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English Church Architecture.

 

WORTHAM, St. Mary  (TM 085 788),

SUFFOLK. 

(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.

 

This building presents a strange spectacle for it preserves the stump of what was formerly the largest round tower in England, now open to the sky, and surmounted today by a little weatherboarded bell-turret covered with an ogee dome, resting partly on the tower's eastern rim and partly on the extreme western end of the nave roof.  The tower collapsed in 1789 and is now scarcely higher than the nave ridge but sufficient features remain to witness its Norman origins, most notably two blocked, round-headed east windows, visible through the huge open space from the west (as shown left).  The tower is 29 feet (8.8 metres) in diameter and was reputedly once 62 feet (18.9 metres) high.

 

The rest of the church is Perpendicular  externally and takes us to another group of - this time wholly Suffolk - churches with which this web-site is concerned, namely those that can probably be ascribed to the 'Master of Stowlangtoft', discussed at greater length on the page for that village.  It consists of a chancel, an aisled nave and a S. porch, from which the best work is clearly the nave clerestory (seen at the top of the page), composed of six two-light, four-centred windows on each side, with drop tracery, bricks tumbled-in around the arches, and flint flushwork between, forming a frieze just below the springing level and featuring motifs in squares, including various geometrical patterns, the sacred monogram “IHS”, and a crowned “M” for Mary.  However, the most pertinent features for present purposes are the seven aisle windows and two easternmost windows in the chancel (one on either side), of the type to be seen at a number of Suffolk churches and at Stowangtoft in particular.  (See the example in the nave S. wall, illustrated above right.)   These have lights linked by small subarcuations beneath the supermllioned tracery, that are sufficiently distinctive to suggest they may be the work of the same mason, in which case they may be dateable by association with St. Nicholas's, Stowlangtoft, which was erected c. 1390.   (Note: the westernmost window on either side of the chancel adopts a similar but not identical  pattern which are not relevant to this discussion.)  Inside the church, the three-bay arcades comprise double-flat-chamfered arches springing from octagonal piers (see the N. arcade, left).   However, the important features to notice here are the outer flat chamfers at the sides of the semi-octagonal responds at either end of the arcade and on either side of the chancel arch, which terminate at the top in a little incised trefoiled arch-heads, in what proves to be another diagnostic design element of this related group of churches.  (See the photograph of the chancel arch S. respond, below, viewed from the nave.)  

 

[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, Little Saxham, Rickinghall Inferior, Risby, Stuston, Theberton and Wissett in Suffolk.]