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

Sunday 31 January 2021

Barley church, Herts by William Butterfield 1871-2

There's been a church in Barley since at least the 12th century. In about 1870 it was decided either that most of it was too dilapidated to be worth saving, or that the village deserved a brand new church. The prominent architect William Butterfield (1814-1900) was commissioned and in 1871-2 he demolished everything except the 12th century west tower and 14th century south aisle, and started afresh.

The result is a big church for a village (even today there are fewer than seven hundred inhabitants), which must have been mightily expensive. The result is not the exuberantly Butterfieldian extravaganza we might hope for - apart from some details it could have been designed by any competent Victorian architect - but it's altogether quietly dignified, with a High Victorian chancel of note. I'm not going to claim it as an unacknowledged masterpiece, but it doesn't deserve the sniffy comments found in some older guidebooks. For example, in Hertfordshire: A Pictorial Guide (no date, but late 1970s) Eric G Meadows says that it's been 'unimpressively rebuilt', while R M Healey in the generally excellent and catholic in its taste Shell Guide: Hertfordshire (1982) lambasts its 'utterly lack-lustre style'. 

The lower two stages of the tower are Norman, which is best seen externally on the north side where there's a large round-headed window (there's an equivalent one on the south too); the other windows were replaced later in the Middle Ages (and probably renewed by Butterfield). The top stage is 15th century and there was once a (probably 17th century) cupola, but, needless to say, the current spirelet is Butterfield's version of a Hertfordshire spike, as seen on numerous churches in the county. This is much the most prominent feature visible from the outside that marks the church as a little out of the ordinary. It starts out as if it intends to be an unusually low-pitched lead-covered spirelet, but halfway up it becomes an open timber bellcote with pairs of traceried openings, and is topped by a much more steeply-pitched shingled octagon. Bettley/Pevsner calls it 'odd'; Healey calls it 'awkwardly contrived'; I call it 'charmingly idiosyncratic'.*

The Norman origins of the tower are best seen from inside; the tower arch is tall and plain, and high above it a tiny window communicates with the ringing chamber. The handsome wrought iron gates with their Gothic tracery may date from Butterfield's rebuilding.

The wooden stairs (more like a ladder) leading up to the ringing chamber aren't quite as primitive- and dangerous-looking as those in Stevenage, but I still don't fancy risking my neck on them.

The south aisle seems to have been built originally in the late 13th century (which is when the south arcade dates from), but according to the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments it was widened c.1340. It is indeed an unusually wide aisle; two of the windows were replaced in the late Middle Ages. 

Otherwise the architecture is by Butterfield, in the style of the early 14th century, in knapped flint with bands of limestone. The photograph immediately above is instructive: the contrast between the rather pleasing dappled effect of the unknapped flint (mixed with a few other small stones) in the centre and on the right, and, on the left, the dark, almost forbidding knapped flint is very noticeable. Also on the left is seen a Butterfieldian oddity, a sexfoiled window set within a very strangely shaped stone dressing, like a 1950s flying saucer in profile.

The nave has few notable architectural features; the only extravagant gesture is at the east end of the south aisle, where the top of the arch leading to the organ chamber has open Gothic tracery. The rafters are in pairs, each pair being supported by three plain corbels (except at the east, where one rafter has two corbels), an unusual arrangement. The benches, with their quatrefoiled cutout backs, were designed by Butterfield and made by Thomas Savell in the village.

The nave is kept plain partly in order to emphasise the elaborate decoration and sanctity of the chancel, where Butterfield pulls out all the stops. Tiles, painting, woodwork (including some bits from a  15th century screen), blind arcades, marble, coloured organ pipes, stained glass, candelabras (which I particularly like) - even the ceiling is embellished with tracery-like patterns. This must be one of the best, and best-preserved, High Victorian High Church chancels in the county.

The Little Guide: Hertfordshire by Herbert W Thompson (1903) states that 'During the restoration some curious jars, of ancient make, were found in the chancel walls, but were broken in the efforts to dislodge them.' These would have been acoustic jars, which were sometimes built into the walls (lying on their sides with the open end pointing into the building) with the intention of improving the acoustics. (Recent research suggests that they probably had little effect.) In a few places such jars survive, for example Lyddington, Rutland; Fairwell, Staffs; and Ashburton, Devon. Rather bizarrely, according to J Charles Cox (in English Church Fittings, Furniture and Accessories (no date, but c.1923)), it seems that horses' skulls were sometimes used for the same purpose. He evinces the three that were found in 1865 built into the masonry of the bell turret (not the chancel) of Elsdon, Northumberland.

Butterfield's font is I think much better than the one he designed for Berkhamsted, partly because of the more sympathetic stone from which it's made, although the elements of the design - eight columns with tracery above - are very similar. 

He preserved some features from the old church, notably the 1626 pulpit with its fine tester. There are also some fragments of original glass.

There are two figures in the south aisle, angels I think (the one on the left holds a book), and in the middle part of a scene, with two wimpled women at the top above two men, with a suggestion of at least one more woman below, and the inscription 'yere of or [our] Lorde god 1536'. They seem to be watching something that's now 'offstage', presumably a religious event. 1536 was the year of the beginning of Henry VIII's Dissolution of the Monasteries, and of the Pilgrimage of Grace, a doomed rebellion against the King's turning the country away from Roman Catholicism, and thus, if you like, the end of the English Middle Ages. And so this scene could be the remains of the very last medieval stained glass made in the country.

The west window of the tower has this very small but imposing head of God, from the 14th century.

The east window of the north aisle contains some Edwardian glass by 'Mr Leach of Cambridge', 1911; let's be charitable and call it 'undistinguished'. (The foliage at the top and bottom of each light isn't bad, though.) However, hiding in plain sight in the quatrefoil at the top is a small 14th century Crucifixion, perhaps in situ. (Bettley/Pevsner lists it, otherwise I might have overlooked it, but the usually comprehensive Corpus Vitrearum Medii Aevi misses it.)

Also rather hidden away in the vestry is this small broken oval panel, 16th or 17th century and perhaps Flemish, showing a beggar with a crutch tugging the cloak of a finely-dressed gentleman mounted on a horse. The gent is threatening the beggar with a sword, which doesn't seem to accord very well with Christian charity. Maybe it was originally part of a sequence (similar to the Good Samaritan parable) in which some behave reprehensibly towards the needy before someone does the right thing. (Bettley/Pevsner misses this panel; the CVMA doesn't include it because it's not medieval.)

East window, Hardman, 1872

In the south aisle are four 14th century corbels, none of them particularly characterful except perhaps this one (which is quite similar to one in the south aisle at Weston). It depicts a creature, with a semi-human face and curly beard, apparently poised to pounce. I like to think that he's been watching, with an interested but maybe sceptical eye, the church's comings and goings, the buildings and rebuildings, for seven hundred years. What stories he could tell!

Barley church has always been open whenever I've visited, even during the current lockdown III.

* Bettley/Pevsner points out that St James, Colchester, Essex has a similar spirelet. It's by S S Teulon, 1870-1, so it's possible that Butterfield took his inspiration from it. There's another one in Chollerton, Northumberland, 1873, but Pevsner etc doesn't name the architect.

12th cen carving (apparently not originally from the church)

13th cen stiff-leaf capital

Brass, 1621

The early 16th cen (but much restored) Town House

17th cen lock-up

The church seen through the mid-20th cen pub sign