lights in pairs, and through-reticulation. There is no clerestory but the chancel, aisles, tower and S. porch are all embattled and enriched with crocketed pinnacles rising from the buttresses between the bays.  The porch has a barrel vault,

 

Inside the building, the wonderfully slender four-bay nave arcades are supported on piers composed of four shafts separated by four casements, a form so common in south Somerset as to be considered almost standard (see the S. arcade, below left), and similar arches lead from the aisles to the chapels and from the chapels to the chancel.  The chancel arch is also in this style, but taller, and here there are two tiers of capitals like those at St. Michael's, North Cadbury, some twelve miles to the northwest.  The soffits of the tower arch are panelled like many others in the area (cf. Hinton St. George, Long Sutton, Martock, and Muchelney among others).  There are few furnishings of note but Pevsner drew attention to the attractive tower screen, of c. 1904, Henry Wilson (The Buildings of England: South and West Somerset, New Haven & London, Yale University Press, 2003, p. 263), which is 'typical of Arts and Crafts woodwork at its best'.