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

Sunday 24 April 2022

Aston church, Herts

Aston is set between the endless housing estates of Stevenage to its west and the beautiful bucolic Beane valley to the east. The church has its origins in the 13th century; the double piscina in the chancel dates from then, and the tower from c.1400, but it was given two pretty thorough Victorian goings over. The first, in 1851, was an early work by P C Hardwick (1822-92), who was working on Durham Town Hall at the same time (the Great Hall of which, with its hammerbeam roof, is still impressive). He added the north aisle. Then, in 1883, W O Milne (1847-1927) rebuilt the south wall of the nave, and constructed the (rather handsome) porch.

Inside, the early 16th century chancel screen is, unusually, asymmetric, with typical Perpendicular-style tracery on the right while on the left each bay has a pair of quatrefoils. The font of 1807 isn't carved but moulded, as it's made of Coade stone (which isn't stone at all, but more like ceramic). It's one of the few objects made of this material in a Herts church.*

The reredos is by Milne, though apparently he reused earlier mosaics. 

The church possesses a complete set of windows by the firm Heaton, Butler and Bayne, which worked from 1862 until 1953. Aston's windows date from 1883 to 1916. I think the first one below, depicting the young Jesus working in his father's carpentry workshop, from 1897, a period of general aesthetic decline in English stained glass, is not without charm.

For me, however, the most interesting details in the church are to be seen up in the gloom of the roof. In the 15th century new low-pitched roofs were constructed, a project which included the carving of new corbels. I don't claim that these are unsung masterpieces, but they are fascinating and entertaining folk art objects, virtually untouched except for a lick of whitewash since they were installed more than half a millennium ago, that don't get the attention they deserve. (Of the four printed or online authorities I've consulted only one, the Statutory Listing, mentions them, and does so only in passing and without comment.) 

They are evidently by the same hand that is responsible for the corbels in nearby Benington as they share the bulbous eyes, prominent nostrils and what might be seen as highly exaggerated cheekbones. They range from the humorous - the gormless chap who seems to have pulled his hat down over his eyes and is surprised he can no longer see (second photo below) - to the alarming - the king who has apparently just spotted something worrying (fifth) - to the almost dignified - the fork-bearded figure (third). These carvings are surely just as important as high status sculptures in giving us insights into the minds of the original builders of our churches.

Aston church was open when I visited.

* Coade Stone by Hans van Lemmen (Shire, 2006) claims that St Lawrence's church, Langley, has some Coade stone heraldic shields. However, Langley has no church, and Abbots Langley, Kings Langley and Langlebury don't have churches with that dedication.

13th century trefoil-headed double piscina

Poor quality oil painting, c.1800?

Pulpit, second half 17th century

Lychgate seen from the porch

Milne's porch, with chequerwork

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