Tuesday 29 September 2020
Saturday 26 September 2020
'Norton' - meaning 'north settlement' (that is, a place north of somewhere else) - is one of the commonest English place-names. There are at least a dozen places called simply Norton, plus many others which use the name as part of a longer one, such as Norton Disney in Lincolnshire, and, in Somerset, Midsomer Norton (which sounds magical, as if the dahlias and sunflowers are always in bloom and there are light, balmy evenings all the year round, but in fact is dismal, being brooded over by slag heaps).
Hertfordshire's Norton is one of the three ancient settlements subsumed by Letchworth Garden City (the others are Willian and, of course, Letchworth). It retains something of a village feel, with plenty of surviving pre-1903 (when the Garden City was founded) buildings. I particularly like Croft Lane, which combines genuine older buildings with some superb Arts and Crafts-influenced early 20th century houses.
As is the case in very many places in England and elsewhere, the church is by some distance the oldest building (though it's been much altered over the centuries). As is also the case in many places, the church has Norman origins. The chancel arch dates from c.1100; its antiquity and simplicity endow it with a certain presence. It's extremely plain: the arch isn't even chamfered, let alone moulded, and the imposts (the horizontal mouldings at the springing of the arch) are as rudimentary as can be. Curiously, they have a little channel apparently cut into them about half way along; was this perhaps to accommodate a chancel screen?
A word of praise here for the spartan but attractive light fittings, something churches so often get wrong.
A fairly unusual feature is the opening over the chancel arch. It's even plainer than the arch, having no imposts, and round-headed; could it be Norman too? Being high up it's of course hard to inspect and thus the age of its masonry is difficult to assess; from the ground it looks distinctly less ancient than the chancel arch. Neither Pevsner/Bettley, nor the statutory listing, nor the Victoria County History, nor the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments even mention its existence, which implies that they think it's obviously modern and of no interest. If it's not a window that was once above a much lower early Norman chancel roof, however, what is its purpose, and when was it inserted?
However, after a handful of emails back and forth he wrote to say that he'd found an illuminating photograph dating from c.1895 in the Historic England archive, reproduced above. It shows that at this date there was no opening (there's a framed royal coat of arms over the chancel arch, and beneath that a scroll painted on the plaster). The obvious conclusion to jump to from this evidence is that the opening dates from the restoration of the church in 1908-9, by Walter Millard.*
But that doesn't really make much sense. Bettley suggests, and I concur, that it's extremely unlikely that Millard would have introduced such a feature. Why would he have done? It serves no function, and would simply have added to the expense of the restoration. A much better explanation is that an opening over the chancel arch existed at some earlier date (either as an original, Norman, feature, or one added later). For some unknown reason, it was subsequently blocked, and in 1908 Millard found it and decided to open it up.
This adds to our knowledge of the church's story, but doesn't answer our initial questions. We still don't know when or why the opening was first made. And now we also don't know when and why it was blocked, and why Millard made it look Norman - did he do so because he could tell that it was originally from that period, or, if it was post-Norman, simply because he thought a round arch would be a better stylistic fit with the existing chancel arch?
There's one more puzzle. You'd have thought that the discovery and reinstatement of an ancient window (if that's what it was) would have aroused interest in and comment from local antiquarians. However, no sign of this has turned up yet. There's no contemporary reference to Norton church on the contents page of the East Herts Archaeological Society Transactions, and the transactions of the St Albans & Hertfordshire Architectural & Archaeological Society (their website is down as I write this) don't seem to be available for that period. Perhaps something will be found. (At the moment access to the Herts County Record Office is awkward because of the virus.)
For what it's worth, my guess - and I admit this is pure speculation, albeit plausible speculation - is that the original Norman chancel was much lower than the nave, and that there was a window over the chancel arch to provide more light in the nave. Perhaps it was smaller than the opening made by Millard. In 1814 the current chancel was built on a bigger scale, which rendered the window functionless, so it was blocked. A little less than a century later it was found by Millard, who thought that, although doing so would serve no practical function, reinstating it would add antiquarian interest to the church.
The rest of the church, except the chancel and south porch, is an early 15th century rebuilding of the original Norman structure, and has in turn been much restored, particularly by Millard. The chancel and south porch were added, as stated above, in 1814, not a date at which much church building was going on in most of the country. Why the work was carried out in Norton at this particular time I don't know. I suspect that the tracery of the chancel windows was renewed in the 19th century, or by Millard, as it's much too archaeologically accurate (that is, too much like genuine 15th century windows) to have been built in Georgian times. The outer doorway of the porch, presumably of this date, combines Gothic and classical elements, and is rather handsome.
* Walter Millard (1854-1936) worked as an assistant to William Burgess and G E Street. He had his own practice in London from 1883. From about 1914 he lived in Hitchin. He also restored St Mary's, Letchworth, and designed the war memorial in Hitchin.
** The Old Style calendar assumes that the year begins on March 25th, whereas the New Style, in use today, of course makes the illogical assumption that the year begins on January 1st. The monument states that the first Katherine died 3rd March 1648, and the second Katherine on 12th March 1652; I've 'translated' these dates to 1649 and 1653 respectively in the New Style.
The New Style wasn't officially adopted in Britain until 1752, when the Gregorian calendar finally succeeded the Julian. (I say 'finally' because much of Europe had been using it since 1582; not for the last time Britain was reluctant to toe what it saw as the European (and in this case Roman Catholic) line, despite the impracticality of standing aloof.) However, the New Style was widely used for at least a century before the official changeover. Samuel Pepys, for example, writing his diary in the 1660s evidently accepted that 1st January was the beginning of the year.
*** 'Open for private prayer' is not, I'm sure, intended to imply that visitors who enter for other purposes, such as wanting to sit quietly, or to look around, are unwanted. Certainly the lady who was in attendance when I visited was very welcoming. But the wording might put some potential visitors off. Surely a simple 'open' is sufficient.
|Three tiny but tubby ponies grazing in a field opposite the church|
Thursday 24 September 2020
The view from the south-west is particularly appealing; the multiple embattlements create a touch of grandeur silhouetted against the sky. Moving from left to right in the photo at the top of the page we have firstly the south transept, built by Thomas Smith* of Hertford in 1840-2. Next is what was originally an organ chamber, built in 1914-16 by Sir Charles Nicholson, 2nd Baronet, and Hubert Corlette. Behind this are the upper stages of the tower and the recessed spire** built (on a Norman lower stage) in the 15th century. The next projection is the 14th century south chapel, and then the chancel from the same century terminates the vista.
The rest of the Norman church must have been considered inadequate for the parish's needs, because it was at least mostly replaced in the 13th century. The chancel, aisles and chapels were then in turn demolished or entirely rebuilt in the 14th century; the arches of the nave were replaced in the following century, and the clerestory added, but the 13th century nave columns were allowed to remain. Most of the roofs are also 15th century.
The oldest artefact in the church is the early 13th century font, which is plain and stands on four shafts with simply moulded capitals and bases. The 15th century wooden cover is much more elaborate.
Currently lying on blankets on the floor of the north aisle - presumably waiting for a more permanent position within the church - is this much damaged late 13th century effigy of a lady. Attendant figures - apparently an angel on her right (our left) and a priest on her left - support her by the elbows.
Currently at the west end of the north aisle are these stalls with 14th century misericords, probably not made for the church (parish churches having little or no need for misericords) but brought from somewhere else, presumably post-Reformation. The first and third photos show misericords carved with oak leaves; the second a rather nightmarish, clown-like, boggle-eyed and monobrowed foliate head (apparently a later addition of c.1500); the fourth an angel with arms upraised in blessing. The fifth one is a poor quality photo; I tried to lift the seat to see what lay beneath, but it felt that if I exerted any force I'd break something, and not being keen to smash up an ancient and beautiful artefact I desisted. I put my camera on the ground and just hoped for the best, which turns out to be only minimally adequate. But you can at least see that the carving is of vine leaves, with some grapes.
The stairs under the tower leading up to the ringing chamber have been tree-ring-dated to 1360-82. Even allowing for how worn they are, they're astonishingly primitive. They comprise simply two long beams on which are rudely fixed (I don't know if they're nailed or pegged) equally rude very roughly shaped steps; there don't seem to be any joints anywhere. You can hardly call it carpentry. I must say I don't fancy risking my neck on them. Bell-ringing is notorious for working up a thirst; let's hope that the ringers wait until they're safely at ground level before quenching it.
|14th and 15th century screens|
|This niche for an image in the north chapel is also 14th or 15th century|
|Fragments of 15th century glass, inc. a monk|
|The east window, by William Wailes, 1842. The four Evangelists|
|The chancel south window, also by Wailes, 1850. Noli Me Tangere|
|East window, south chapel (now the organ loft, making a good photo very hard), by F C Eden 1912. Te Deum|
|East window, north chapel, attributed to Clayton and Bell, 1858. The Agony in the Garden; the Betrayal; Ecce Homo; Christ Bearing the Cross|
|HMS Irresistible sinking, from Wikipedia, which has much more information|
St Nicholas' church is generally locked; I was lucky enough to arrive on spec on what turned out to be an open day held to celebrate a recent refurbishment, which had cost a little over a million pounds (see here). As you'd expect given the money spent on it, some radical changes have been made. It's in the nature of such things that some will disapprove, virtually regardless of the actual alterations, and want things to stay the same. (The refurbishment wasn't my top priority when I was looking around: I was more interested in the historical features, so any opinions I express here are provisional.)
Some churches become museums; Caldecote which I wrote about recently is an example. Clearly any alterations there (unless they were absolutely necessary to stop it falling down) would be wrong. But most are living buildings, in frequent use for their original main purpose. I'm a non-believer, but nevertheless I'd like as many churches as possible to remain open for worship. (This is partly for selfish reasons - I like visiting churches, and if I can get other people to look after them so I can enjoy them, so much the better - but also because I recognise how much comfort, support and inspiration many people derive from their faith.) There's always going to be some tension between the desire to preserve churches as historical artefacts, and the need to make them suitable for 21st century practicalities.
The main alterations seem to be that the floor, which was previously uneven and breaking up in places, has been dug up and completely relaid, with underfloor heating; a mezzanine floor has been added in the south transept (the kitchen there, which I think partly occupies the original organ chamber, was I believe the result of a previous updating); the lighting has been renewed; six audio-visual screens have been attached to the pillars; most of the internal stonework has been given a lick of paint (leaving the stones with graffiti unpainted).
There was a survey made of the floor before it was destroyed, and an archaeological record was kept while work was in progress; some interesting discoveries were made, and some ledger stones have been preserved. Underfloor heating is very welcome, meaning that clumsy radiators aren't needed. A level floor is a major advantage for disabled people, but nevertheless inevitably some historical material would have been destroyed. The new floor, of Purbeck marble in various shades and sizes, would probably look fabulous in the kitchen of a newly built house; how suitable it is for a church I'm not sure. I think this will be the thing that neophobes will mostly focus on. I do think that it goes quite well with the set of 1964 benches by the Robert Thompson workshop (he is known as the Mouseman as he signed his work with a little mouse, 12 of which can be found in the church if you look carefully. I'm told that his benches are much more ergonomic and therefore more comfortable than standard pews). But I have a feeling that the coloured marbles will look horribly dated in a few decades; ideally, I'd have preferred the old floor to have been patched up rather than reduced to rubble and dumped.
The audio-visual screens are an intrusion (some will no doubt find them shocking), and I can hardly believe they're necessary; are the members of the congregation really going to be glued to their close-up detail rather than watching the slightly more distant reality? But at least they could presumably be taken down in an hour or so without much difficulty. The other changes seem to me to be a successful compromise, preserving most of the old and catering for the new. If the church is going to continue to be a living building - and, as I say, I hope it is - we have to accept that some new features will be introduced, which will sometimes mean the removal of older features. Churches have always worked like this, and will continue to do so until they become museums.
I've left possibly my favourite feature of the church till last. If there's anyone who has so much time to fill that they're regular readers of this blog they'll know already of my fondness for label stops and corbels. These are small, generally unregarded little carvings that, perhaps, were left to the whim of the masons - certainly, they rarely have any obvious religious significance. St Nicholas Stevenage has a fine set of label stops, though none of the authorities mention them, even in passing. Not Pevsner/Bettley, not the statutory listing, not the Victoria County History, not the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments, not even the church guide book. They must date from the building of the arches over the 13th century pillars, that is, the 15th century (though it's possible that some have been recut).
The range from the cute - the very modern-looking rabbit - through the comic - the snaggle-toothed, handlebar-moustached Terry-Thomas figure - to the imposing - the long-haired man wearing a badged hat and the ?woman with a ruff and what seems to be a jewelled headdress. A whole gallery of late medieval personages.
* I've written approvingly about Thomas Smith before; see my discussion of his work at Weston, for example.
** The base of a recessed spire is smaller than the tower top on which it stands, leaving an area which you could walk round should you choose.
|Norman west doorway|
|Norman window in tower|