The chancel has Norman corbel tables to north and south. They are big and bold. All but one or two are of geometric design: this is no Elkstone. It is the north doorway, however, that is of most interest. The doorway itself lacks the flamboyant courses of decoration that characterise later Norman work. The door is, however, flanked on either side by free standing shafts with nicely carved designs topped by capitals with simple scroll decoration. The tympanum, however, is what takes the eye. It is naively carved. At the top three birds peck merrily at a tree - possibly a Tree of Life. It is flanked by figures of Sagittarius and Leo. Lest we be confused and think they might be a centaur and just any old lion, the masons obligingly carved their names into the stone. You might well be wondering why mediaeval masons were bothering with astrological imagery, but we see it again and again in Romanesque architecture in Europe and our ancestors were clearly still influenced by Greek mythology and philosophy. Two examples of Sagittarius on this website are Beckford (Worcestershire) and Elkstone (Gloucestershire). There is a lively debate to be had about the symbolism here - see below.
The chancel arch is original Norman but has been rebuilt. It is not flamboyant but is of quite impressive dimensions and has a respectable three orders of decoration (although, sadly, no beakheads) and finely-carved scroll capitals. Oddly the two northern shafts are carved with decorative designs whereas those on the south are plain.
The north transept followed in about 1190 in the Transitional style with a ribbed vault. The south transept is of about 1300. This has a somewhat unusual window configuration with four lancet-like windows each on the east and west sides. They each have modest cusps so that they look like a transitional melange of Early English and Decorated styles. The heavyweight north porch is a little later and has a quadripartite vault. Thus, the tympanum has been protected from eight hundred years of weathering! The tower, unusually placed on the north side, is thirteenth century.
The south and west walls of the church are considerably changed. We can see the remains of the south door and its shafts and structure are similar to the north door. It surely had a tympanum originally and we can only curse whoever it was who decided to obliterate it with a gothic window.
Not the least of the peculiarities of this church is the development of its north side. The two-storey porch shows that the north entrance has been the main one since at least 1325. The north tower is thirteenth century. Yet in most English parish churches you will see that the north door is either disused or - more commonly - completely blocked. North sides are generally unloved and for good reason: for centuries this was regarded as the “Devil’s Side”. North doors were used to allow the escape of the evils spirits from baptised infants, not for ingress or egress. Parishioners would not use them. Even today vestries and boiler houses generally disfigure north sides rather than south sides and I have been to many a church where the north side is overgrown with brambles or littered with ankle- threatening broken gravestones! Why did Stoke sub Hamdon develop its north side? In my view it must have been a structural issue associated with the stability of the site or problems with foundations. The biggest cause of collapse in English churches was the addition of hefty extensions to churches that already had poor foundations. More on this later.
That’s enough of my wittering on. Let’s look at the rest of the church through the photographs.