Monday, January 25, 2016
Chewton Mendip, Somerset
For my money the west tower of the parish church of Chewton Mendip is one of the most beautiful in this county of stunning church towers.* The tracery of the bell openings and the blind windows below them is well proportioned; the pairs of corner buttresses frame the tower superbly and turn into pinnacles with elegance; the crowning openwork parapet and corner pinnacles top the structure off well without being exaggeratedly large. There are plenty of small details (shallow niches on the upper parts of the buttresses and on the pinnacles, crockets, the tiny upright shafts that run up parallel to the upper pinnacles) that set the design off and that come over as finishing touches rather than over-elaboration. I’d say that this was pretty much as good as it got in 1540, the approximate date when this tower was finished.
Pevsner reminds us that this showpiece in Doulting limestone is one of the tallest of the Somerset towers, as 126 feet (38.5 metres). The antiquarian Leland called it a “goodly new high tourrid steeple” when he saw it just after it was completed. No matter that, by then, Gothic structures like this were starting to look a bit old fashioned: the masons of Somerset had been building stunning church towers along these lines for the whole of the 15th century and for a few decades of the 16th they continued.† The one at Chewton Mendip dwarfs the church (yes, there’s a church there, attached to the lower part of it, but invisible because of the rich vegetation in the churchyard) but that is no doubt what the priest and parishioners there wanted. Perhaps they said that they liked elements in nearby towers¶ and wanted something similar but better, and that this kind of tower fulfilled exactly their aesthetic preference, their desire to honour God through the building, and the skill and flair of the builders at their disposal. It must have taken their breath away when the scaffolding finally came down. It probably still does today.
* I’ve posted about two other Somerset favourites: Huish Episcopi and Isle Abbots.
† Wikipedia has a list of Somerset towers here.
¶ Some compare Chewton to Batcombe, but when you actually look at the two towers they’re not that similar.