Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Bassingbourn, Cambridgeshire

SS Peter and Paul is enormous, presumably reflecting Bassingbourn's early status. I was immediately drawn to the very fine collection of gargoyles and grotesques and lovely south porch and was not disappointed by the slightly austere interior. Unusually my stand out item here was the somewhat garish rood screen leading into the lovely light and airy chancel.

SS PETER AND PAUL. The W tower rebuilt E.E. in 1879. It has a recessed lead spire. The church is of flint and stone rubble. It possesses a handsome big timber-porch, not a usual thing in Cambridgeshire, with flatly cusped shallow bargeboarding and six open side arches, a Perp clerestory, several other Perp windows, and Dec N and S aisle windows. But its claim to special, indeed very special, notice is its chancel, a complete and remarkably personally designed piece of Dec architecture, dating from c. 1340-50. What characterizes the design everywhere is the introduction of a very slight ogee turn in the heads of otherwise normally arched windows. Externally this is done in the broad five-light E window with its flowing tracery, internally in all the three-light N and S windows as well. Of these the easternmost on the N side has a head only. Below there must have been an attached chapel (see Piscina). The tracery here is diiferent; it has just a touch of the coming Perp. Between the windows are buttresses on the outside and above gargoyles. The N doorway has the same little ogee tip (arch moulding of two quarter-circles). Internally a string-course runs all round at the sill level of the windows. The N doorway and the doorway into the former N vestry both just reach up to this with their ogee tips. Ogee-headed sedilia and double piscina also touching the string-course. Stone corbels l. and r. of the E window. The chancel arch has an interesting Dec profile with shafts with fillets but in the other mouldings everywhere again that peculiar sense of the double-curve. Roof with tiebeams, a crossbeam, running W-E at tiebeam height; the intersections marked with bosses; four-way struts. W of the chancel arch is a piece of plain wall, before the arcades of the nave start, and here the designer has introduced one quatrefoil window high up on each side, no doubt to provide light for the rood loft. - Now the nave and aisles. There are six bays, the piers are octagonal and the arches tall. The W bay is fragmentary, as the W tower buttresses cut into it. The arches are double-chamfered, but not all of them. The E bay on the S side and the two E bays on the N are different. Their moulded capitals are clearly a little earlier, and their arches have two quarter-circle mouldings on the N side, more elaborate mouldings on the S. The building of the nave and aisles probably proceeded from E to W, and the straight-headed N Windows and double-chamfered arches mark a date about the middle of the century or after. The S aisle is continued incidentally by a S chapel with Perp windows. This externally is all new, but intemally has the noteworthy feature of a reredos of a row of blank arches between altar and E window. The ogee-headed piscina is original. - ROOD SCREEN. With two-light divisions. The dividing mullion runs up into the apex of the arch. Low ogee arches for each light and tall slim Perp tracery above them. Openwork dado. - BENCHES. Some plain, straight-headed and buttressed benches. - AUMBREY with carved animals underneath. - MONUMENTS. Turpin family brass (nave floor). - Henry Buller d. 1647, a very moving and original monument inspired by the monument to Sir Richard Curle at Hatfield. Black marble slab on the chancel floor, and on it, small, white and forlorn, with much space around, the figure of the dead young man, his eyes closed. He lies on his back, gently turned to the side so that his feet are seen in profile. One arm and one shoulder are bare, the rest of the body covered by the ample shroud.

SS Peter and Paul (2)

 Grotesque (1)

Gargoyle (12)

Gargoyle (4)

Rood screen

BASSINGBOURN. Here sleeps the Prince of Beggars, the second Viscount Knutsford, who spent 30 years begging for London Hospital. The grave he chose for himself in a corner of the churchyard tells us that "his joy was to help all in distress, and to bring happiness into the lives of others." If ever men lived joyfully he did, and he saw his hospital rebuilt and better equipped before he was carried to it in 1931, when all the skill in the world could not save him. Not a wreath was laid on his coffin, not a word was said in praise at his funeral, for he had asked that it should be like that, but few among the village folk and the men and nurses come from his hospital could hold back their tears, for they all loved him.

Old Kneesworth Hall, which we see from the Royston road, was made new for him, but the church by his grave is medieval, its 700-year-old tower topped by a tiny spire, its fine oak porch of 500 years ago sheltering a 15th century door and an ancient coffin stone; and everywhere are old and curious faces from the days when this straggling village of thatched cottages, limes, and chestnuts, had some importance as a small market town.

The faces look down at us outdoors and in, a bat and an old man stroking his beard among the gargoyles, five fair women on the 14th century arcades facing the scowls and grins of ugly fellows opposite, kings and queens and angels in the daintily niched east window of an aisle, and more odd heads staring from the roof and windows of the 14th century chancel, still complete with aumbry, sedilia, and canopied piscina. The old chancel screen has delicate tracery but a poor modern top. Some of the benches are old, and there are two old chests, a 15th century font, and an ornamented coffin stone. John Turpin, who died in 1494, is with his wife on brass, and Henry Butler, who died in 1647, is sculptured in his shroud. Many of the Nightingale family have memorials, but it is Sir Edward Nightingale who is best remembered, for in 1717 he gave the church most of its library, an unusual possession of hundreds of old theological books on shelves in the tower. With them are some churchwardens’ accounts from 1498 to 1534, telling us much about village life at that time; but they do not help to solve such a problem as that of the two wooden ploughs in the belfry. Why they were treasured here and who hauled them up nobody knows.

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