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Worth Matravers

Dedication : St Nicholas         Simon Jenkins: *                                          Principal Features : Norman church with Corbel Table

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There are few counties more rewarding for visitors in general and for church crawlers in particular than Dorset. Worth Matravers is another of a series of Norman churches that has survived largely unchanged.

There is a foursquare and no-nonsense quality to St Nicholas Church. It was built in around AD1100. Most of what you see today is that original church. Nave, tower and the north wall of the chancel date from that time. The chancel was rebuilt - but not extended - in the thirteenth century and has resulted in an Early English style priest’s door and windows. One of the delights of the church is that the original corbel table, weathered as it might be, still survives.

There was a transept added on the south side in the fourteenth century. It was demolished in the eighteenth century but a squint survives near the chancel arch. The chancel arch itself is the both the most striking feature and the most controversial feature of this church. It is very imposing and has four orders of decoration, three of which are chevron moulding. One is immediately struck by its profile which is elongated along both its northern and southern sides. It is generally accepted that it started life elsewhere and was moved here. Nobody, however, knows where from although various disestablished priories are seen as possibilities. Nor does anyone know why anyone would have gone to so much trouble when Norman chancel arches were clearly regarded as very expendable during later centuries.

Above the chancel arch is another puzzle: a pair of double openings in Norman style that lead through to the chancel beyond. Having said they are in the Norman style, however, it is far from clear that they are indeed Norman. To my eyes the stones are a little too regular. Nor is it clear what they were for. It has been suggested that they might have been intended to improve the acoustics. Slightly more plausible, in my view, is that they were intended to improve light to what was probably, before the installation of a larger fourteenth century east window, a rather gloomy chancel. Perhaps, again, improved lighting was the motive for the importation of a larger chancel arch? All speculation!

The alterations to the windows of the chancel have created a considerable disparity with the gloom of the nave where the original Norman windows are still in place. A narrow Early English lancet window was inserted into the north wall of the nave in the thirteenth century and is matched by another in the south wall installed in 1869. We can only be grateful to the custodians of this church down the centuries who have resisted the urge - or possibly could not afford! - to install an incongruous gothic window such as disfigures so many Norman churches. 

Finally, there is a Norman tympanum over the south door. It is believed to represent the Coronation of the Virgin. It is badly damaged and this is believed to have been the work of the musket balls of the Parliamentary soldiers during the Civil War.

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Left: Looking east towards the imposing chancel arch. Note the “stretched” look that causes speculation that the arch came from elsewhere. The windows either side of the arch are later lancets. The original Norman windows are just discernible in the foreground. Note also the blocked south door with a pointed head. Right: Looking west. The camera lens exaggerates the length of the nave - just look at how wide those Norman splayed windows look! Nevertheless, this is a very long church by Norman standards.

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Left: The chancel. You can see how much brighter it is in here with lancet windows to north and south and the pretty little eats window in Decorated style. Note the priest’s door to the right. Right: The intriguing double “window” above the chancel arch through to the chancel beyond. Despite its style, I don’t think it’s Norman masonry. Perhaps it was put here when the chancel arch was installed?

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Left: The interesting grouping to the south of the chancel arch. Note the size of the splay to the very much smaller Norman window on the right. The lancet to its left is actually Victorian and barely any bigger than its Norman counterpart. Centre: The pointed head to the doorway is rather intriguing as it is, as I’m sure you know, characteristic of the Anglo-Saxon period. Although the A/S style didn’t disappear overnight and is present, for example, at quite a few Norman round tower churches in Norfolk, this is a rather late appearance of a pointed doorway. Perhaps it reflects the rather isolated location of the Isle of Purbeck where this church is found. Right: The piers of the north side of the chancel arch. It’s hard to fathom why there is a gap in the masonry but it gives credence to the idea that the arch was transplanted here from elsewhere.

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Left: The same composition as seen from the outside. You can see that there is actually little glass at this end of the nave. Lower down to the right is the odd little rectangular window that was originally a squint from the long-demolished north chapel. The doorway presumably served the same part of the building and it suggests that the chapel was part of the original building. Note the corbel table. Right: The tympanum over the south doorway. There is speculation that the south chapel had a porch and that the doorway in the picture was the porch’s outer door and moved to its existing position when the chapel was demolished. The irregularity of the decoration certainly supports this possibility.

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Left: The south doorway. It’s slightly unusual in that there are no capitals and the jambs are decorated with chevron moulding. Centre: The outer doorway of the south porch looking towards the outside. The rectangular door has been set within what is clearly Norman chevron moulding taken from the demolished south chapel. Right: The west tower. Apart from the pyramidal roof and the plain corbels below it appears to be all Norman, although the windows are clearly much later.

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Left: The north side from the west. Note the two Norman windows almost at the level of the eaves. This is symmetrical with the north side so we can only imagine how dark this church was when it was first built. The north doorway is, as usual, blocked. It is rectangular in profile but sits within the original tall pointed setting. This is pilastered - that is, it is proud of the surrounding stonework - and at its apex connects to a short vertical section. F.P.Pitfeld’s very informative “Purbeck Parish Churches” (Dorset Publishing Company, 1985) says that this was mirrored on the south side and that they are actually a form of buttress. This is the first time I’ve ever come across that concept. Note again the corbel table. Right: The church from the south east. Note how much greater is the proportion of glass compared with the nave.

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The corbel table is not the most exciting you will ever see but it is at least mostly conplete. It is very similar to that at nearby Studland.





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