Tuesday, December 13, 2016


Julian Flannery, Fifty English Steeples
Published by Thames & Hudson

This book arrived in my mailbag too late to be included in the handful of pre-Christmas reviews I posted last month. Once I opened it, though, and saw that its author’s favourite steeple was also my own, I couldn’t resist reading it – and then returning to its rich collection of photographs and drawings. So here’s a review, post-haste…

Fifty English Steeples presents author Julian Flannery’s selection of the finest medieval parish church towers and spires in England, from Saxon Earl’s Barton, Northamptonshire, to Louth, Lincolnshire (1515). They’re a varied lot: high and low, plain and ornate, square, rectangular, round, or topped with octagonal lanterns or spires. Their diversity comes shining out of the book’s many photographs and drawings – Flannery has surveyed all these towers himself, recording in painstaking and beautiful measured drawings their details of construction and design, and producing (for the first time) an authoritative list of their respective heights. The book would be worth having for these meticulous drawings alone.

However, it’s much more than that. Flannery traces a steady design development, taking in various broad types of tower and spire – the round towers of Norfolk, the ornate towers of Somerset, the plainer but still magnificent towers of East Anglia, broach spires, recessed spires, spires with or without crockets, spires with flying buttresses, and so on and on. Along the way, he pays attention to the design of windows, buttresses, parapets, pinnacles, vaults – to make a compendium of steeple architecture of the kind that has never been gathered in one place before.

The examples are all worth visiting and looking at. The book includes coverage of such triumphs of medieval architecture as the towers of St Cuthbert’s Wells, Leigh-on-Mendip, and Kingston St Mary (all in Somerset), Oxfordshire landmarks such as St Mary’s Oxford and Adderbury, great lantern towers like Lowick, Fotheringhay, and Boston, East Anglian monsters like Lavenham, and finally the great Lincolnshire spires, Louth above all. Louth is my personal favourite, a spire of unique gracefulness, and Flannery’s contender for the ultimate late-flowering of the medieval English steeple. There it is on the book’s cover above, 287 feet of glorious early-16th century architectural flair.

Emerging from all this detail and all these examples is a broad pattern of development that has little to do with the conventional classification of medieval architecture (which works, up to a point, for window tracery and vaulting, but is less useful for steeples). Another theme is how so many of the best parish church steeples are either on or within striking distance of the limestone belt – not an invariable rule but a reminder that these structures are often showcases of the masons’ sense of being at home with their materials. A further theme is the effect of elements such as buttresses and string courses on the appearance of towers. Yet another is the varied ways in which masons made the transition from square tower to usually octagonal spire.

The real triumph of this book is how it manages to look at an architectural phenomenon that we take for granted and subject it to new and revealing scrutiny. Its value is built on various foundations: thousands of hours at the theodolite and drawing board; an awareness of both exterior and interior impact; a balancing act between empirical analysis and an architect's aesthetic judgement. Above all it's the author’s good eye that is alert to qualities such as the strangeness of Patrington; the influential nature of St Cuthbert, Wells; the power of Boston's great relieving arches; the grace and sweep of Louth's tall openings and ogees; both the structural and visual impact of a buttress or a vault. Most of us appreciate the beauty and importance of England's towers and spires; thanks to this book we will see them more clearly and in more detail than they’ve been seen since they were built.


Lucy Lincoln said...

I would really love to receive that at Christmas. It reminds me of the crooked spire in my hometown at Chesterfield - have a look at pictures of it if you're not already familiar! I just researched Julian Flannery and he spent 5 years researching and compiling this book! One not to be missed for those interested in medieval architecture or church towers and spires.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Lucy: Thank you for your comment. Yes, the book is a real labour of love. I know the spire at Chesterfield. It's not one of Julian Flannery's 50, but it is unforgettable.

Joseph Biddulph (Publisher) said...

I fervently hope that all the companies that use Chesterfield spire, Norwich Cathedral tower, etc. as part of their logos remember to make a contribution to the maintenance funds from time to time!