Thursday, 20 May 2010

The Swaffhams, Cambridgeshire Part 1

In two words - effing awesome; I would have never stumbled across these three Churches unless I had been unable to find Landwade, which was the intent of my original journey, and having failed I returned home and then decided to check out the Swaffhams and Dullingham - Dullingham lost out to a Swaffhams lovefest (I'll go to Dullingham at a later date but am sure it wont impact as much as the Swaffhams - look at the name!).

As an exterior experience St Mary, Swaffham Bulbeck, is interesting but slightly run of the mill. An early C13th century tower - lancet style - built of clunch and limestone looms over a later nave and chancel of the C14th with later aisles added.

The exterior corbels are varied and interesting and the surrounding houses are lovely - but it is the bench carvings that make this church truly exceptional. Dowsing, or his supporters, destroyed many of the carvings but many remain and, to me, set this church apart from many others. The C15th benches are capped (or perhaps ended? Although Mee calls them poppy-heads and arm-rests) with dogs, hawks, lions, camels, whales, a hare and fantastical beasts like dragons, wyverns and mermaids. Presumably the figures are allegorical, representing both good and evil. Sadly many have have been defaced or totally removed but enough remain to excite interest.

ST MARY. E.E. W tower with angle buttresses and lancets (double-chamfered mouldings; no capitals). The rest mostly C14. Outside, the N aisle windows come first, with early C14 forms. Then the chancel E window of five lights, chancel side windows of three lights, and the S aisle windows. They all have the flowing tracery of the second quarter of the century. Perp (and of flint - the rest is clunch) the clerestory. Inside, the tower arch and chancel arch are typical early C14. The arcades of four bays have octagonal piers and arches with one straight and one hollow chamfer. In the chancel a group of one recess and three Sedilia goes well with the tracery of the windows. Ogee arches, crocketed and topped by a fleuron frieze. Perp and contemporary with the clerestory the nave roof with flat arched braces, some tracery above them, and bosses. - BENCHES with beasts (bull, lion, camel, wyvern etc; also a mermaid) instead of poppyheads. - CHEST. C15, North Italian. The front has rather defaced shallow carvings, but the carving inside the lid is clear: Crucifixion in the middle, with Signs of the Evangelists at the corners, Assumption on the l, Resurrection on the r. The compositions are based on engravings.

A dogfish, I think?

I think this a fishdog
Arthur Mee says:

SWAFFHAM BULBECK. It has a lovely corner with cream cottages roofed with thatch and pantiles, an oast-house among long barns and a farm with walls made up from the ruins of a nunnery founded by a Norman who gave his name to this place and whose family may have bequeathed to it its greatest treasure. The treasure is something we have rarely seen, a magnificent cedar-wood chest made by some Italian craftsman five centuries ago as a travelling altar. Its lid is carved inside so that it can open to form a reredos and the carvings show the three crosses on Calvary with the multitude pressing about them on horseback and on foot, another scene of the Resurrection and one of the Assumption. The front of the chest has a frieze of angels and Old Testament scenes.

The church which houses this treasure is mostly built of chalk that has stood 600 years, with a tower a century older still. The beautiful medieval windows, crowned with a clerestory, fill it with light, so that we can examine in detail the quaint creatures carved on the poppy-heads and arm-rests of the 15th century benches—birds and animals, camels and mermaids and griffins, one fish caught swallowing another, and fishes with feet and heads of animals. The beautiful chancel has tracery in its windows like butterfly wings and an elaborate sedilia near which is an old coffin, its broken lid carved with a cross.

One of the vicars here was a remarkable man who lived through all but seven years of last century, known for 71 years as Leonard Jenyns and for 22 as Leonard Blomefield. He had something to do with the way the career of Charles Darwin went, for he was a first-rate naturalist and was offered a post as such on the voyage of the Beagle. As it would have taken him from the village for five years he could not go, and recommended Darwin in his stead. When Darwin came home Blomefield wrote the volume on the fishes Darwin had discovered, and many walks had they together in the countryside, observing life in aspects common to them both. He was a disciple and an editor of Gilbert White and could almost recite White's Selborne by heart. His own chief book was a volume of British vertebrates, but he wrote a charming autobiography and many scientific papers. He lived till he was 93 and was buried at Bath, having seen his younger friend Darwin laid to rest in the Abbey.

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