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English Church Architecture.


NEEDHAM MARKET, St. John the Baptist  (TM 087 553),


(Bedrock:  Upper Cretaceous, Upper Chalk.)


A town church most notable for its extraordinary roof.



Until 1901, this church - which consists, essentially, of just a nave and chancel in Perpendicular style, without external structural division - was merely a chapel-of-ease to St. Mary’s, Barking, a mile to the southwest.  The S. porch, with its ridiculous Lilliputian spirelet, is an addition of 1883 by 'some ignorant and insensible architect' (Pevsner) who turns out to have been H. W. Hayward (James Bettley, The Buildings of England: Suffolk West, New Haven & London, Yale University Press, 2015, p. 422).   However, although this is not an attractive building outside, it is of real importance within, due entirely to its roof.  The church is aligned to the southeast, rather than the east, apparently as a result of what in the late fifteenth century, was already a restricted site, but in the notes that follow, it will be convenient to describe it in the usual way.


To begin outside then, the church is set out in five bays, with doorways in the second bay from the west (the N. doorway being blocked), and three-light four-centred windows in the others, with restored supermullioned tracery, strong mullions, and castellated supertransoms above the central lights.  (The five-light E. window appears to be new.)  The chancel is supported by diagonal buttresses at the northeast and southeast angles, of which the former (shown right) is pierced by a narrow opening, suggesting there was once an adjoining wall or building here that would otherwise have prevented passage around the church.  The half-timbered nave clerestory with two-light square-headed windows will be considered with the roof below, but its unsatisfactory external appearance (apparent in the photograph at the top of the page), which is almost reminiscent of the upper storey of a row of nineteenth century weaver’s cottages, is certainly a blemish on the design, notwithstanding its appearance inside.   The S. porch, mentioned above, projects only shallowly and is topped by the offending, shingled bell-turret, which houses not only the bell but also a clock below. The large W. vestry of 1909 has little more to commend it, though it doubtless serves its purpose.  The room above was only added in 1991.


Inside the building, the astonishing roof  is constructed in six bays and the chancel roof in four more, which equates to two carpentry bays for each of the five masonry bays below.  The chancel roof has been wholly renewed (in 1879) but the spectacular nave roof (shown below) is original apart, inevitably, from the carved angels, and of single hammerbeam construction of exceedingly unusual form, for the hammerposts are some three times the expected height at approximately 17 feet or 5.2 m., and rise to support, first, cambered tie beams at the halfway stage, and then the principal rafters of the low-pitched roof above, between which rises the clerestory, creating 'the impression of a whole church in mid air' (ibid). The roof is coved beneath the hammerbeams on each side (i.e. across the spandrels of the arched braces) with carved wooden panelling, then rises vertically to the level of the longitudinal cross-strutting, about a third of the way up, and is then canted out again, this time to meet the hammerposts at a height a little above the tie beams, from where the clerestory ascends.   The tie beams and longitudinal struts are castellated above and supported by arched braces with carved spandrels, and there are carved pendants hanging beneath the hammerbeams.


H. Munro Cautley described this roof as the 'culminating achievement of the mediaeval carpenter' (Suffolk Churches and their Treasures, Ipswich, Norman Adlard & Company, 1954, p. 112) and D.P. Mortlock, as a 'tour de force'   The Guide to Suffolk Churches, Cambridge, The Lutterworth Press, 2009, p. 356), both of which are true in their way, yet the carpenter's inability to manage the external appearance of the roof satisfactorily is surely one significant fault and the exaggerated appearance created by such a surfeit of timbers far in advance of any structural necessity strikes this writer as another.  This is undoubtedly a roof of enormous ambition, but perhaps in the final analysis, a failure on an heroic scale.