Herefordshire spreads out, at once ample and generous and bristling with age. I move across this landscape with indecent speed, pouring disproportionate energy into my quest for the unknown; in the economy of the post-dip freelance architectural historian/writer, a journey like this in search of the aesthetic traces of the Bristol Master is the economic euivalent of a moon landing (though I’m covered for petrol money as far as Hereford). Anyway, this is much more important. Pevsner mentions Bristol influence: that’s enough to make this place, well to the north of Hereford, essential viewing.
It was worth it. A single-build church of the C14, by someone whose watched closely the Bristol masters various tricks, and in Berkeley-relevant Mortimer country to boot. What else is knocking around up here?
The basic footprint is ‘model-church’ simple. Nave and aisles, long chancel, vestry, tower. With one exception, an odd rectangular east-facing extension of the north porch. That’s interesting already. Outside, rows of two-light windows below; the clerestory a series of oculi. In fact there are oculi everywhere: on the tower, and both ends of the aisles… Apart from this. the lower windows repeat in their essentials, except for a three-light window at the end of each aisle, lighting the altar there, larger and more interesting than the east window to that altar, pushing the roof up in a little gable to make way for it. Very nice: lets by regular but also make original gestures when the brief (emphasie altars and their imagery) asks for it. Bristol fashion. The clerestory oculi play clever games, a sequence of tracery variants the neatest of which alternates straight-edged and curved foils. And they are handled so that they mark a point half way down the bays defined by the aisle windows below, giving the subtlest dancing motion to what is superficially a plainly-affected building. More interesting still; and the combination of apparent simplicity and regularity with little twists is again right for Bristol. And sticking off the chancel there is a two-storey vestry (big secure door opening inwards), joined by an inserted wall to the east end of the south aisle, and with a crude tomb-shaped recess facing the village in it. Is this going to be another Backwell? Another Portbury?
Not quite, or not any more. Inside there’s nothing to say about the vestry (thanks visiting churchwarden for friendly access) except that it was once two-storey and has been much got at. No sign of the external tomb (external tombs: Ashbury, Bishopstone, Lichfield…, all C14; Lichfield particularly relevant, and dateable with the Lady chapel). The insertion between vestry and aisle, disappointingly, is C19, and appears to have been made for the organ. The aisle e window is blocked to make way for it, and the two-light window that lights it (funny emptyhead tracery: see Marden, Hereford) has been moved from the chancel, and there’s a curious rough dip in the e wall—presumably for some now-superceded bit of organ mechnaism.
But the porch is where things really take off. A Berkeley arch – I thought I’d seen them all! – marks out this and the vestry door inside. Shades of St Nicholas KL, 300 miles east, 100 years later. The extension opens directly off this, and has a door with a funny shouldered arch, and is brightly lit and externally eye-catching because of a low-set row of completely square but jaggedly foiled windows, set below a flat-topped row of rectangular windows – which would be remarkable before the 1350s; and a parallel row lighting the porch have cusped heads, that is they really *are* panels. Between them these mean a window filled the entire wall of this tiny, low space; the effect when glazed (arms below, weepers or saints above?) must have been remarkable. They face a tomb recess which may have once connected to the chancel Thomas II at Bristol style, though the wall there is pretty substantial and also contains a window, in its current form a work of the C15 or C16. A tomb – and an altar, with a window over it with the only completely potty and wayward tracery in the place. Another one for the Berkeley–circle-variations-on-the-chantry pre-cage-chantry list, this one demanding maximum visibility for the tomb: is Stapeldon in the Exeter w front a source for that idea? That was designed to be at once exclusive and visible on both sides, but W Joy changed that before completion, rendering it only visible from inside the church, but marked in the w front by little windows.
The nave is quiet by comparison. Big smooth mouldings and polygonal caps, as one might expect, if a little obstreporously early. The oculi above the points of the arches so that the aisle windows are opposite their openings, creating and from the inside accentuating the dancing effect noted outside. A chancel arch with clever built-in mouldings to support a rood beam (Bristol fashion: design fittings into your scheme, regardless of whether anyone’s done so before or not). And over it two big east-nave-clerestory windows, a feature usually associated with the C15 and even then only with the grandest of churches; indeed I wonder if an earlier example is known anywhere. With the stone rood-beam support, aisle N and S easternmost windows and this, the altars-and-rood zone west of the chancel is hugely emphasised by all this. And the oculi are repeated on all E and W walls, that is the W walls of the aisles and the E chapel walls of the aisles, the latter leaving large spaces for altars (as the Bristol aisles do); the side-windows-in-gables thus become partly about lighting these fittings. The paired oculi in the central gable are formed as one might call spherical squares; I’m sure I’ve seen this motif elsewhere, but as windows?? And everywhere the cusping is metallic, flat, entirely hollowed out, a distinctive tic I’ve noticed in East Anglian work of this era (Cambridge, Great St Mary’s sedilia; Willingham).
The chancel is architecturally unremarkable, but with a nice sedilia and piscine (the later with a credence and another one-off shouldered arch: Berkeley arches for main door and priest’s door; shouldered arches for porch chapel entry and piscine; and NB not an ogee in sight). There’s some well-informed window tracery: the E window has the near-perp fish-scale reticulation invented by Thomas of Witney at Exeter; the side windows have piled up quatrefoils, another Exeter motif which resulted in the bonkers windows at the E end of the Bristol aisles. And there’s a riot of good C14 glass. Hooray! Christ in Majesty, Coronation (or are they two donors) a couple of minor saints, two big coats of arms.
Externally the chancel is curious, because it has a plinth, which the rest of the church doesn’t, and buttresses, which the rest of the church also doesn’t, big emphatic ones with fake tiling on their stepoffs, and an apparent archaeological disjuncture: it’s not keyed in to the western half of the church, and on the S side theres a relict (but rather redone-in-the-C14-looking) blocked lancet which the chancel for some reason makes way for rather than covering up, even though it involves jiggery-pokery with the chancel S wall. Yet there is no sign of the chancel being by a different designer: two more Bristol fashions: adopt different modes for different functions; make disjunctures obvious, even painfully so.
All this is so plainly by the same people and of one basic build that it seems to me that this mason, though more polite in his approach and his effect, has been listening hard to the Bristol man; understanding the underlying spirit as well as ripping off a few specific motifs. Apart from the ‘rules’, at once well understood and intelligently reinterpreted, noted above, these are: both the tracery and the formal idea of those altar-lighting windows come from William Joy’s changes to the aisles at Malmesbury. Not to mention the Berkeley arches. And the chancel windows mentioned above. More Bristol master rules: be most outrageously original where a change of mode is required and special attention deserves to be grabbed (the mysteriously named Volka chapel by the porch). Subtly change your language where function, or even patron, change (the chancel: what betting the porch contained the tomb and a chantry altar for the main, aristocratic, patron, and the vestry external tomb is a got-at memorial to a priest); play games with the past (that lancet). Be ornamentally restrained yet do not fear quiet originality when it follows logically from these rules. And there are oddnesses, too. Some windows have roll moulds all the way round them: one in the chancel has these all the way round the inside; one in the nave s aisle has them all the way round the outside. Que pasa? There’s a pile of worked stone here, I’d like to know what from.
Talking of modes, there’s the tower. It’s basically simply detailed, but flat topped – I think the parapet is Perp. But the rest isn’t: all the tracery and doors are apiece with the church. They are plain as a pikestaff, the buttresses are enriched at the top below the step-offs by flat repeated simple blank tracery patterns that if they are original deserve to be noted as pretty impressive precursors of the panel. This must all be original: the SW buttress is not keyed into the tower, but the NW one is, and it steps out a little above ground level on a corbelling angel(?) to make a newel stair, all the masonry of which is contiguous with the tower. So these butts are as C14 as they seem they’re quietly rather noteworthy. There are also stumps of big gargoyles, again rather C15 in spirit, on some corners and central wall divisions of the upper level.
This is all rather unlike the other things I’ve found in the Bristol man’s train. It lacks the exuberant-we –love-Dec-baroque lets-try-something-else-new of Dorchester or Cheltenham, but also the striking this-might-actually-be-our-man of Backwell, Urchfont, Minchinhampton, Berkeley. All these apart from Urchfont, which may predate Bristol, are 1330s/50s. Kingsland *understands*, while doing its own thing. So what date is it? From notes in the church which I would love to follow up properly, it seems from a sheaf of rather old notes in a folder inside the church (!) that someone’s worked on this a bit. Apparently the arms in the E window point to the de Broes family, and one Matilda married a Mortimer. The date 1290-1300 is mentioned: is that the twenty years between her marriage and her death? I need to check the arms and check her life and her dates. But also some caution. If 1310 *is* the cut off then Bristol has to be as early as Pevsner and CW say it is – quite a development, that – but I don’t know where the year comes from. And in any case, she only has to have paid for this on her deathbed. Second decade C14 would fit rather neatly, actually – and those arms do, exceptionally, suggest a date can be found. More questions arise: what is her relationship to Roger Mortimer, whose daughter married Thomas III Lord Berkeley; what is dating and detailing do we have for Wigmore abbey? Meanwhile, this building, at first polite and undemonstrative, is a satisfying and subtle and intelligent work of architecture: a combination, indeed that is another Bristol trait. Well done, Kingsland: we have moon rock, and a series of new reseach leads in the never ending quest for extra terrestrial life.
Berkswell The suburbs of Coventry are shattered and strange: abandoned tower blocks surrounded by security fences; a casino covered in scaffolding; rows of terraced housing equipped with classical columns and security cameras, as if the owners suddenly got rich (but not rich enough to move, or just loved it here…).
And then they suddenly vanish, and the landscape has the dense network of lanes and scattered hamlets of the not-so-long-ago forest. And here is a large, wealthy (shop, museum, tea) village with an extraordinary well and a remarkable church; they’re gathering for a Sunday service, and the place is packed, friendly, enthusiastic, full of all types and ages. Impressive.
The church and the well are grouped together in a cluster with the rectory; the church on a pronounced rise; the well in a curious grass covered lane, really a back area behinid houses; it has two sections, one large enough in which to rinse a beast of burden, the other small enough in which to dip your baby’s bum. All of this is cut off from the village, almost shielded from it, the houses look the other way, towards a green and a meeting of lanes; its as if house, well and church are in an enlcosure: minster?
There’s nothing very special about this church above ground, though the chancel’s top-notch parish church work of the mid-C12, with a well-preserved corbel table in orange stone, rows of neatly arranged little round-headed windows, and a lower level of windows peaking up from below ground level, each housed in an odd little thickening of the wall rather like a Victorian chimney flue. Hmm, there’s a crypt (of course, I know that: it’s why I’ve come).
Further west, everything is parish church charm: a very late two-storeyed porch, half timbered in its entirety, could be the gate to the house of a wealthy merchant; aisles one late Dec, with instructive ‘we’ve just heard about this straight-lines thing’ going-on-Perp tracery (actually I’ve now got a dated example of this stuff in the 1320s (Cambridge, Michaelhouse): suck on that, Accepted History. But that’s another story); the other probably mature Perp, though also a little Decish; tower, clerestory.
Inside the chancel is as expected, with its big round-headed entrance arch and the floor stepping up gradually to make way for the crypt – except that the stepping-up starts well west, halfway downn the nave; and here immediately too there are signs of some archaeological complexity – for the western half of the north nave arcade is mid-C12, simple Romanesque, and the eastern half is late gothic, as its its (slightly earlier) compadre on the south. Why is there is two-bay C12 gap between the chancel and its aisle?
A clue comes through the easternmost of the two C12 arcade arches. Here a wide staircase leads down into the crypt, and the church’s great suprise: for one walks into a well-made vaulted octagon the width of the nave above, and peers down its long, vaulted eastern extension, the width of the narrower chancel. This crypt is a C12 roundbut the church, the same plan as Ludlow or Temple Bristol, but underground. Which is where sepulchres should be, after all.
It’s also not a simple building. The eastern extension is older than the octagon. They’re not seperated by much, but the caps in the e half of mid-c12 (1130s-1150s?) and those in the w are waterleaf, ie surely after 1160 probably into the 1170s. Yet the two buildings join perfectly; even the masonry used in the vaulting is identical. And before the building break that seperates east from west there is a mid-C12 arch: either the western octagon was anticipated when work ceased on the eastern chancel-crypt, or something preceded it, something the seperation of which from the current chancel-crypt was worth expressing architecturally. One more thing: in the chancel-crypt there is a neat piscina with, interestingly, a triangular headed arch; and the vault here retains late medeival polychromy: an enormous section of battered script, set among stars. The guide says the big black letters read IHS, which suggests a christological dedication: good, for my holy-sepulchral investigations; but I think it’s just a big M, which means a Marian dedication: even better, for my Lady chapel/tomb of Christ ideas (other current candidates are in Kings Lynn and Hereford, with other possibilities ‘burrowing under’).
But the stuff that really gets the archaeological braincells going is above ground, as one tries to work out how all this relates to the church above it. For the eastern half of this is straightforward: chancel and chancel-crypt are a single structure. But the octagon, isn’t. The two-bay C12 arcade is plainly of the same date as the chancel: it’s plain, standard Norman, with none of the up to date late-C12ness of the caps in the octagon. So it predates the current western/octagon crypt, so there must have been crypt of some type there when it was built. Was the chancel crypt built on to an existing structure, which was only rebuilt later? In which case what form did that structure take? As for this western aisle, access to said crypt seems to be its raison detre. For the octagon is lit by two little windows, each of which was originally in the external wall of an aisleless chancel. On the S side this has been entirely replaced by the Dec aisle and arcade, and the window widened slightly and given a pointed arch (guide says this was to allow coffins into what by the C18/C19 was being used as a family burial vault). On the N side the original window remains, in the C14 bay east of the C12 one which provides access to the octagon crypt; and the junction between the C12 and C14 bays is clearly an interrupted stretch of C12 wall. So this was a church with an aisleless chancel and crypt, and an aisless nave and crypt – with a special two-bay north-western aisle the sole purpose of which seems to be to permit spacious access (the staircase is wide, too) to the space beneath it. Something significant preceded this space, something which a lot of people wanted to get at; something the form of which is unknown. On the one hand, the excavation of something radically different to the current octagon beneath an existing nave would take some doing; on the other the addition of a centralised and cult-oriented structure in the 1170s has some form: on the other, the idea had current form not present 20-30 years earlier: is this a response to grander works of the previous decades at (in order) York and Canterbury, with Lincoln on the stocks; and to the rash of circular Holy Sepulchre churches built by interesting patrons (obscure fraternities, crusading orders, proud and pious lords fresh from a trip to Palestine), all of them around this time or earlier? If so, only Canterbury (and York?) among the eastern cult-circular churches had crypts; but among the Holy Sepulchres, Clerkenwell had a crypt, and two in Lincs did, too, and of these only one, that at Temple Bruer extended the crypt under the circular nave. This is not so far from eastern Warwickshire; both belonged to the Templars; Temple Bruer appears to have been a C12 structure, though Aslackby, where a central boss with four sheilds on it was found, may have been rather later: we wouldn’t find this before the C14. All this is powerfully relevant, but Berkswell is different from any of them for not continuing the form above ground. The straight surviving stretch of C12 wall above proves that. This sounds like a good case for suggesting the previous structure was square too, indeed this could be proved archaeologically as the most likely corollary would be that it was of the same dimensions as the nave above and they simply filled in the corners, much easier than carving out a large centralised form from a small pre-existing crypt. One corner of the crypt has an opening in it through which one can view a little of the ashlar facing of the chancel-crypts ‘outside’ wall… And there are A-S precadents, too, though not so strong because they are more distant, both geographically and, where we know anyhing, morphologically: the several circular structures (eg York, Abingdon, Bury, Worcester?) known to have been built with Marian associations in that era, of which St Augustine’s Canterbury had a crypt.
To add to the conundrum, there is seperate access, intriguingly, to the chancel crypt, which has the usual narrow openings running from each side of the chancel arch down a thickness in the wall: an arrangement particularly common in pre-Conquest churches (Repton, Hexham, Ripon) and replicated in several later examples (including Temple Bruer, but from within the circular part of the crypt; also Madley). Now double accoess suggests circulation rather than priestly in-and-out, raising the possibility that the chancel crypt was seperate from the western crypt, perhaps before it acquired its octagonal form, and in spite of the fact that it was built with an arch to whatever was to the west. Perhaps this is a pilgrimage route, in to octagon and out, into eastern crypt and out, screens between them. That would suit the Canterbury analogy rather neatly.
Beyond this we can’t go, exccept that the guide mentions various female Anglo-Saxon names that someone must have dug up to find a cult here: who they are, or why these names come up is unclear. But the whole place is archaeologically fascinating (can we abandon style and date the western aisle-thing with the crypt?), and a prime example of the ever-fascinating adventures of the C12, and the way they can be found in to-us obscure places. I want to know more about Berkswell.
Every churchyard has a little surprise: here, it’s the chapel-like WWI memorial, open on four sides, with little ledges inside for people to sit and remember their loved ones, and weep at the thought of popppies and French mud: a remarkable evocation of the wave of national mourning and monument-making of that era.