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

Sunday 3 April 2022

Sarratt church, Herts

Sarratt church is set in ravishing countryside despite being only half a mile from the M25 and 25 miles from Charing Cross. It's a little apart from the main village, on the edge of the Chess valley, and a few hundred yards from the Buckinghamshire border. 

The church is cruciform - that is, has a short nave and chancel, with transepts - though the original plan is obscured by later accretions. It was originally built c.1190; the chancel was extended in the 13th century (as evidenced by the lancet windows and double piscina) and again in the 14th (the east window is Victorian but seems to follow the original design), and a west tower was added in the 15th century. The church was  restored by Sir George Gilbert Scott (1811-78) in 1865-6, who also added north and south aisles, (the nave is so short that the aisles are practically as long - or as short - as they are wide), plus a porch and vestry.

Apart from its attractive setting the most striking feature of the exterior is the saddleback roof (that is, one with two gables and two sloping sides), the only one on a church tower in the county. What makes it even more unusual is that it's transverse, in other words the roofline is at right angles to that of the nave and chancel rather than aligning with them. Most of the church is essentially of flint, but the 16th century top of the tower incorporates much brick.

The interior is small, crowded, dark and numinous (or gloomy, according to taste). But there's plenty to see (inasmuch as you can see anything at all - you can always turn the lights on, of course). All the arches are pointed but primitive, as you'd expect from their date. The 14th or 15th century chancel roof, which looks rather over-engineered for its size, is certainly worth a look; the easternmost truss was cut and turned into a hammerbeam in 1865 to accommodate the window (does this mean that originally the truss went across the window?).


Shepherds from a Nativity scene


On the east wall of the south transept are some wall paintings; Bettley/Pevsner date them to c.1370, the Statutory Listing says 15th century. Frankly they're so faded (my impression is that they're less distinct now than they were when I first saw them thirty years ago) and fragmentary it's hard to know how any judgement about them can be valid; they're of more antiquarian interest than aesthetic. The most easily recognisable scene is on the left, an Annunciation; according to notes by Professor Tristram, who restored the murals in 1927, the bare-footed Angel Gabriel is entirely feathered, a very early example of this mode of representation. In the shepherd's scene one leans on a staff and another carries a ram on his back (and yet another, not in my photo, plays the pipes). In the Ascension scene the Apostles raise their hands in wonder as Christ rises to Heaven; only his feet are visible.

The panelling in the chancel has a pleasingly domestic feel; it dates from 1947 and was made by the firm Faith Craft, originally founded in 1905 as a religious society propagating the Catholic faith but later branched out into the manufacture of furnishings for churches. It still exists as an organisation but doesn't seem to make things anymore.

To the east of the double piscina is another, single, piscina made c.1500 (currently harbouring the ever-present hand sanitiser). It seems that at some stage the original piscina was converted into a sedilia, and so a new one was necessary.

The font is a convincing 19th century copy of the original one (which lies sadly discarded on the ground next to the pulpit) from the late 12th century.

The hexagonal Jacobean pulpit is richly carved with a variation of linenfold and double balusters ; the standard has a thistle and flanking beasts, and supports a panelled square tester.

The east window, from 1866, is by the firm Clayton and Bell, a fairly early work by them (founded 1855), and depicts the Crucifixion and Ascension with hieratic figures and powerful, dark colours.

There are eight windows in Hertfordshire by Christopher Whall (1849-1924), the best English stained glass designer of the early 20th century, and three of them are in Sarratt church.* This one dates from 1913, and depicts children being lead to Christ. The backgrounds are gorgeous and the figure of the mother on the left handsome, but there's a sentimental piety about the window that I don't find appealing.

This, from 1921, is I think the best of the three. St Cecilia is touched by divine inspiration, in the form of a ruby-winged angel, as she sits at her keyboard (it looks like a modern upright piano). The figures almost completely fill the frames so there are practically no backgrounds. 

The last Whall window, from 1923, is said to depict Charity. On the left an angel holds the hand of a girl child, who looks out at us with an almost creepy dead-eyed stare as if she's being abducted, and on the right another angel writes something in a book with a quill pen. What this has to do with Charity I'm not sure. The flowers and angels' wings are once again exquisite, but I find the whole thing over-ripe and precious.

There's a window in the chancel from 1987 that I didn't photograph (through lack of attention to detail, not through distaste), and then this fine one in the north transept from 1998 by Alfred Fisher,** born c.1934 and still alive. It's inspired by the Old English poem The Dream of the Rood (ie a cross, as in a rood screen). 

Sarratt church has been open whenever I've visited.

* One of them is in Preston.

** There's another one by Fisher in Benington.

Monument, 1611


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