Friday, 30 December 2016

The Tower of the Church of St. Nicholas

A general view of the tower from the south

The South Yorkshire County Archaeological Service have assigned a 14th century date to the tower of the church of St. Nicholas, as well as the aisles and clerestory, but it is dated as 13th century by both English Heritage and Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, with the latter considering the unbuttressed tower - with Y-tracery - to be typical of the later part of this century.

A detail of the east elevation of the tower

It provides another example of the difficulties of unravelling the construction history of mediaeval churches without the aid of documentary evidence but, looking closely at the tower, various changes in the style of masonry and the type of stone used can clearly be distinguished.

A view of the south elevation of the tower

The cobble masonry to the lowest stage of the west elevation is very similar to that seen in the adjacent aisles and, looking up to the top of the tower, flattish roughly squared blocks of pale yellow dolomitic limestone have been laid out in regular courses above these - with some of these containing recycled sandstone and limestone cobbles.

A general view of the west elevation of the tower

An old roofline on the east face of the tower shows the former position of the roof to the nave, which existed before the rebuilding of the clerestory and the raising of the tower in the late 15th century, using dolomitic limestone ashlar that contrasts strongly in colour and texture with the earlier parts of the church.

A general view of the north elevation of the tower and the north aisle

Thursday, 29 December 2016

St. Nicholas Thorne - The 14th Century

A restored window in the north aisle

According to the guide book for the church of St. Nicholas, the next phase of reconstruction took place shortly after 1326, when new windows were inserted into the cobble masonry that forms the aisles and to which the parapets were added - both of them being built in dolomitic limestone.

A plan of the church
The windows to the aisles are consistent in style, and it has been assumed that they originally contained Y-shaped tracery – as seen in the westernmost bay to the north aisle - and the surrounds to their window arches are irregular and similar to those of the clerestory.

The bonding of the cobble masonry adjacent to the lower parts of the window jambs to the clerestory, which contrasts strongly to the squared limestone walling above it, suggests that the windows here are contemporary with those of the aisles.

When surveying various mediaeval churches, I have looked for patterns in the tooled stones that provide clues to the relative dates of their various structural components – as well as examining them with a hand lens and using a steel knife, hydrochloric acid and other tools to determine their physical and chemical composition.

Such authorities as Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, English Heritage, the South Yorkshire County Council Archaeology Service and various local historians have given various interpretations of the construction history of these churches and, as a geologist, I have just been following their footsteps and trying to fill in a few gaps...

The south side of the clerestory

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Cobbles & Boulders

A general view of the south elevation of the church of St. Nicholas

The de Warenne family owned quarries in the Don Gorge - 20 km upstream of Thorne - and the dolomitic limestone here has been used for finely tooled arcades, arches and doorways in several churches in the area, which date back to at least 1175.

The south aisle and clerestory

It is therefore surprising to discover that the walls of the church of St. Nicholas, which have been assigned a date of c.1200, essentially comprise an irregularly coursed jumble of stones that have been quarried from the Quaternary glacial deposits upon which Thorne is set.

A general view of the north aisle and clerestory

A quick examination of the external walls of the aisles and clerestory shows that the bulk of the stones are large cobbles of Carboniferous sandstone and Permian dolomitic limestone, whose textures vary from flat and very angular to sub-rounded and, according to the British Geological Survey, it is highly probable that these were deposited very near to the front of a melting glacier that flowed from the north-west.

A detail of rubble walling in the south aisle

Friday, 23 December 2016


An Ordnance Survey map of the area around Thorne

The ancient market town of Thorne is set on an outcrop of Quaternary glacial sand and gravel, which forms a topographic feature that rises above the floodplain of the River Don; here, the course of the present river meanders through various sediments of similar geological age, which have been deposited on the underlying Triassic Sherwood Sandstone bedrock.

A British Geological Survey map of the area around Thorne

Occupied sporadically in the Neolithic, Bronze Age and Iron Age periods and permanently settled after the Anglo-Saxons arrived - like many other settlements in the region - in today's landscape it is an insignificant landform but, only a thousand years ago, it was once surrounded by large expanses of water and peat bogs and it stood out as a small island.

An interpretation of Peel Hill Motte

After the Norman Conquest in 1066, William de Warenne, the first Earl of Surrey - who also owned Conisbrough Castle and founded All Hallows church in Harthill - took advantage of the strategic position of Thorne and built a motte and bailey castle that overlooked the surrounding marshes - together with the church of St. Nicholas, which is just a stone's throw away.

A view of Peel Hill Motte and the church of St. Nicholas in Thorne

When quickly walking around the old motte and bailey castle that is now known as Peel Hill Motte and which forms the centrepiece of a small public park, I didn't see any stone but, when crossing the road to take a much closer look at the church of St. Nicholas, I encountered a wide variety of rocks – both tooled and in their natural state.

A view of the church of St. Nicholas from Peel Hill Motte

St. Michael and All Angels - The Interior

A general view of the nave

Inside the church of St. Michael and All Angels in Hathersage, the nave and arcades are considered to form part of the original church that was built in 1381 and although the capitals to the north arcade are described by Sir Nicholas Pevsner as being very odd, the octagonal columns and pointed arches to both arcades are similar in style to each other, as well as to the arches in the chancel and tower.

Capitals to the north arcade

With not enough time to properly look around, I didn't have a good look at the masonry to the walls of the aisles but, looking up in the nave, there is a clear change in its style above the level of the arcade where the clerestory has been added. Also, at each end of the nave and above the rear of the chancel arch, there are old rooflines that show where the roof has been raised.

A view of the chancel and tower arches and old rooflines

Much of the general internal walling appears to have been covered in limewash at some time that, like the weathering of the exterior, obscures much of the original colour of the stone here but the finely cut stones to the arcades show that the Millstone Grit is generally buff/brown with various amounts of iron staining.

A detail of a capital to the tower

Thursday, 22 December 2016

St. Michael and All Angels - Hathersage

A general view of St. Michael and All Angels' church

Having briefly explored St. Edmunds church in Castleton, I caught the next hourly No. 272 bus back to Sheffield and, after a 25 minute journey, I got off in Hathersage – a village that is popular with the walkers and climbers that like to explore the Millstone Grit Edges, which run down the eastern side of the Peak District National Park - and spent the next hour having a quick look at its mediaeval church, famous for the reputed grave of Little John.

A general view of the south aisle and clerestory

The church of St. Michael and All Angels lies on higher ground formed by the Shale Grit, in the oldest part of the village, and a walk around its exterior quickly reveals that the coarse sandstone used to build the church is not capable of being carved into finely moulded details and the overall impression – enhanced by the embattled parapets – is that it is a very solid structure, which has needed very little repair.

Carved escutcheons to the parapet of the porch

Although there is some evidence of an earlier Early English style church, the current structure dates back to 1381 and the lower sections of the tower, the nave and the north aisle are of this date and of the Perpendicular Gothic style. From 1442 onwards, the south aisle, porch and clerestory were added and after 1459, the Lady Chapel was added to the north aisle, the chancel extended and the tower raised with a parapet and a crocketed spire.

A general view of the tower

All around the church, there are a wide variety of crudely carved gargoyles and grotesques and various styles of windows can be seen, many of which were renewed as part of an extensive restoration of the church in 1851 and can be clearly distinguished from the original mediaeval windows, whose mouldings and tracery are much more heavily weathered and no longer possess sharp profiles. 

A gargoyle

St. Edmund's Church in Castleton

A grotesque on the tower of St. Edmund's church

Whilst exploring the mediaeval churches of Rotherham, although my principal aim has been to investigate their construction history and the types of stone that they are built of, I have also been considering their potential as tourist attractions – along with a variety of historic monuments and geological sites that I have visited in West Yorkshire and the Peak District National Park.

A geological map of the area around Castleton

After exploring All Saints church in Laughton-en-le-Morthen, I planned to to take another look at the geology around Cave Dale in Castleton with the Sheffield U3A Geology Group, a place that I had visited several months earlier along with Peveril Castle.

A general view
Without a lift being available on this occasion, I arranged to go on the No. 272 bus to Castleton and catch up with the group when I got there; however, when I finally arrived, the prospect of taking a rapid hike up very steep and uneven rock ground in an effort to catch them up didn't appeal to me and so I decided to spend the day by quickly looking at St. Edmund's church, before stopping off in Hathersage on the way back to Sheffield.

St. Edmund's church dates back to the 11th century and its history is closely linked with Peveril Castle, which rises high above it, but the only evidence of the early church is the chancel arch, which forms the most interesting stonework feature in the interior.

Looking at the 14th century tower, the stonework comprises blocks of well squared and coursed Millstone Grit and displays many elements of the Perpendicular Gothic style, with the battlements, pinnacles and gargoyles forming ornamental features, but with the window surrounds and tracery being kept very plain.

A general view of St. Edmund's church and Peveril Castle

A quick walk around the church shows that the remainder of the structure is built with roughly coursed Carboniferous Limestone walling, with Millstone Grit dressings; however, the lowest courses of both sides of the nave – which was rebuilt in 1831 after both of the pre-existing aisles were demolished - largely comprise Millstone Grit and is quite likely that these were reused from the pre-existing structure. The windows are all Victorian and in a neo-late-13th century style, according to Sir Nikolaus Pevsner.

A general view of St. Edmund's church

The chancel comprises mainly coursed rubble limestone, with a large proportion blocks of Millstone Grit randomly mixed with the limestone walling and for the quoins. The gritstone here has been heavily weathered and contrasts strongly with the Victorian masonry, which still retains sharp profiles.

A detail of the east wall of the nave

To the east side of the tower, an old roofline shows that the pitch of the roof has been lowered at some stage and, in the east wall of the nave, the rubble walling contains a highly weathered projecting course of gritstone, which has an unusual curved shape and may relate to the original position of the gable end.

The Norman chancel arch

Friday, 16 December 2016

All Saints Laughton - The Interior

A general view of the north arcade and north aisle at All Saints church

Once inside All Saints church in Laughton-en-le-Morthen, a quick look at the walling stone used for the aisles, the extension to the nave and the visible parts of the tower shows that Rotherham Red sandstone has been extensively used, together with roughly squared dolomitic limestone.

A general view of the south arcade and the north aisle

There has been some debate about the floor plan of the Anglo-Saxon and Norman structures that preceded the Perpendicular Gothic style church, partly based on the use of Rotherham Red sandstone for both the north doorway and the lower parts of the south elevation of the chancel.

A view of the nave from the chancel

The geological map of Laughton-en-le-Morthen shows that the nearest source of Rotherham Red sandstone is much further away than dolomitic limestone quarries that, at the time of the Norman rebuilding of All Saints church, had already supplied stone to build Roche Abbey, Conisbrough Castle and St. Helen's church in Treeton.

Dolomitic limestone used for vaulting to the tower

Given the logistics of quarrying and transporting Rotherham Red sandstone from so far away, the Norman builders wouldn't have specially brought in an inferior building stone to line the internal walls and the volume of stone - which has been recycled for this purpose - provides evidence that the original church would have been quite a substantial structure.

An angel in the south arcade

Much of the stone used in the internal walls has been obscured by the remaining thick layers of lime, but this doesn't stop the change in colour and texture between the walls and columns to the arcades – and the arches that spring off them – from being so noticeable.

Various style Norman capitals in the north arcade

The re-use of round Norman columns and capitals in the north arcade, which contrast strongly with the octagonal section 14th century columns used for the south aisle, has also raised further questions - is this yet another case for the Geological Detective?

The south door

The Perpendicular Gothic Style Church

A general view of All Saints church

The early masonry at All Saints church in Laughton-en-le-Morthen has a very complicated history, as seen in the jumble of stones and styles used in the chancel and the north doorway, but this church is also quite remarkable for its late 14th century additions being built in one phase - in the same Perpendicular Gothic style and using the same dolomitic limestone.

The Norman and Perpendicular Gothic Style church

It is thought that the rebuilding of the Norman church was undertaken in 1377 by William de Wykeham – a renowned church builder of the time – and there is a good opportunity here to study the architectural styles that, given a reasonably precise date of construction, provide a reference point against which other churches in the region can be compared.

A general view of the upper section of the tower

Without supporting documentary evidence, the dating of historic buildings – which usually exhibit several phases of building and restoration – requires a good working knowledge of the styles of the various structural and decorative elements, particularly the windows and arches.

A general view of the windows to the south aisle

In this respect, my investigation of the mediaeval churches in and around Rotherham continues to form a steep learning curve but, as a geologist, my skills in identifying building stones and analysing the different styles of masonry have been honed during the past year.

A window to the south aisle with cavernous decay and restored mullions

An examination of the exterior of All Saints church, which has been largely been unaffected by polluted air from the steel industry in the Don Valley, shows that - where used for plain masonry - the limestone from the Cadeby Formation is generally in good condition; however, the carved heads and grotesques are severely weathered and the tracery to the window heads exhibit advanced cavernous decay, with many of them being recently restored.

Highly weathered stone carvings to the windows of the north aisle

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

The Interior of the Norman Chancel

A general view of the Norman chancel at All Saints church

Inside the chancel of All Saints church, the general pattern of stonework is similar to that seen in the exterior and comprises Rotherham Red sandstone at the lower levels, with irregular yellow limestone blocks above it; however, the 14th century masonry used to raise the roof – unlike the exterior – contains a high proportion of recycled blocks of Rotherham Red sandstone.

The north wall of the chancel

Although the Perpendicular Gothic style windows have obliterated some of the original Norman fabric, the former position of several windows to the south and east walls can be identified from substantial remains of their window dressings – built in grey weathering limestone - and the truncated sedila, a lancet arched niche and the piscina can still be seen.

A sedila and piscina

On the north wall, a partially infilled window provides an excellent example of the extremely thick walls that are a feature of very many Norman churches - the size and shape of its voussoirs also show that their stone masonry skills were much more advanced than those of the Anglo-Saxons.

The north window

The use of large blocks of grey weathering limestone in the chancel indicates that the builders now had access to quarries that provided much better building stone than could be found in Laughton-en-le-Morthen. Richard de Busli, the grand nephew of Roger de Buslico-founded Roche Abbey in 1147 – only 3 km away - and it is therefore highly likely that its King's Wood quarries supplied this stone.

An Ordnance Survey map of the area around Laughton-en-le-Morthen