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Potterne

Dedication : St Mary     Simon Jenkins: **                                                                 Principal Features : Complete Early English Church; One of England’s oldest Fonts

You don’t find too many complete Early English churches. The urge to meddle and “improve” was too much for our forefathers, as it is for us today perhaps! Potterne is one such, however. Nothing here has been added except a nicely decorated top stage to the tower in c15 and a c14 porch. It is a cruciform church in the true sense: that is, with a central tower, nave chancel, and two transepts.

I always feel that Early English was the “minimalist” period of English architecture. The Norman period had given us layers of decorative mouldings around doors and windows, carvings of fabulous beasts on doorways, fonts and capitals and rude carved corbels. The Transitional Period toned everything down and the Early English period saw all the Norman fantasy consigned to the past. Windows became uniform “lancets”, tall, narrow and pointed. The “discovery” of the pointed arch allowed walls to be taller and the masonry less chunky. Decorative carving more or less disappeared. In 30 or 40 years England saw a total revolution in architectural fashion: out with the old and in with the new.

Because of this Potterne, built in the middle of the c13, doesn’t have the usual menu of carvings in stone or wood for me to show you. Its attraction lies in its beautiful symmetry and feeling of completeness. What you see now is not much different from what the c13 peasant would have seen. It is nothing less than a gem. It is just two miles south of Devizes where the Norman church of St John the Baptist

provides you with the perfect opportunity to see the style that Early English replaced only 50 years later.

Potterne, however, does have one extraordinary treasure: its Anglo-Saxon font that dates from the ninth century. Now I have to admit that it does look much, and I imagine the casual visitor might not spare it a second glance, but it is one of the oldest in England. It is a plain bowl but around its rim is an inscription in Latin taken from Psalm 42: “Sicut cervus desiderat ad fontes aquarum ita desiderat anima mea ad te deus amen”: “As a deer longs for the running brooks, so longs my soul for you, O God”. Lovely poetry. In typical English fashion it was found under the nave floor in 1872!

There’s not a lot more to say really - except I feel that the unremarked-upon decoration inset into the bell openings on the upper storey of the tower is extraordinarily fine and beautiful. I don’t remember seeing anything quite as pretty elsewhere although the style is reminiscent of that common in Somerset.

The view east towards the altar. Note the sense of symmetry created by windows and arches all of similar geometry. Personally, I am a little sad that the wall memorials have interrupted this scene, but that’s me being “picky”!

Looking into the chancel. We can see the typical Early English three-light configuration of lancet windows. in this case flanked by two “blind” recesses. To north and south you can see more lancet windows.

Looking back towards the west end one sees yet another three light lancet window configuration with more to north and south. Note that even the north and south doors are directly opposite to each other. The font in the background, by the way, is the c15 one that the church uses, not the now-redundant Saxon one.

Looking now into the north transept, we can see again the lancet windows. Note also the beautiful simplicity of the (modern)  wooden roofs that so perfectly complement the elegant simplicity of the masonry.

The c9 Anglo-Saxon font. One of the special things about this is that there wasn’t too much stone church building going on in the c9. For a font to have survived from an era of long-disappeared wooden churches is an extraordinary stroke of fortune.

Left and Right: A couple of close-ups of the inscription.

Looking into the font bowl with its drainage hole.

The c15 top stage of the tower. It is interesting to see the way in which blind window openings have been constructed. If they were glazed and there were no horizontal transoms they would be a perfect example of Early English “plate tracery” windows whereby the space above two lancets was pierced by a circular opening through the stone. Whoever carried out this work had a fine sense of making the style blend in with the EE church fabric, it seems to me.

The stained glass in the at the west end of the church celebrates the font in the circular light in the left-hand lancet and with the font inscription reproduced across the three,

Detail of the decorative carving on the battlemented parapet of the tower. Note that it is identical in style with that on the top stage of the tower itself (left).

Views of the church from the south east (left) and north east (right). Note the symmetry of windows in both sides of the chancel and between both transepts. This really is very unusual indeed. There is not one window in this church to mar the Early English perfection. Note also the proportions of the windows that perfectly suit the height of the structure. There can be fewer better-proportioned churches in the land.

To see another fine example of a nearly (but not quite!) Early English church follow this link to Felmersham in Bedfordshire. Felmersham is much grander than Potterne because it was probably intended to become a monastic church - although this never happened. The west front of Felmersham, in particular, is very fine, but you will see that it is still very restrained compared with the Norman and Decorated styles that respectively preceded and followed it.