Book Review by Steve Matthews of Bookends.
English Medieval Church Towers: The Northern Province by W.E.David Ryan. Boydell. £19.99
The tower of St Michael’s church at Burgh by Sands tells its own story. This is no elegant church tower with three storeys tapering to a regular parapet of neat crenellations, with a three-light arch window in Perpendicular style, with an attached octagonal clock face.
This is a Border church, squat and resolute, built for defence against the marauding Scots.
Built some time in the middle of the fourteenth century, perhaps in 1360, it makes no concessions.
It is built of weathered red calciferous sandstone. The walls are extremely thick and founded on a chamfered base. As though it were not strong and solid enough in its very bulk and squatness, it is supported by chamfered “clasping buttresses”.
The lowest storey of the west wall is lit by three small arrow slits irregularly placed. On the first floor there is a narrow trefoil headed lancet in each wall, the tower’s one partly decorative feature. There is a larger, utilitarian round-arched bell opening in the floor above. The bells are medieval.
The parapet is battlemented. It is drained by projecting lead waterspouts.
“The east entrance from nave has an iron yet and draw-bar tunnel.”
This was a church built for defence.
The tower of the church of St John the Evangelist at Newton Arlosh is even more severe. It received its licence to crenellate in 1304. On the west wall there is a single arrow slit on each of the three floors. The battlemented parapet and the third storey were restored in the nineteenth century.
Another fourteenth century tower at All Saints in Scaleby has tow long arrow slits and a bell opening in the third storey, which was rebuilt some time before 1790.
The tower of St Mungo’s in Dearham “may have been fortified”. There is an irregular two light west window in the ground floor and a small two-light bell opening in the third storey. Otherwise, in the west wall there are five small and irregularly placed windows.
The west face of St Kentigern in Caldbeck is, perhaps, the most austere of all. The two lower storeys are each pierced by the smallest of windows. The third storey above the string course, which was built in the eighteenth century has a small round-arched window, with louvred openings. Inside the third storey an inscription announces, “This steeple was builded in the year 1727.”
David Ryan is a retired architect. In this book he has produced meticulous, accurate coloured drawings of the over five hundred medieval church towers to be found in the various dioceses – Blackburn, Carlisle, Chester, Durham, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle Sheffield, Southwell and Nottingham, and York – of the Northern Province. Each drawing is accompanied by the briefest of texts giving the minimum information as to date and construction.
The towers in the north of the Carlisle Diocese are notable for their solidity, simplicity and lack of decoration. In their severity they are matched only by those in the north of the Newcastle Diocese at places like Bamburgh, Bolam, Edlingham, Stamfordham, Ovingham and Warden.
Further south in Cumbria, the towers become more elegant. St Michael’s at Beetham is tall and slim. There seems to have been no call for the thick walls so necessary at Newton Arlosh and Burgh by Sands. It has crocketed corner pinnacles and the window above the door in the west wall has “two trefoiled ogee lights in a two centred head with moulded label”.
This comprehensive collection of the various medieval church towers from throughout the north is a testimony both to the local histories of the region and to the interesting variety of local building styles.