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English Church Architecture -



OAKLEY, St. Nicholas (TM 157 774)     (March 2009)

(Bedrock:  Quaternary, Norwich Crag Formation)



This is a church in partly Decorated/ partly Perpendicular style and of possibly several different dates, situated in flat but attractive open countryside, nicely punctuated with trees.  Consisting of a W. tower and a tall nave and chancel with a S. porch and N. vestry, the building presents a picture in mottled greys on approach from the south (see the photograph above, taken from the southeast), with walls largely faced in knapped flint and roofs of grey tiles, and with flushwork covering the whole of the porch S. front. 


The early fourteenth century tower rises in two stages supported by diagonal buttresses, to reticulated bell-openings and flushwork buttresses that are probably a later addition, lit by a W. window composed of a sexfoil above two trefoil-cusped lights. The nave, porch and chancel are entirely Perpendicular externally, although the windows in the nave at least are probably earlier than the porch.  Chancel windows to north and south assume what in this area is the standard three-light, segmental-arched form, with cinquefoil-cusped ogee lights and supermullioned tracery, while the restored four-light E. window varies this only a little to include a castellated supertransom dividing the subreticulation units above the central lights into two equal tiers.  However, the nave windows are quite different and either the product of an earlier build or the work of a different mason (and probably both), being two-centred and unusual, and each composed of three cinquefoil-cusped two-centred lights, with a supertransom above, joining the apices of lights one and three, and two tiers of reticulation units on top, creating a design closer to alternate tracery than it is to supermullioned. (See the thumbnail below right, showing one of the nave S. windows.)  The porch (illustrated left) once had an upper storey though the intervening floor has long been missing now.  The S. front presents a proud display with six tiers of flushwork arches reaching from a basal frieze to battlements, a trefoiled niche on either side of the doorway, and two, two-light windows piercing the erstwhile upper storey, separated by a more elaborate niche with a sundial above.  The doorway carries wave mouldings on the inner order, that spring from a pair of semicircular columns, and the outer order bears a continuous sunk chamfer with fleurons carved at intervals and crowns at the springing level.  The spandrels are carved in shallow relief with shields in encircled octfoils and there is a frieze of blank quatrefoils above.


Inside the church, the tower arch may be seen to carry two flat chamfers that continue down the jambs without intervening capitals, a form that could be thirteenth century in date as easily as early fourteenth, but the chancel arch appears to belong firmly to the later time (as opposed to the fifteenth century, like the chancel windows) for this carries two hollow chamfers above semi-octagonal responds, which is a standard Decorated form in East Anglia at least.   Of the individual features of this modest interior, perhaps the most striking is the stair to the former rood loft, rising within the splay of the easternmost N. window to the nave and continuing upwards through the thickness of wall to the east.  (See the photograph, right.) Presumably Perpendicular in date and now beginning some two feet up, it appears once to have been provided with a few wooden steps below, and in all likelihood a handrail beside the six unprotected steps in the window splay.  To the west, but still in the N. wall, two niches of differing heights (shown left) present an interesting little puzzle for their precise function is unclear and they look very much as if they were once part of a larger (and symmetrical?) group and only later re-set here. However, opposite there are possibly significantly greater complications for the easternmost S. window to the nave (sic) has a lowered sill with all the appearance of having once acted as a sedilia, while immediately to the east a simple piscina also suggests that modest though this church is in size, it may formerly have had a secondary altar here.  Yet the S. wall is also markedly thinner in this section, so could an alternative possibility be that at one time the church possessed a small transeptal chapel here, from which the piscina and window/sedilia were taken and re-set when the chapel was demolished?  However, be that as it may, the chancel is probably now mid to late fifteenth century in date though only really notable today for its attractive reredos in tile and mosaic, dated 1882, with a scene above the altar depicting the Last Supper.