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English Church Architecture -



POLSTEAD, St. Mary (TL 989 381)     (June 2004)

(Bedrock:  Eocene, London Clay Formation)


The church stands in an attractive spot above the valley of the little River Box, looking out across rolling fields hedged with trees.  Constructed of flint and pebble rubble with limestone dressings, it consists in plan of a W. tower, an aisled nave with N. and S. porches, and a flat-roofed chancel, and externally it is pleasant but not special - except, perhaps, in having the only mediaeval stone spire in the county.  What one sees on entering, therefore, is a revelation, for not only does the church have one of the most rewarding Norman interiors in Suffolk, but it probably also has the most surprising.  The only indications of this outside are the two small, blocked, round-headed windows in the chancel walls, but one dismisses these at first as spurious and of probable Tudor date, as they are turned in bricks of quite the wrong shape and size to be re-used Roman material and it is common knowledge that bricks were not made in post-Roman England until the fifteenth century.  That, however, is an error, for Holy Trinity church, Kingston-upon-Hull, was built of brick in the early fourteenth century, and there is a spectacular example of thirteenth century brick building just 6 miles (9 km.) east of Polstead at Little Wenham Hall.  Even earlier are the fragmentary remains of Coggeshall Abbey not far away in Essex, of which the gate chapel may be dated c. 1225 and the bits and pieces of the cloister to c. 1190.  There the bricks were made by Cistercian monks, who even appear to have known that if the clay was mixed with coarse sand before firing, then that would reduce shrinkage.  Today, in our age of instant communications, it seems almost incomprehensible how people in the past could develop so much understanding of an issue in one place and yet for that knowledge to fail utterly to extend to the wider community for generations.  Monks commonly lived very secluded lives, of course, but what of the builders of Little Wenham Hall?  What did they do before and afterwards?  Similar questions can be asked about the builders here at Polstead, for inside this church one is confronted with an astonishing display of heavy Norman arches all turned in brick, very little of which is Roman.  The arcades consist of three bays plus one, there are the expected chancel and tower arches - although the latter was actually the external W. doorway before the tower was added, and above all the arches except the chancel arch, there are blocked, brick Norman windows, of which those to north and south once formed a clerestory before the enlargement of the aisles in the fourteenth century. Altogether then, a large volume of bricks has been used here, and one must assume there were men on site or close by, making bricks for months during the church's main period of construction.  Where did their knowledge come from, and did they never make use of it afterwards in this stoneless region where durable building materials were always at a premium?  Perhaps they were immigrants, for there was established brick-making at this time in the Low Countries.  Yet Alec Clifton-Taylor (writing in The Pattern of English Building, Faber, 1972) was sceptical about that too, and pointed out that the Polstead bricks are larger than contemporary bricks in Flanders.  It seems possible, therefore, that this little church in this rural corner of Suffolk, now actually displays the earliest example of native brickwork in England.  The date, perhaps, is c.1180.


This Norman work must be described in detail.  The western bay of the nave arcades is separated from the others by wall pieces that must represent a decision to extend the church westwards at the same time the aisles were added (to an apparently somewhat earlier, aisleless building).   The S. arch of this bay has since been rebuilt in stone and given pointed form, but the N. arch is original and formed of two unmoulded orders in brick, which extends all the way round the arch and down the jambs, with only narrow intervening stone abaci that reach far back into the wall, however, presumably in order to try to spread the load from the arch above, away from the brick responds beneath.  The remaining bays, which form the three-bay arcades proper, have similar brick arches, but these spring from compound stone piers with two major and two minor nook-shafts attached to each side of the N. piers and to the north side only of the S. piers.  This might suggest the S. arcade (shown above right, viewed from the west end of the nave) is slightly earlier or that the N. piers have been altered, for certainly some of the N. capitals appear retooled, whereas those to the south are less pristine and more of a hotchpotch although the majority are of essentially scalloped form.  (See the photograph of the S. arcade pier, viewed from the northeast, at the topleft of the page, and the view of the west end of the nave and aisles, looking northwest from the S. aisle, in the thumbnail above left.)  The tower arch/former W. doorway has a narrow shaft at each of its angles, but its western face (inside the tower) presents a wonderful display, with three orders of mouldings, of which the outer two bear chevron and the inner carries a roll, supported on two thick and one narrow order of shafts with scalloped capitals (shown left).


The post-Norman work at Polstead begins with the rebuilt S. arch at the W. end of the nave, discussed above, and continues with the unbuttressed tower of c. 1300, which has two lancet windows in the W. wall, of which the lower is cusped, and Y-traceried bell-openings, which are cusped to the north.  The tower E. wall has the line of an earlier, steeper nave gable, showing clearly against it. The enlargement of the aisles seems to have taken place just after the tower was built, for the N. porch has two-light windows also with cusped Y-tracery, and an outer doorway formed of two flat-chamfered orders, and the S. porch still has lancet windows and a flat-chamfered doorway.  The S. aisle has Decorated tracery to the east and west (reticulated in the first case, and formed of two groups of three mouchettes in the second) and the N. aisle has Decorated tracery to the E. window (shown right) and to the N. window west of the porch.  The two-light chancel windows to north and south have reticulated tracery and although this has been renewed outside, inside it looks old.  That leaves two aisle windows on each side of the church and the chancel E. window, which have supermullioned tracery.  These were probably inserted about a century later but the design of the aisle windows is unusual and not even consistent, for one pair is segmentally-arched and the other, round-arched.


Finally, the church contains one notable piece of woodwork, which is the communion rail with twisted balusters (illustrated below) that surrounds the communion table on three sides.  Pevsner considered this to be eighteenth century work but Laurence Harley, writing in the original edition of the church guide in 1951, before Pevsner's visit, said seventeenth. Perhaps both men meant late Stuart, however, which is probably the safest description.