Church architecture in Hertfordshire and elsewhere, art, books, and whatever crosses my path

Friday, 26 August 2016

A knight on the tiles: Meesden church, Herts


Meesden is a small one-street village in north-east Hertfordshire, almost on the Essex border. However, if you go there and walk down that street expecting to find the church, you'll be disappointed. It's not there. It's not in the village, and while it's only half a mile or so away it's unsignposted, and hard to find*. But although it was substantially rebuilt in 1877 it's very much worth seeking out.

Its first attraction is its romantic location, hidden away from the world on the edge of a wood, alone except for the enormous former rectory (originally Queen Anne, but much rebuilt), with expansive views over bucolic farmland to the north. And although it's a mostly Victorian building, the architect (whose name doesn't seem to have been recorded) did a good job.


You approach from the west, and the first view is of this fine timber shingled bellcote, with Perpendicular-style blind tracery, which replaced a much plainer one seen in a watercolour by Buckler displayed in the church, showing the building as it was in the earlier 19th century**. 



The Tudor brick south porch is one of the church's two outstanding features. It was built c.1530, and no one seems to know why such a large, elaborate, splendid structure was added to what's always been a small, out-of-the-way church. By rights it should be the gateway to a much grander building, and the contrast is almost comically bathetic. But there's something a little tragic about it too: just a decade or so after its construction the Reformation turned everything its builders knew upside down, and church building came to an almost complete halt for sixty or seventy years; this extravagant, confident porch is medieval England's last hurrah.


The much-moulded doorway has flanking diagonal buttresses, each of which has a niche. The buttresses rise up and culminate in hexagonal*** mini-turrets, with cute little ogee cupolas serving as finials. The top is castellated, and has a corbel table of shaped bricks. 










The corbel table is worth admiring. Each trefoiled arch top consists of two bricks which are shaped like a child's idea of the man in the moon, a crescent with a 'nose' in the middle. Above these are bricks which look as if someone's sat on them before they were baked, leaving a double indent in each; together with the crescent bricks, they create shapes like a squashed V. Altogether, this is Hertfordshire's best display of shaped Tudor bricks (the only rival - an honourable loser in this competition - is the north aisle of Wyddial church). Sadly, the porch has been brutally repointed at some time, the cement being slapped on like butter straight from the fridge.



There's a mystery, however: the Buckler watercolour doesn't show the turrets, and the crenellation is much smaller and less elaborate. Either he's for some reason misrepresented what was there c.1830, or they've been added later. There's another drawing of about the same date in the church, showing the same view, and it too shows the porch to be much less showy above the corbel table. 


A similar view today
Furthermore, the bricks above the corbel table are noticeably different from those below, being less flat, darker in colour and more regular in shape: in other words, more like modern bricks. Is it conceivable that the turrets and battlements, at least in their present form, postdate c.1830? None of the authorities mention this possibility but it seems to be the inescapable conclusion. In which case, the architect concerned, whether he was the one who restored the church in 1877 or another, probably earlier one, deserves respect for a job well done, and for unintentionally fooling several generations of historians.


The west turret, clearly showing the difference between the older brick at the bottom and the newer at the top.


The porch shelters a plain and unassuming early 12th century Norman doorway, proving the essential antiquity of the building. 







Sometime in the 13th century diminutive transepts were added north and south, with two-bay arcades as if they're aisles. The arcades are quite richly moulded for their size, and show that even before the building of the porch someone was intent on making the church seem grand. At some later date the transepts were demolished, leaving the arches trapped in the wall (as seen in the Buckler watercolour), but were rebuilt on the original foundations in the 1877 restoration.



In their usual position on the south side of the chancel are a piscina (used for washing the Eucharistic vessels) and sedilia (a seat for the priest), both dating from c.1300, and showing that this small church was frequently improved and altered. The second outstanding feature of the church, and for my money its star attraction, is the tile floor around the altar, from about the same date. 











To be precise, these are mosaic tiles; normal tiles are of course square or rectangular, but Meesden's are of numerous different shapes and sizes and must have been complex and expensive to make and lay. All the effort was worthwhile: they're magnificent. Although the area filled by the tiles is quite small, the pavement must be one of the most elaborate surviving. They spread out from the altar, first of all in a fan shape, which is surrounded by a rectangular border, which in turn is surrounded by a bigger, more complex border. This outer border consists of 19 circles, each of which contains a cinquefoil and which in turn are surrounded by four smaller circles. The colours have worn and faded over the centuries; what remains are mostly dusty yellows, dark greens, various shades of browny-orange and blacks. 


As well as being coloured and shaped, the tiles have been stamped with little designs; the more you look, the more you see.






The outer border has circles containing cinquefoil tiles, which in turn are stamped with cinquefoils within cinquefoils. The surrounding smaller circular tiles are stamped with sexfoils within sexfoils.



A sexfoil within a sexfoil on a square tile, from the border around the fan.



Quatrefoil within a circle, from one of the voussoirs.



A cross within a circle on one of the voussoirs.



Four octofoils within a circle on one of the voussoirs.



A sexfoil within a sexfoil on a circular tile, from the outer border.





Two opposed eagles volant (I hope I've got the heraldic jargon correct) within a circle, with two quatrefoils, from the voussoirs. 


Easy to miss, because they're so worn, are two heraldic shields in the corners of the inner rectangle.




These show the arms of the Monchenseys, the aristocratic family that held the manor of Meesden from the late 13th century, and hence the shameful pun in the title of this post. Apparently, the correct heraldic terminology for the design on the shields is Barry Vair and Gules (which sounds like a 1950s variety act, perhaps a ventriloquist and his dummy).

Looking down on the tiles from the north wall of the chancel is the bust of Robert Younge, who died in 1626.




The design is rather unusual: a roundel containing a quarter-length figure is imposed on a rather stumpy fluted column. He presses his right hand to his heart in a gesture of piety. There are numerous  biblical texts, notably two displayed on open books, one of which Younge holds in his left hand and which dangles down to break the frame of the roundel. This is an eye-catching device that adds realism to the monument; he seems about to deliver a hortatory sermon.

The monument was restored and repainted in 1979, and some may find the very pink face and hands a bit too much. They were probably just as garish when new, however, and I'm fond of a touch of colour in otherwise fairly monochrome churches.



The font is plain apart from some discreet panelling, which enables us to date it to the 17th century, probably the Jacobean period (not a very common period for fonts). The most interesting thing about it, however, is that it's evidently been broken into at least three pieces and stuck back together. When did this happen, and why? Such damage could hardly have been accidental. From the Reformation to the Restoration (ie from the 1530s to 1660) fonts had a chequered history, coming in to and going out of favour as doctrinal fashions tussled among themselves. (Read an article about the history of fonts, and especially miniature fonts, from the Church Times here.) In particular, in 1645 (during the Civil War) Parliament passed an ordinance that in effect required the abolition of fonts and their replacement with basins. Fortunately, this ruling wasn't carried out with any great rigour, otherwise no medieval fonts would survive. Some must have been destroyed, but a great many were 'only' defaced. Meesden's font was most likely attacked during this period (even though it was then practically brand new).





This sketch appears to be dated 9.6.13, which must be 1813, and shows the interior with a Jacobean screen and pulpit with tester, all of which must have been swept away in 1877.

The Younge monument seen through the bog-standard Perpendicular-style Victorian chancel screen.
Most marvellous, the church is open daily despite its isolation, and its parishioners obviously take pride in showing it off, as is right and proper. Other parishes should take note. Judging by the visitors' book, a steady stream of wanderers and wayfarers manage to find their way through the gate into the wood and up the sylvan path. I trust that they're as enchanted as me with what they find at the path's end.





* To find it, leave the village by the main street (there's no other road leaving it) heading roughly south-east, and at the first junction turn left, signposted to Meesdenbury. After a couple of hundred yards, and after Rectory Farm, on the right there's a five-barred gate on a track leading into a wood with a sign saying 'Meesden church'. The first time I visited, in the 90s, there was no sign on the gate and it was only my OS map that got me there. 

** This seems to be dated 1831 and is by John Chessell Buckler (1793-1894), who painted hundreds of pictures of Herts buildings, mostly in the 1830s. There are four big volumes of them in the Hertfordshire Records Office, in Hertford, freely available for anyone to look at. In his Confessions of an Un-Common AttorneyReginald Hine tells the story of how the watercolours came to be deposited there.

*** The official listing description (see here) says they're octagonal. I can't tell you what a nerdy thrill it gives me to catch the professionals out.