English Church Architecture -
HIGHAM, St. Stephen (TL 747 656) (October 2004)
(Bedrock: Upper Cretaceous, Upper Chalk)
Constructed in 1861, this is one of the better small churches by Sir George Gilbert Scott (1811-78) (and his only complete church in Suffolk), which may be an indication that it received some of his personal attention in his exceptionally busy office. (See the photograph left, taken from the southeast.) Consisting of a round tower, a nave with a N. aisle and a S. porch, and a chancel, it is built in the First Pointed style that had entranced Scott since as a boy he visited the Early English church at Chetwode, Buckinghamshire, "in consequence of which he remained in a state of morbid excitement all day" (Church Builders of the Nineteenth Century by B.F.L. Clarke, pub. S.P.C.K., 1938). First Pointed was not the favoured style of the Ecclesiologists, of course, but they would have preferred it to Neo-Norman, which might have been the alternative if, as seems likely, Scott loosely based his design for the tower on the twelfth century example at neighbouring Little Saxham. What these towers have in common is the general form of the bell-stage, which have bell-openings on the cardinal sides separated by two bays of blank arcading at the diagonals, with all the arches provided with columns with capitals, here decorated with stiff leaf. Scott's tower, however, is surmounted by a conical roof, not battlements, and is divided into three stages, not two, by ashlar bands at one third and two thirds the height. These provide contrast with the flint and fieldstones used for the rest of the walls (though this was by no means an original idea of Scott's). More such bands cross the blank arches of the bell-stage, also at the one third and two thirds positions, while the bell-openings themselves display plate tracery formed of quatrefoils above trefoil-cusped lancets, all set in larger arches. The tower first stage has further trefoil-cusped lancets to the north, south and west, with trefoils in the heads, hood moulds with finely carved head label stops, and a facing of knapped flint applied to alternate voussoirs above. Internally, these windows light an octopartite vault (two views of which are shown below) that springs from four corbel shafts and brings interest to the internal perspectives in a manner reminiscent of Pearson. The space beneath is designed as a baptistery and equipped with a large round font with cable moulded rim.
The rest of the building is more conventional but equally successful to the south and east, though less so to the north where the lean-to aisle results in a very low N. wall with necessarily short, untraceried windows. By contrast, the nave S. windows have plate tracery with quatrefoils and sexfoils above trefoil-cusped lancet lights, again with knapped flint picking out every second voussoir, and the chancel E. window has three stepped lights with two sexfoils and a cinquefoil above. Here too, the walls are faced with flint and fieldstones, with one ashlar band going around the church beneath the windows and another at the springing level. Internally, the four-bay arcade consists of arches bearing a flat chamfer and a sunk quadrant, supported on octagonal piers, the chancel arch has two sunk quadrant mouldings above semicircular shafts attached to wide jambs with hollowed angles, and beyond this, another arch with a sunk quadrant and a hollow chamfer opens north from the chancel to a little organ chamber. This, though commonplace, has the merit of being quiet and unfussy, enabling the eye to focus on the tower vault to the west or the chancel window to the east, the latter supplied with two orders of Purbeck marble shafts in shaft-rings and dogtooth ornament around the lights and sublights. All in all then, this is a very pleasant, well designed little Victorian church, and its unusual passing acknowledgement of traditional, regional building styles is especially welcome.