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English Church Architecture.


HIGHAM, St. Stephen (TL 747 656),


(Bedrock:  Upper Cretaceous, Upper Chalk.)


One of 181 churches in England with round towers, of which all but five are in Cambridgeshire (with 2), Essex (with 6), Norfolk (with 126) or Suffolk (with 42).


Round church towers were almost invariably assumed by Pevsner to have a Saxon or Norman origin.  That is not necessarily the case, and the form is a function of geology rather than age, for the lack of the ready availability of good building stone to serve as quoins made this a cheap design option by avoiding the expense in the pre-railway age of bringing, usually by horse and cart or at best along the rivers by boat, heavy, bulk materials from afar.  The definitive book on this subject is, and is long likely to remain, the late Stephen Hart's The Round Church Towers of England  (Ipswich, Lucas Books, 2003), to which the notes on these buildings are inevitably, to a greater or lesser degree, indebted.


However, there can be no argument about when the round tower at Higham was built, for the whole church was constructed in 1861 to the designs of Sir George Gilbert Scott (1811-78).  This was to be Scott's only complete church in Suffolk and the quality of the design suggests it may have received some of his personal attention in his exceptionally busy office where many of the less prestigious jobs were largely undertaken by clerks. Comprising a round tower with a short pyramidal spire, a nave with a N. aisle and S. porch, and a chancel, the building adopts the First Pointed style that had so entranced Scott when 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' (B.F.L. Clarke, Church Builders of the Nineteenth Century, London, S.P.C.K., 1938, p. 161).  First Pointed was not the approved style of the highly censorious Ecclesiological Society, but they would have preferred it to a Neo-Norman alternative, which Scott might have considered, if, as seems likely, he based his design loosely on the twelfth century tower at neighbouring Little Saxham.  The bell-stages there and here are broadly similar in form, with bell-openings facing the cardinal directions and two bays of blank arcading supported by columns between.   The tower is divided into three stages by ashlar bands, providing textural contrast with the flint and pebble facing to the walling  between.   Similar bands encircle the bell-stage and pass behind the supporting columns (as illustrated left), while the bell-openings themselves have plate tracery cut through by trefoil-cusped lancets and quatrefoils above.  The ground stage  of the tower is also lit by trefoil-cusped lancets to the north, south and west, this time with trefoils in the heads, while hood moulds rise from finely carved head label stops, and a knapped flint facing decorates the alternate voussoirs.  Inside, an octopartite vault (two internal views of which are shown below) adds visual interest to the church's internal perspectives in a manner reminiscent of J.L. Pearson.  The space beneath comprises a baptistery which contains a large circular font with a cable moulded rim. 



















As for the rest of the building, this is more conventional but equally successful, at least viewed from the south or the east, for to the north, the lean-to aisle results in a very low N. wall with overly short, untraceried windows.  The two-light S. windows, in contrast, have plate tracery with trefoil-cusped lancets and alternately a quatrefoil or sexfoil above, while the chancel E. window has three stepped lights beneath two sexfoils and a cinquefoil.  Here also (i.e. to the south and the east), the walls are faced with flint and fieldstones, interrupted by one ashlar band passing round the church immediately beneath the windows and a second running parallel above at the springing level of the windows.  Inside the church, the four-bay aisle arcade is formed of arches bearing a flat chamfer and a sunk quadrant, supported on octagonal piers, and the chancel arch bears two sunk quadrants above semicircular shafts attached to wide jambs with hollowed angles.  This, though entirely commonplace, is quiet and unfussy, and allows the eye to focus on the tower vault to the west or the chancel window to the east, which has two orders of Purbeck marble side-shafts and dogtooth ornament around the lights.  All in all then, this is an harmonious, well designed Victorian village church, and its uncommon acknowledgement for its date of vernacular building traditions, makes it especially welcome.


[Other churches with round towers featured on this web-site are Bartlow and Snailwell in Cambridgeshire, Quidenham, Roydon, Rushall, Shimpling and Thorpe Abbotts in Norfolk, and Aldham, Brome, Hengrave, Little Bradley, Little Saxham, Rickinghall Inferior, Risby, Stuston, Theberton, Wissett and Wortham in Suffolk.]