Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Bourn, Cambridgeshire

SS Helena & Mary is another big church but this time differenced by a curious corkscrew spire. During my perambulation of the outside I was disheartened to see the north chancel and vestry windows boarded up and a broken headstone - vandals had been at work and thus it would almost certainly be locked. To my intense surprise this was not the case so I enjoyed an interior tour despite the actions of some mindless children.

Standing in the tower arch gazing down to the distant sacristy feels like you are at the helm of an ancient longboat of Biblical proportions. The nave soars above you whilst the tower looms behind you. For such a large church there's surprisingly little ornamentation but the chancel has some nice roof angels and poppyheads (which I suspect are both Victorian replicas)and a smattering of monuments but nothing really dramatic leaps out*. I suppose Dowsing visited and wreaked his usual havoc but despite this, this is an impressive building made all the better for the commendable decision to keep it open despite the best efforts of some chav idiots.

* one thing of interest is a tile maze on the floor of the tower around the font which is said to represent the journey the soul goes through life before returning to heavenly peace.

ST MARY. Historically one should start inside, but the best piece of architecture is not the earliest - the W tower, which must be mid C13. It is broad and sturdy, very forbidding below, but with a great sense of restrained display higher up. It is built - as is the rest of the church - of pebble rubble with the stone dressings of good ashlar stone. Thus the angle buttresses are ashlar. The W portal is of six orders of slim colonnettes with delicately moulded arch orders. The W window above has a chamfered frame (the same as the doorway proper) and in it two lights with a quatrefoil above - i.e. early plate tracery. The bell-stage is characterized by tall blank arcades of polygonal shafts. Set in these are the two-light bell-openings with roll-moulded frames, i.e. without capitals. Between the bell-openings descending polygonal mullions make the lower part of the blank arcade appear double-chamfered - a subtle polyphony of minor effects. The tower ends in battlements, and behind them rises a lead spire every bit as crooked as the more famous specimen of Chesterfield. But the pleasures of the tower of Bourn are not over yet. As one enters the church, it is seen that it has arches to the N and S as well as the E, and these have the same noble sturdiness as the exterior. However, they must be seen in conjunction with the nave arcade which takes one back about sixty years to the late C12. The arcades are of five bays and have alternating circular and octagonal piers. On the S side the piers have many-scalloped, on the N sides simply moulded, capitals. Also, the circular piers have circular capitals only on the S side. The arches on both sides are only slightly double-chamfered.* Now these arcade arches are seen in close proximity with the far more splendid tower arches - that towards the nave a little higher than the others. Each has responds with three shafts, keeled or with fillets, and triple-chamfered arches. Flying buttresses cross the W bays of the (embracing) aisles to add support for the tower. Contemporary with the tower the clerestory of circular, quatrefoiled windows. The church is cruciform and the windows do not help much in dating the parts. The N transept has one lancet window, otherwise Dec and Perp tracery, mixed up. The chancel appears now Perp (C19 alterations), the transept Dec. In the N transept two niches l. and r. of the E window, in the S transept a tomb recess. The chancel arch is C19, but the chancel has still its fine hammerbeam roof, though the angels are not old. - REREDOS. 1934, by Comper. Sentimental figures against gold ground. ROOD SCREEN. With four-light divisions, the four gathered together into two and the two into one ogee arch. Plenty of small panel tracery in these various arches. - CHOIR STALLS. With poppy-heads, kneeling figures etc. On one of them the date 1537. - PEW. Jacobean. - SCULPTURE. Two wood-carved panels of c. 1540, probably Flemish, one with the Virgin, the other looks like a Lucretia. - PLATE. Chalice and Cover, with date 1569; Spoon probably contemporary; Salver given in 1694.

* The S doorway belongs to the arcade: two orders of colonnettes and a round arch with two slight chamfers.

SS Helena & Mary (4)

South door

West door


BOURN. Today Bourn windmill takes the breeze as gaily on its hill as in the days when Shakespeare wrote in Twelfth Night:

I am a feather for each wind that blows.
for this is possibly the oldest windmill in the country, certainly the oldest in the county. It was bought and sold by deed in 1636, and nearly 300 years later people who care about such things came together, raised subscriptions, and put the fine old breadwinner in action again, making it a national monument. It is a post windmill with fine old timbers inside, and its white sails and tail screen have been restored. A model of it is in the Children’s Gallery in the Science Museum at South Kensington.

It is one of the many ornaments of a place where every prospect pleases, woods and dales, and the brook that gives the place its name gaily rippling past the houses and below the church. Bourn Hall, not far from the church, is one of the most fascinating Elizabethan manor houses in a county which is not poor in them. It is as beautiful within as without, and its gabled red brick front is a sight to linger in the memory. The park had once a castle given to a sheriff of the county by the Conqueror, and part of its Norman moat remains.

The church stands on a slight rise above Bourn Brook, and is built in the shape of a cross with a quaint leaded spire soaring from its 700-year-old tower. The impressive west doorway has a richly moulded arch on 12 shafts, but it is a plain Norman doorway on four shafts that leads us in, through a 13th century porch. The glory of the interior is in the beautiful arches with iine clustered shafts. Three steps lead into the tower where the ancient font, surrounded by eight coloured bell ropes, is set in the middle of a floor of red and blue tiles forming a maze, of which a plan hangs on the wall. The maze is very rare or perhaps unique in an English church, though familiar on the continent.

The lofty arcades set up by our first English builders are a fine spectacle, and are crowned with 14th century clerestories; they are best seen from the chancel, which has a 15th century oak screen across the arch, three canopied stone seats, and ancient stalls with poppyheads of priests and angels.

About 20 modern angels look down from the ancient roof, at the ends of the hammerbeams. There is an Elizabethan table, some Jacobean panelling, a modern oak screen across the tower with St Margaret standing on a dragon, many old bench-ends, and some ancient coffin stones in the vestry floor. In the fine medieval windows are a few fragments of the original glass.


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