Sunday, 25 January 2015
St Mary The Virgin, Saffron Walden.
It's difficult not to see it. For miles around the soaring spire appears on the horizon, beckoning you to come and investigate. When you make it to the town it appears in unexpected places as you walk the warren of winding narrow lanes. So it won't come as any surprise to learn that it's the biggest parish church in the county of Essex and that the spire stands at 193 feet (around 60 metres).
It's known that there was a Norman church here in 1130 AD and in all probability there had been a church of some sort on the site since St Cedd got busy converting pagans back in the seventh century. The Norman church was updated in the thirteenth century and was then rebuilt in (almost) its present form in the late fifteenth century. The "almost" is because the tower and spire had to be rebuilt in 1832.
The style of architecture which it exhibits so forcefully is known as "Perpendicular" and anyone who even glanced at the two photos above will be aware of the strong emphasis of the vertical lines of the columns, windows and walls. Everything soars heavenwards and the idea is so deeply embedded in our concept of how a church should be that it's hard to imagine churches any other way.
As you might expect there are some fine stained-glass windows, particularly this one at the east end of the building.
But there are many windows which hold plain glass; though this one also has a single "medallion" depicting St Mary The Virgin, to whom to the building is dedicated. All this clear glass gives the interior a light, airy feel.
High up in the clerestory the low winter sunlight streamed in, illuminating the upper reaches of the structure, also drawing the eye towards heaven. If you're thinking that this church looks a bit like the one we saw at Lavenham, then very well done indeed! The master mason who worked on both buildings was John Wastell, who later went on to work at Canterbury Cathedral, Peterborough Cathedral and King's College Chapel in Cambridge.
Like almost all English parish churches the singing of hymns is accompanied by music from the organ. But this one has an additional and striking set of horns to blast out the melodies to the congregation. It's called a trompeta real or royal trumpet.
Speaking of royalty there's the arms of King Charles I displayed high up on the wall; a strange survival, it seems, in a town which was so overwhelmingly on the side of Cromwell during the Civil War. Maybe it was re-instated when Charles II came to the throne.
The crib was still in place despite it being mid-January.
Time for one last look around this beautiful example of the Perpendicular style of church architecture. In some ways it's almost too perfect; the interest in our churches is often found in the mix of different styles as churches have been adapted and re-modelled over the centuries and the odd quirky additions of succeeding generations. In Saffron Walden it seems as if they decided way back in 1500 AD that they had the building they wanted and just worked on keeping it that way.