Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Little Sampford, Essex

Standing agreeably in its leafy setting and seen from Hawkins Hill, or from the farmland crest across the River Pant, St. Mary the Virgin has a ‘fairyland’ quality. Close to, the impression is of a building of attractive detail and pleasant textures. The architectural proportions defy the rules, but a classic structure would be out-of-place in the context and uncomfortable with the reticent idiom of style and location. It is a church to be loved and enjoyed rather than admired. The churchyard, a delightful spot in which to linger, has been developed as a nature reserve.

The flint and pebble rubble of which the main structure is built is of local provenance and blends happily with the immediate environment. The limestone buttresses, small areas of clunch, and the dressings around the window openings, frame the rubbled areas to offer a little essential formality to what would otherwise be a vernacular texture of unrelieved rusticity, quite apart from the structural implications in a building of this size. The south porch, which is rich with the red and blue pigments of its brickwork, is perhaps a little out of tune but, nevertheless, is an enjoyable feature of what is, in fact, the least satisfactory elevation of the building.

Overall, the architectural pedigree of the church is of the 14c and l5c expressed in various modes of Perpendicular Gothic. The nave, chancel and north aisle have gently pitched copper covered roofs and, on the north side above the aisle, a clerestory with bold deep-set quatrefoil window openings arranged at equidistant intervals and nicely proportioned. The west tower is built in four stages, the upper two of which appear to have been constructed later in the 14c, an interpretation which has given rise to the view, advanced by the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments in 1916, that there was a break in the building operations of some years. There is no evidence for that, except the coincidental theory of the social consequences of the Black Death. The retention of fabric of c1300 in the plinth, lower walling and some of the detail of the nave suggests that the tower was also involved in a general reconstruction of an earlier building. That could have taken place later in the 14c and does not necessarily imply an actual stoppage of work over a period of years. The embattled tower is capped on each of the handsome buttresses by relatively modern lively pinnacles and tiny spirelets. The ‘Hertfordshire’ spike on the tower is thought to have been added in 1687, the date on the weather vane that was ordered to be provided by the Visitation of 1686 which insisted, somewhat tersely, "There wants a weather Cock upon the Steeple".

Inside visitors will experience the kindly intimacy of this authentic country church. Although the tangible evidence of patronage is to be seen in the monuments to the important local families there is nothing particularly pretentious. The atmosphere is of tranquillity and a comely sense of spiritual humility. Its architecture and furnishings are modest but not lacking in interest or appeal. However, it is in the overall perception, rather than in the quality or exclusive interest of individual features that the true character of the church is revealed.

The nave, largely of the 14c, is complemented by a north aisle arcaded in five bays of two-centred arches of the late 14c with triple chamfered mouldings sprung from piers of lozenge plan on octagonal bases. The mouldings of the arches derive immediately from the piers which obviates the structural need for capitals.

The chancel appears to have been either a complete reconstruction or, more probably, an enlargement of the church in the late 15c as its attachment to the main structure of the nave is imperfect. In the north and south windows of the chancel are six armorial shields attributed to the families of FitzWalter, Coggeshall, Bateman, Hall and de Vere of the 14c to l6c. The stained glass window, of St. Francis, at the Cast end of the north aisle is modem and dedicated to Frances Schwier. On the north wall of the chancel note the good 15c corbel which supported the previous roof finely carved with an angel and a harp.

The church monuments are, in the context, prestigious symbols of the dominance of the squires of Little Sampford Hall. The families represented are Green, Peck, Tweedy and others of local importance. One refers, with a Chaucerian touch, to "Sur Edward Greene, a famus knyghte, and Margerye his wyfe". Another to William Tweedy "who distinguished himself as a military officer, first under queen Elizabeth of glorious memory, in suppressing tumults in the north of England;". These ornate classical memorials and their sometimes poignant inscriptions are supplemented by a number of floor slabs and brass matrices in the chancel and the nave.

ST MARY THE VIRGIN. W tower of the type exemplified by Great Dunmow; - that is with set-back buttresses, but the angles between them chamfered, carried on polygonally towards the top and provided with polygonal flat topped pinnacles (later spirelets added). Battlements and later lead spike. All this is C14, as is also the nave with clerestory (quatrefoil windows) and the N aisle. The arcade has piers of an exceptional form; lozenge with four attached shafts. No capitals at all. The tower arch is of a similar design. The chancel is later, probably C15, see its broad five—light E window. Early C16 window near the W end of the S side, and brick S porch of the C17. - SCREEN with broad single-light divisions with segmental arches and a little panel tracery above. - BENCHES. Quite plain, in the nave. - STAINED GLASS. Fragments of tabernacles in the E window. - MONUMENTS. Sir Edward Grene d. 1556 and wife. Large cartouche on the N side of the chancel with term pilasters and strapwork. Inscription of modest size and position; no figures. - Opposite, on the S side the monument is repeated, entirely without inscriptions. - William Twedy d. 1605 and wife. Small epitaph with the usual kneeling figures. - Bridget Peck d. 1712. Standing wall monument with the lady comfortably reclining. She holds a book in her hand which she has just laid down. Pilasters to the l. and r.; a piece of drapery and three cherubs’ heads above the figure. In and around the top pediment flower and fruit garlands.

LITTLE SAMPFORD. Through a delightful pine wood we come to its two old companions, the church and the hall. The hall is handsome with windows and gables and chimneys of the 16th and 17th centuries, and has some beautiful old carving. There is a splendid staircase with richly carved pedestals, and an over-mantel with heads and grotesques probably by Flemish craftsmen.

The church tower is given an unusual appearance by four octagonal turrets at the corners, and has in its walls the mark of one of the grimmest events in English history. Looking up at this masonry we can see where the 14th century workmen stopped to lay down their tools when the Black Death ravaged the land, the tower not being finished until the terrible days were over. How many of those who began the work came back to finish it, we wonder, for between the August of 1348 and the September of 1349 the pestilence carried away half the population of the land.

A weathervane of 1687 swings on the small lead spire, and the rest of the church looks low behind this tower. Its nave was about 50 years old when the Black Death came, its aisle is 14th century, and its chancel was refashioned by men of the 15th century, who also built one of the porches somewhat askew. The other porch is a little 17th century one of red and blue bricks, and shelters a doorway as old as the nave.

There is a neat 14th century arcade, a plain screen which has kept company with ten oak seats since Tudor days, a chest cut from the solid about 600 years ago, an ancient vestry door with strap-hinges, and a little old glass showing canopy-work and shields. Two carvings by 15th century craftsmen show an angel holding a harp and the head of a lion with a wavy mane; but one of the most remarkable sights is a piece of woodcarving, at least 300 years old, fitted in the back of a chair in the chancel. It shows Christ with 11 apostles in a building, with God the Father above and a dove descending from heaven.

There is a tomb to Sir Edward Grene of 1556, with pillars, heraldic shields, and curious devices; and a monument with the figure of an Elizabethan soldier facing his wife as they kneel at a desk. The change of style which came over our monuments in the next 100 years is well shown by the elaborate tribute to Bridget Peck of Queen Anne’s time, who reclines on one arm and holds a book, and is most incongruously dressed as a Roman matron.

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