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English Church Architecture.

 

LITTLE SAXHAM, St. Nicholas  (TL 799 637),

SUFFOLK. 

(Bedrock:  Neogene, 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.

 

This church is situated in an attractive rural spot, beside the village cross-roads.  Pevsner considered the W. tower to be 'the most spectacular Norman round tower in Suffolk' but he might just as fairly have claimed it as the best in the country, the splendid effect being due in particular to the contrast between the plain, lower three quarters of the structure, with its tiny W. window surrounded by the shallowest of incised chevron, and the well-proportioned detail of the bell-stage, which rises above a string course decorated with billet moulding and displays two-light bell-openings in the cardinal positions, deeply recessed in encompassing arches composed of two orders.  Both orders as well as the lights within, have roll mouldings around them, springing from shafts with cushion capitals, and the bell-openings are separated at the diagonals by slightly shorter, two-bay blank arcades which adorned in like fashion.  Originally thee were no battlements, which represent a later addition. 

 

Internally, the narrow but massive and exceptionally tall tower arch (illustrated below right) is another impressive feature, which carries two roll mouldings supported on abaci with chamfered under-edges. The plain, now blocked, round-arched opening above, would, in the absence of a stair turret,  at one time have given access via a tall ladder to an upper chamber immediately below the bell-stage, and it probably also doubled as a Sanctus bell window that allowed the ringer of the Sanctus bell to follow the progress of the service.  Other Norman work includes the low, blind, round-headed arch immediately south of the tower arch (seen right), and the S. doorway to the nave.  Pevsner considered the former to be the re-used N. doorway to the nave, but as the church guide points out, this cannot be right as the carved stone above the right capital is integral to both the blind arch and the tower arch (J.C. Wolton, 1998).  The S. doorway (left) has billet moulding and two rolls around the arch, and an order of shafts with capitals approaching water leaf in form, which is probably indicative of a late twelfth century date.  Thi is also likely to be the date of the basic fabric of the nave, and by extension,  the tower, for Stephen Hart wqas able to show convincingly that the tower and nave were constructed in a single building phase (The Round Church Towers of England, pp. 44-45). However, the church has no other unambiguously dateable, individual features older than the early fourteenth century, the period of the Decorated style, to which we must turn to next.

 

To judge from its two segmental-pointed windows - one of which is two-light with reticulated tracery and one, three-light with cruciform lobing set vertically - this was the period when the N. aisle was added, although the three-bay arcade that communicates with it within would fit almost any date from the late thirteenth century to the early fifteenth.  This is due to the fact that although the arch mouldings consist of just two wide flat chamfers, which might be considered early, they continue down the piers without intervening capitals to form compound piers which are of similar section similar to some of humble Perpendicular vintage.  The little nave clerestory is hardly commensurate with such a date, however, being formed of just three small lancets, positioned above the apices of the arches below.  Nevertheless, the chancel arch could derive from Decorated times, with its two hollow chamfered mouldings, the outer continuous down the jambs and the inner one springing from semicircular shafts with capitals.

 

Finally, the church contains some good woodwork which deserves examination.  The nave benches are of a type found in many churches in this area but are no less fine for that, even though a little care does need to be taken to distinguish between the original work and more recent additions in a similar style. Both old and new benches have animal poppyheads and more carved animals on the (highly uncomfortable) 'arm rests', but the old work can be distinguished not only by the colour and condition of the wood but also by the livelier nature of the carving, for the creatures here still seem to invoke a sense of almost mystical terror, that is absent in the later work.  Subjects include lions (as shown right), dogs, and entirely mythical beasts.  The bench ends are plain with a single exception.  The pulpit is Jacobean but the large tester was added when it was restored in 1891, as recorded on an inscription.  More interesting is the communion rail (illustrated below), the striking appearance of which is due chiefly to its shape, which traces a reverse ogee curving out to the west.  This rail was brought here from Little Livermore in 1947 and is of eighteenth century date judging from its balusters, each of which has a fluted upper portion above a turned base.

 

    

 

[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, Higham, Little Bradley, Rickinghall Inferior, Risby, Stuston, Theberton, Wissett and Wortham in Suffolk.]