Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Stewkley, Buckinghamshire


When looking at a building form the outside, we often think in terms of its façade, ‘The face or front of a building towards a street or other open place, esp. the principal front,’ as the OED has it. Lots of buildings – Palladian houses, Victorian town halls, Gothic cathedrals – have very beautiful façades, formal, symmetrical, and attention-grabbing.

Medieval English parish churches, though, often don’t have formal façades in this way. They have their entrances on the side, usually the south side, and churches aren’t usually symmetrical from the side. The porch might have a grand frontage, but there’s nothing you could call a façade. Cathedrals traditionally have their main entrance at the west end, so buildings like Peterborough and Wells cathedral have beautiful west fronts. But parish churches rarely have west fronts because they have western towers: the view from the west is usually of a tower and the ends of two aisles sticking out at either side.

Here’s an exception, though. The church at Stewkley, built by the Normans, has a central tower, leaving room for a grand entrance façade facing the street, at the west end (photograph above). And very odd it is too. There’s a central doorway, decorated with chevron ornament and flanks by two blind arches, also with chevron. This is a pleasantly balanced group of features, although the bifurcated or double arch above the door is rather odd. Above the door it gets odder, with a single, rather meanly small window crashing into the top of the doorway arch and a tiny round window high above. The window above the door owes its size and position to the fact that it matches windows on the flanking walls, by the way.

I find all this rather eccentric in its mixture of balance below and gaucheness above. Not that I mind eccentricity – this blog has been thriving on architectural eccentricity for years. I think what we’re looking at here is a builder working things out as he goes along, and making a stab at doing something that he didn’t often get the chance to do: building a symmetrical façade for a substantial church.
Stewkley church, from the south


Anonymous said...

Norman churches quite often had a central tower; the west tower seems to be a later mediaeval idea, and there are some cases where the central tower was removed and a new west tower built.
Another splendid example of a Norman west front to a village church is Iffley, just outside Oxford - there's a good photo at http://www.oxfordshirechurches.info/IffleySMV.htm - though it has to be said that the rose window and the gable owe more to (reasonably sympathetic) Victorian restoration.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Shui-long: Exactly! If there's a central tower, the west end remains available as an entrance front. I know Iffley well, and agree that the restoration is sympathetic, on the whole.

Interestingly, though, even when there's no tower at all (as with many churches near me in the Cotswolds, for example), the tradition of a south door continues. There could be all kinds of reasons for this – people liked coming and going on the 'sunny' side of the church, the parishioners hoped to build a west tower later when they had the money to do so, or they built it that way just because it became 'the norm' that people followed.

per apse said...

You've set me thinking again! Lots of continental examples, of course - here the grand W window (C15th often) enlivens the Norman W facade - Ketton, Bishops Cleeve etc. But almost English, pre-EU etc - try St James & St Remy in Dieppe! Heavy towers create so many problems ..... see the Marshland churches in W Norfolk - West Walton's W facade is neglected since there's so much else to wonder at. Thank you, again.