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English Church Architecture.

 

SHEPTON BEAUCHAMP, St. Michael  (ST 403 172),

SOMERSET. 

(Bedrock:  Lower Jurassic, Inferior Yeovil Sands.)

 

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 is an attractive building, predominantly constructed of steely-grey blue lias from the Lower Jurassic Series, which shows, pace Sir Alec Clifton Taylor (The Pattern of English Building, London, Faber & Faber, 1972, pp. 92-93), just how well this stone can look.  The tower  rises in four very unequal stages to battlements, supported by set-back buttresses and with an irregular polygonal stair turret at the northeast angle which ascends slightly higher than the tower itself.  (See the photograph, left, taken from the northwest.)  The W. doorway has traceried spandrels and triangular side-shafts terminating in crocketed pinnacles, and is divided by a frieze of blank encircled quatrefoils containing shields from the large two-light transomed window above (illustrated below right), formed of cinquefoiled ogee lights and alternate tracery filled with subreticulation, subarcuation of the lights in pairs, and through reticulation.  A second quatrefoil frieze above this, runs all the way round the tower, and then the tall, narrow, partly-blocked bell-openings follow, extending through the two upper stages, with the line of their transoms continued round the tower as a string course, separating blank ogee arches below from five small tiers of openwork tracery above.  Inside the building, the tower is almost equally impressive:  the tall arch to the nave has a panelled archivolt decorated with double-bay blank trefoiled arches set between narrow shafts with capitals, rising in three tiers to the springing and two more to the apex.  The attractive 'free-style' fan-vault beneath the bell-stage has the expected circular opening for the bell ropes and prominent carved bosses.

 

The rest of the building is formed of a chancel with an independently-gabled N. chapel, an aisled nave with N. and S. porches, and a rood stair turret set in the angle between the chancel and S. aisle.  The S. aisle, S. porch and nave clerestory date only from 1865 (Patricia Pearce, St. Michael's, Shepton Beauchamp, undated, p. 2) but the three-bay S. arcade, composed of double-flat-chamfered arches springing from octagonal piers with characteristic capitals, is restored Decorated work.  They are thus similar to the two western bays opposite  (illustrated left in the view from the southwest), but the easternmost arch of the N. arcade is separated by a wall piece and composed of two wide flat-chamfered orders which continue uninterrupted down the responds.  This is thirteenth century work, which appears to be explained by the fact that a N. tower stood here originally, before being demolished when the W. tower was built (in the late fifteenth century).  The single-flat-chamfered arch between the N. aisle and chapel suggests the chapel was erected at the same time as the tower, but the arch between the chancel and the chapel is Perpendicular now and decorated around the archivolt with trefoiled panels set between hollows (three tiers altogether). The chancel arch has an outer flat chamfer and a later (Victorian) inner order supported on corbels.  The authenticity of the rather ungainly three-bay stepped sedilia with prominent dripstone, and the piscina beyond with its credence shelf, must be open to question.   (See the photograph, right.)

 

Windows in the chancel, chapel and N. aisle are variously Decorated and Perpendicular.  The chancel windows derive from the former period, albeit that they have been heavily restored, and comprise:  (i) a two-light window at the west end of the S. wall, featuring a quatrefoil in a circle that conspicuously fails to fit the space in the head between the ogee lights below; (ii) a two-light window on either side of the chancel towards the east with an irregular sexfoil in this position;  and (iii) a restored three-light E. window formed of outer lancet lights with trilobes in their heads and a shorter central light beneath a wheel of mouchettes.  The chapel E. window has supermullioned tracery with strong mullions but the N. window has the more usual alternate tracery (for this area), partly obscured by the cross-gabled Victorian vestry.  The restored square-headed N. aisle windows peer out above a lean-to structure of similar date, perhaps intended as a store-room or boiler house.  The mediaeval N. porch is small and windowless.  

 

Finally, as is so often the case in south Somerset churches, including some of the most important, the building contains no old carpentry and no significant monuments or furnishings except, perhaps, the large, plain bulbous font on its plain round stem.  The brief and very inadequate church guide describes this as Norman but, really, that can only be a matter of guesswork.

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

Crewkerne, Curry Rivel, Hinton St. George and Norton-sub-Hamden.]