English Church Architecture -
HENLEY, St. Peter (TM 158 514) (September 2008)
(Bedrock: Palaeocene, Thanet Sand Formation)
This little church (shown above from the southeast), formed of a chancel, a nave with S. porch, and a W. tower, with an attached vestry to the north that was formerly the village school, is more rewarding outside than in, where the most important work is Perpendicular or later. The oldest feature is Norman, however, at least in essence, and comprises the S. doorway (inside the porch), with an arch bearing chevron, although a later age has altered its shape from circular to pointed. It seems likely that some of the basic masonry of the nave is also twelfth century, therefore, but there is no other obvious evidence to witness the fact.
The chancel in its present form looks thirteenth century in date. It is lit from the north by two uncusped lancets that could derive from mid-century, and from the south, by a cinquefoil-cusped Y-traceried window and a cinquefoil-cusped lancet, with the appearance of c. 1300. Inside, a piscina in the sanctuary S. wall is similar to the last in shape. The E. window is Victorian but may be a copy of the original, constructed when the chancel was partially rebuilt in 1895.
The attractive tower (seen right, from the west) rises in two stages supported by diagonal buttresses decorated with two tiers of crocketed flushwork arches beneath each of the two lower set-offs. The W. doorway boasts carved spandrels featuring shields and crossed keys, while above, a frieze of lozenges makes way for an inscription in the centre, which Pevsner deciphered as commemorating a certain Thomas Seckford, who died in 1505, and who presumably paid for the tower’s construction. Thus stylistic features here can probably be considered typical of the local Perpendicular at the turn of the fifteenth century. The three-light W. window has been restored but features supermullioned tracery with strong mullions and a little quatrefoil in the oculus beneath a four-centred arch, and the bell-openings consist of two cinquefoil-cusped lights with an encircled quatrefoil above.
The nave windows now include two with supermullioned tracery to the north - the easternmost, two-light, uncusped, segmental-pointed and set lower in the wall, and the westernmost, three-light, with strong mullions and ogee-pointed, cinquefoil-cusped lights. However, perhaps the finest of the church’s features is the three-light S. window (shown left), with terracotta mullions and friezes above and below (see the detail of the latter in the photograph below right), like those of windows at Barham and Barking churches, which Pevsner identified as the work of Italian artisans employed c. 1532-5 at Layer Marney in Essex and, around the same time, at Old Shrubland Hall, about a mile and a half west of here. Presumably this window was either made for this church at that time, or moved here when Old Shrubland Hall was demolished in the nineteenth century, but while the latter hypothesis seems in some respects more likely, there is no obvious evidence of disturbance in the surrounding masonry.
The interior adds little to this examination of the building as almost everything inside has been restored. There is a gallery above the W. end of the nave, of possible eighteenth century origin. There is no chancel arch and the chancel windows are set in splays with eyebrow mouldings, showing slight differences north to south.
Finally, the admirable Gothic vestry (below) deserves a paragraph of its own. Built to serve as a village school in the first year of Queen Victoria’s reign, it was remodelled as a vestry three years after her death and adjoins the church nave immediately to the north. This happens to be the position where many twentieth century parish rooms are attached to their churches, yet not many of those can compete with this vestry in the prettiness of its design. Its success is due to its cruciform plan, formed (as it were) of two intersecting sections, gabled east/west and north/south, and to a skilful use of contrasting materials, which are knapped flints and yellow bricks. There is also a small porch to the north and a chimney to the east, and the detail everywhere has the same restrained charm.