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Recent Additions

Little Gidding (Cambridgeshire)

Little Barford (Cambridgeshire)

The Late Mary Curtis Webb (revised)

A Trio of Tympana (Cambridgeshire)

Temple Balsall (Warwickshire)

Minster in Thanet (Kent)

Marown Old Church + St Patrick’s Chair and The Braaid (Isle of Man)

A Dawdle in Derbyshire (Six Churches)

Hexham Abbey (Northumberland)

A Trio of Tympana

A friend asked me recently “why do you like Norman fonts and tympana so much?” and I had to waffle an answer because I had never thought about it. I Iike Norman decoration in general because it is, so to say, “right in your face”. It is rude folk art that provides a intoxicating kaleidoscope of secular and religious imagery. Pagan collides with Christian. Scandinavian vies with French and English. It can be fine art and it can be childlike in its naivety. It’s robust, it’s rude and it’s unapologetic. The Anglo-Saxon era gave us these things too but not in the same profusion and far fewer sites survive. The early Gothic era saw such carving become unfashionable. We saw a revival in the High Gothic era (see my Demon Carver work) but the Norman era was the zenith of sculptural carving in England.

Capitals and corbel tables gave us myriad individual images to intrigue us. The fonts and tympana, however, gave the carvers a bigger canvas on which to express themselves. Some of the execution was, to be frank, dross. Look at the tympana in Derbyshire for example, or some of the fonts in Yorkshire. Yet we can set against those the brilliance of the Herefordshire School of carving and the extraordinarily sophisticated philosophical ideas interpreted for us by the late Mary Curtis Webb.

This page looks at three Norman tympana in Cambridgeshire, all within a few miles of each other. They are all “single treasure” churches that would not normally justify a page to themselves on this website. But their tympana earn them a place together here.

Little Paxton: St James

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Little Paxton is a suburb of the town of St Neots where my wife and I brought up four children. Paxtonians will hate me for saying that because they like to think themselves separate; and maybe they are, but that’s not how it’s likely to appear to outsiders, I’m afraid.

Little Paxton church is always going to suffer from comparisons with its neighbour, Great Paxton, which is one of the most important Anglo-Saxon survivors in England. It can, however, be justifiably proud of its Norman tympanum which Pevsner described with some relish as “barbaric and entertaining”!.

No church was recorded here during the Domesday survey and the oldest parts are believed to be late twelfth century. It certainly encompassed today’s chancel and probably at least some of the nave. The tympanum is the only real clue to the ancient nature of this church. It now sits above a modern doorway in the south wall well-protected and in a good state of preservation within the south porch.

The church has been much altered over the centuries. The west tower is late

fourteenth/early fifteenth century. The south aisle is sixteenth century. In truth, however, this church is not going to attract you for its architecture.

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In the best traditions of tympanum carvings, nobody really knows what this scene represents. The man is variously described as a shepherd, as Christ the Shepherd and as a Archbishop. With no halo I think we can probably rule out Christ. The Church Guide thinks that a shepherd is likely because of the village’s long-standing status as a grazing district and notes that Paxton may derive from “Pachestown” or “sheep’s town”. The crook surely, though, has a cross-shaped head? So my money is on the Archbishop theory that parallels the tympanum at Hognaston in Derbyshire. The beasts are, as always, problematic. At Hognaston they quote one Mrs Jameson from 1913: “When wild beasts as wolves and bears are placed at the feet of a  saint attired as abbot or bishop, it signifies the cleared waste land,  cut down forests and substituted Christian culture and civilisation for  Paganism and the lawless hunter’ life. That sounds perfectly plausible to me. Above the “Archbishop’s” head is an unidentifiable object. The Hand of God has been suggested. Only the cross at the centre is beyond dispute. Make of it what you will. This is yet another sculptural legacy that can makes fools of us all!

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Left: The much-altered chancel that nevertheless is Norman beneath the skin. Centre: The shallow south aisle with the font in the foreground. Right: The tympanum sits over the south doorway.

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Left: Looking from the aisle towards the chancel arch. Right: The church from the north east.

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My delightful grandson, Oliver Wall, was baptised at this church in the Norman font on 3 July 2016.

Covington: All Saints

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Tympanum aside, Covington has rather more to offer than the other churches on this page but it is within spitting distance of Stow Longa so if the tympanum is what takes you to one then you would be mad not to want to visit both.

Before discussing the church it is worth commending the superb Church Guide. Supported by the National Lottery it is beautifully-produced, informative and - remarkably - free! There are human interest stories from the past as well as excellent descriptions of the architecture. What’s more they even have it available on the web. Well done, Covington History Group and all others involved.

As with Little Paxton, Domesday Book did not record a church here in 1086. The earliest parts of today’s church are twelfth century. It was probably a two celled affair with just a nave and chancel. That nave has survived but the chancel was rebuilt in about 1300. The rather fine Early English style triple lancet is from an 1880s restoration. The south side of the chancel is intriguing. The windows have primitive tracery where quatrefoils have been cut straight through the stone. They are then rather unusual examples of the “plate tracery”

 that was an early manifestations of the Decorated style and this fits perfectly with the 1300 rebuilding date. Yet the priest’s door is round-headed which is a little surprising one hundred years into the Gothic era. Perhaps it was re-used from the original church? To the south also is a gothic window set within a blocked archway. The archway led to a demolished chantry chapel that has been dated to about 1330. This would also have been something of an oddity. Chantry chapels were all the rage at this time, of course, but the addition of a tranverse chapel on such a small parish church is unusual. The addition of an aisle with an eastern chapel (as at Stow Longa below) would have been the more usual solution. Its total disappearance presumably dates from the Reformation when private chantry chapels were proscribed. Similarly intriguing is the high blocked opening on the south wall. Once again, Covington Church intrigues us! There is no sign within the church of access to the rood loft that this church certainly would have had. It seems likely then that this opening was to give the required access from the outside. The tower dates from the fourteenth century. There is no spire but the church’s historians have good evidence to suggest that there was a spire that was removed after the great storm of 1703 that devastated southern England with winds that may have reached 120 mph.

Finally, before we get on to the tympanum, there is a further mystery. At each end of nave there are double openings at gable level. What were these for? Perhaps at the western end they have a view into the church from a tower room? But why have two? Were the ones at the eastern end above the chancel arch associated with the rood loft? Again why was it a double opening? Just to compound all this, the chancel also has an opening at that level; in this case a single one. Perhaps whoever was peering into the nave from that elevated point also needed to be looking into the chancel? As you look through this to the openings at the east end of the nave you are struck by the apparent discontinuity in the wall. It’s as if the west wall of the chancel and the east wall of the nave are separate entities. Neither Church Guide nor Pevsner mentions these openings but I find them most mysterious! As those in the nave are pointed arches they must be later than the Norman nave itself. It seems reasonable to assume then that all of the openings date from the 1330 rebuilding of the chancel. In every way, I find Covington church a most puzzling place!

So to the tympanum which is on the north side. The theme is simple and clear; a griffon (evil) confronts a lion (good). There are no sub-themes or images and the carving is well-executed compared with the others shown on this page. Of further interest is the “strap work” (iron fittings) which is ancient, if much repaired, and which the Church Guide suggests is one the oldest examples of “split curl ironwork” in the country.  

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Left: The tympanum with the griffon and the lion facing off. Right: The view to the east end. The very attractive east window is nineteenth century.

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Left: Looking towards the west. Note the two openings below the gable. To the left is the filled-in entrance to the demolished south chapel. Right: Here are the openings above the chancel arch either side of the king post of the wooden roof. There are carvings on either side. The one on the left (which I can’t identify) looks as if is weathered so I surmise that these carvings are corbels salvaged from the outside of the original church. Note the “discontinuous” nature of the wall. It looks like two walls have been bonded together in some way because you can see the single opening in the chancel wall beyond.

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Left: The opening on the west wall of the chancel with a second wall at th east of the nave showing beyond it. Right: The south wall of the chancel with its early Decorated style windows with plate tracery. The priest’s door unexpectedly Romanesque in style.

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Left: The attractive south door. The arch is of about 1300 but the surrounding stonework is earlier. Centre: The north door with its tympanum and with its ancient iron strap-work. Right: The curious filled-in doorway high on the south west wall of the nave that must have had something to do with a rood screen within. Note the corbel which, again, seems certain to have been recycled from the twelfth century church. The nave walls have clearly been raised at some point and it would seem that a Norman corbel table was removed in the process.

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Left: The church from the north east. You can just make out the north door. The nave windows on this side are less attractive than on the south side and the Church Guide observes that the window east of the tympanum has been sliced off during the raising of the nave walls. Right: The font is Norman. The top is octagonal with scalloped pattern while the base is circular with zig zag moulding.

Stow Longa: St Botolph

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Stow Longa has rather more claim to the possible existence of a pre-Norman church than Covington has because of the existence here of an apparently pre-Norman grave slab. The existence of a Norman doorway and carved tympanum on the south side of the chancel shows, of course, that the existing building was founded in the Norman period. It was all rebuilt again in the thirteenth century, the south aisle and arcade being the last phase in around 1280. That aisle was extended east in 1330 to form a south chapel. The chancel is thirteenth century with a three-light fifteenth century east window. I would like

to have rather more to say about the building itself but, in truth, it is close to being an archetypal English country church that has evolved over several centuries leaving nothing that is notable beyond the tympanum. The tympanum itself, however, is the most interesting of these three. Its central figure of a mermaid is iconic. It is crude to say the least. Her hair hangs either side of her head rather like a chevron. She has fins along her body as well as the usual tail. Her arms are outstretched and the carver has added two comically under-nourished breasts to show her sex. Perhaps he was feeling coy about it?  The mermaid is used to denote the siren calls of lust and sin and, indeed, the figure was often referred to in days gone by as a “syren”.

Just to her left is a small square object that is described by more than one early source (one, of course, may have been copying the other) as being an altar. Why it should be seen as that I haven’t a clue. On either side are the customary unidentifiable beasts. Perhaps they represent the outcomes of succumbing to sin? The figure to the right has a horse-like body but has a curious tree-like tail, a face which is vaguely human and ears like a cat’s. Because one of the forelegs curls up underneath its body in a most peculiar fashion one of the “altar” theorists suggested this figure as being an agnus dei,. That too seems fanciful to me. To the mermaid’s left is possibly a dog. Let’s face it, apart from the mermaid itself we haven’t a clue what the rest means. Pevsner opined that it “is more barbaric than almost any other”!

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Left: The priests door with its tympanum. The voussoirs of the arch are all different shapes and sizes to make this just about the most bodged Norman arch I have ever seen. Not only are the stones of different sizes but you can see that they also have chevrons that are at different angles. It beggars belief that this is the original configuration. It is certainly not inconceivable that it was moved here from another part of the church it this doesn’t look like just a piece of bodged re-assembly: it is hard to see how the stones could ever have fitted together neatly. Is it a mixture of stones from more than one archway? Above Right: The south door is Early English with three orders of colonettes. Right Lower: These arms are found on the west wall of the tower. They belonged to Bishop Smith of Lincoln (1496-1514) and, of course, helps to date the tower itself.

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Left and Right: The capitals on the priests door.