Friday, 31 March 2017

A Climb to the Top of the Church Tower

A view from the tower of All Saints church

Having already explored the exterior of All Saints church in Aston-cum-Aughton - as part of my investigation of the mediaeval churches of Rotherham - I particularly wanted to visit it again during their Heritage Open Days event, because it provided a very rare opportunity to go all the way to the top of the tower.

A detail of the 18th century parapet to the tower

During previous Heritage Open Days at St. Helen's church in Treeton – as well as various other events at the Chapel of Our Lady on the Bridge and All Saints church in Rotherham – I have wound up various spiral staircases. This has included leading a group of Spanish summer school teenagers to the top of the tower at York Minster, which is highly geared to the tourism industry, but my experience of standing on top of All Saints church was completely different.

Ascending the spiral staircase

As I have discovered when helping with some of the routine maintenance of St. Helen's church, the upkeep of a Grade I Listed mediaeval church is no easy task and, with the slow decay of the stonework over the years, the various ledges accumulate fragments of mortar and gritty stone dust, which can make the ascent and descent of the steep and narrow steps within a spiral staircase potentially hazardous.

Descending the spiral staircase

Ascending into the first stage of the tower, I was particularly interested to see the mechanism that drives the clock and, in the belfry itself, the vast iron structure that was needed to support the three remaining bells, which once numbered six in 1552.

The clock mechanism

In addition to the stresses applied to the tower by the swinging of its large bells, the area had problems with coal mining subsidence in the mid 20th century and – with weak foundations – the church tower was once tilted out of plumb, which has severely restricted the use of its bells and, at one time, also prevented the pendulum of the clock from swinging.

A few general views inside the belfry

Taking the final few steps up through the hatch to the roof, I have to say that I was disconcerted by the fact that I could see the through the parapets - and my first reaction was to quickly walk up to the apex of the lead roof and cling to the flagpole. Once feeling more comfortable, I then listened to the interesting information provided by our guide and took a few quick photos of the surrounding landscape with the other hand.

The hatch to the roof of the tower

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

All Saints Aston - Arcades & Arches

A view from the north aisle showing various columns and arches

During my investigation of the mediaeval churches set on or near to the outcrop of the Mexborough Rock - whose distinctive strong red colouration has given it its name of Rotherham Red sandstone - it is this stone that has generally been used for the fabric, with Magnesian Limestone mainly reserved for the arcades, doorways and window dressings.

A view of the north arcade with decorated plaster in the north aisle

As can be seen in the north aisle of All Saints church in Aston cum Aughton, where fragments of decorated plaster still remain, the masonry in mediaeval churches was very often coated with lime plaster or limewash – to provide a substrate for painting in bright colours.

A detail of mediaeval decoration in the north arcade

When such thick lime coatings have been removed during Victorian restorations, the remnants of lime usually obscure the details of the stone beneath it and this can make it difficult for the archaeologist to interpret the details of its construction history or an architect to distinguish the various stones when they need to be restored.

A general view of algae on the stonework to the arches of the south arcade

With an opportunity to look closely at the arcades in All Saints church during the Heritage Open Days event, they appear to be a patchwork of stones, with lime, efflorescence, green algae, various iron oxide pigments and general dirt obscuring their general colour; however it is possible to discern that the core of the double chamfered arches – as described by Sir Nikolaus Pevsner – are dolomitic limestone and that the outer parts are Rotherham Red sandstone.

Details of various columns and capitals

Looking closely at these columns, it appears that a banded pattern was originally intended, with the top two drums being Rotherham Red sandstone, with the remainder generally being in dolomitic limestone; however, with so many people wandering around the interior of the church, and with other things to see, I needed much more time to fully investigate the various stones that have been used over the years – in both its original construction and subsequent restorations.

A detail of the plinth to an octagonal column

A very open textured and porous yellow limestone has been used in the lower sections and plinths of the columns and, like the limestone details on the exterior, it appears to have been susceptible to advanced decay – with rising damp contributing to their deterioration.

A detail of the plinth of a circular column

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

All Saints Church in Aston - Monuments

A Coade stone plaque dedicated to William Mason

In the interior of All Saints church in Aston, various brasses adorn the tower and in the south aisle there are Coade stone wall plaques, with portraits in medallions in memory to the poet Thomas Gray and William Mason, the church's most famous Rector; however, the chancel contains the most interesting monuments, which are dedicated to prominent families, as well as another memorial to William Mason and other Rectors.

Monument to Sir John D'Arcy

On the north wall of the chancel, the monument to Sir John D'Arcy and three of his four wives, who are all represented as kneeling figures carved in alabaster, is the most impressive. Erected soon after 1627, this monument is an example of the style that was very fashionable during this period and which can also be seen in churches at Bakewell and Wentworth.

A detail of the monument to Sir John D'Arcy and wives

On the opposite side of the chancel wall, which contains exposed 13th century Rotherham Red sandstone masonry, three white marble plaques are dedicated to the Aldersons - various 19th century Rectors – and their families.

Monuments and memorials on the south chancel wall

Beneath these, there is a plaque dedicated to Sir Francis Fane and his wife, Elizabeth, who was the fourth wife of Sir John D'Arcy, which has a pilastered surround with a crest over it and other elaborate heraldic details, whose bright colours are evidence of recent restoration.

A detail of the crest to the Sir Francis Fane monument

Friday, 24 March 2017

All Saints Church in Aston - The Interior

A view along the nave

I first visited All Saints church in Aston-cum-Aughton on Good Friday, to take advantage of a sunny day in spring – as part of my exploration of the mediaeval churches on the No. 74 bus route from Treeton to HarthillNot knowing that there was a service on at the time of my visit, I had a quick walk around its exterior and, seeing that it's door was open, I poked my nose through the door and was interested to see that the arcades were built with Magnesian Limestone and Rotherham Red sandstone.

The south door

I had to wait until the Heritage Open Days event before I could take a good look at its interior and, when entering the porch, the construction detail above the simple Decorated Gothic style door arch is very unusual. There were also many other visitors going in and I only took a couple of photo before I entered the south aisle, but the building stones here need further investigation. 

The south arcade

The arcades, with their round arches and alternating circular and octagonal section columns, are considered to be from the late 12th century, but their chamfered arches and capitals – including a broad pointed arch at its east end – indicate that there is a transition between the Norman and Early English Gothic styles of architecture. This is also seen in the chancel arch, which has similarities in its details with St. Helen's church in Treeton.

The chancel arch

Although I had brought my tripod with me, which I had managed to use when taking a few photographs of the font in Thorpe Salvin's mediaeval church during its Garden Trail weekend, there were far too many people of all ages exploring every nook and cranny here for me even to think about using it to photograph the magnificent font.

A few views of the font

Instead, I left the bulk of my photographic equipment under a pew and took a few quick snaps of various fine memorials and monuments, as well as taking a closer look at some of the details of the stonework to the arches and arcades.

A fragment of painted lime plaster

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

All Saints Church in Aston - The Exterior

A general view of the south elevation of All Saints church

All Saints church - in the parish of Aston cum Aughton - is set on a broad outcrop of the Carboniferous Mexborough Rock, which forms an intermittent escarpment that runs from Rotherham to Harthill and still produces the locally distinctive Rotherham Red sandstone, from which this Grade I Listed church is essentially built.

A general view of the tower
Domesday Book records a church here that dates back to c.700 AD and, falling within the manor held by Roger de Busli after the Norman Conquest, the later stone church falls within the Norman period, but evidence of this can only be seen in its interior.

Although I had to wait for the Heritage Open Days event in September before I finally gained access to its interior, I surveyed its exterior 5 months previously when I started out on my exploration of the mediaeval churches of Rotherham.

Starting on an anti-clockwise walk around the church at the tower, the Rotherham Red sandstone here includes the typical red/purple and mottled red/yellow varieties – as also seen in Todwick, Harthill and Wales – and the windows seen on its west elevation and all around the belfry are in the Perpendicular Gothic style, with the embattled parapet built in 1758.

The north aisle and porch have flat headed windows, with the Decorated Gothic style tracery restored with Rotherham Red sandstone from the Ulley Quarry and the mullions replaced with Permian dolomitic limestone of unknown origin.

The south aisle

Looking closely at the details, the highly weathered west window of the porch is also dolomitic limestone, as are the various elaborately carved headstops that adorn them. Moving on to the chancel, which was refaced entirely in dolomitic limestone ashlar in 1863, the carved headstops are also highly eroded here but the ashlar walling is in good condition.

Details of weathered dolomitic limestone sculpture on the south aisle

A newspaper report of 1900 records that these stone carvings were in near perfect condition but their details are now barely recognisable, which has been attributed to the effects of acid rain over the past century; however, like the villages of Anston and Laughton-en-le-Morthen – where the dolomitic limestone sculptures are also highly weathered – Aston is far away from the nearest historic source of atmospheric pollution in the Don Valley.

A detail of eroded tracery in the north aisle

Finishing off a short walk around the church, various post-mediaeval additions – including a narthex built in a very different Carboniferous sandstone, with Rotherham Red sandstone dressings – obscure the mediaeval north elevation but, in the remaining part of its north aisle, the windows and dressings are similar to those seen in the south aisle.

Permo-Triassic sandstone used for repairs in the base of the tower

Looking briefly at the various stones that have been used in its restoration, it is Rotherham Red sandstone that has been mainly used with dolomitic limestone restricted to some mullions but, in the base of the tower, a Permo-Triassic sandstone has been selected for some repairs and there are also good examples of the use of stone slips - a method of repair that avoids the replacement of a whole stone, but which is rarely used today.

Repairs to the south aisle using stone slips

Saturday, 18 March 2017

St. Mary Handsworth - The Interior

A view of the nave showing the different heights of the arcades

Having explored the exterior of St. Mary's church in Handsworth in early April, it was another 5 months before I got access to its interior, when a flower festival had been arranged to coincide with the Heritage Open Days event.

A floral display in the south aisle

Once inside the church, its Victorian restoration is very evident, with all of the walls in the nave and aisles being plastered and painted, with only the arcades, window dressings and the arches to the tower and chancel revealing the stonework.

A view inside the chancel

The oldest part is the north arcade, with its alternating octagonal and circular columns being transitional in style between the Norman and Early English Gothic periods, but this was raised in 1833 to accommodate a new gallery in the nave.

A general view of the north arcade

The south arcade is much lower and was added in 1904, along with the south aisle, and the sandstone masonry is uniform throughout. Although I didn't examine any of the stones closely, this contrasts strongly with the north arcade, where the masonry in the columns is very patchy and reflects a phase of rebuilding.

A general view of the south arcade

The chancel arch was inserted in 1870, to match the height of the tower arch and it is notable for being constructed in alternating buff and red sandstones for the responds and voussoirs. Although quite dirty, and a close examination is needed on a fresh surface, my first impression was that this was another use of Rotherham Red sandstone.

A detail of the chancel arch

In the chancel, the arch to St. Katherine's chapel, a squint with a piscina, a sedilia and various other details reflect the style of the early English Gothic period - and there is also a blocked Norman door, whose view from the exterior is obscured by a large bush.

A view through the squint

The various memorials scattered around the walls of the church of St. Mary the Virgin date back to 1791 - and alabaster, Italian white marble and green breccia are just a few of the decorative stones that can be found here.

A detail of a war memorial

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

St. Mary Handsworth - The Exterior

A general view of the church of St. Mary the Virgin in Handsworth

The church of St. Mary the Virgin in Handsworth is set on the brow of an escarpment of Pennine Middle Coal Measures Formation sandstone, which forms a high point above the surrounding landscape and can easily be seen from St. Helen's church in Treeton.

The Pennine Middle Coal Measures Formation around Handsworth & Treeton
Although I had to wait for the Heritage Open Days event before I could take a good look at its interior, I had briefly surveyed its exterior several months previously, and when approaching the church from the main entrance on its north side, I was struck by the very strange Victorian north aisle, which completely obscures its mediaeval origins.

A general view of the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Handsworth

The tower and its steeple have been rebuilt several times since the 12th century - with it once been destroyed by lightning in 1698 and struck again in 1978 - and when looking very closely at the stonework, a wide variety of repairs can be seen and, like St. Andrew's church in Bolton upon Dearne, parts of it appear to have been coated with an indeterminate material.

The south elevation of the tower

The castellated vestry and the simple porch, together with the south aisle, were added in 1904 by John Dodsley Webster and these additions further obscure the mediaeval origins of this church. Although the nave rises to the height of a clerestory, as is usual in mediaeval churches that were expanded in the late 15th century, there are no windows to be seen here.

A general view of the south aisle

Moving on to the chancel, which is Early English Gothic in style, the steep slope of the roof and the narrow lancet windows are very characteristic of this period in architectural design and, on its north side, the small St. katherine's Chapel is of similar date.

The chancel

Heritage Open Days

A view from the tower at All Saints church in Aston

Having surveyed more than 25 mediaeval churches in and around South Yorkshire over a period of 6 months, summer was now coming to an end and I had still not gained access to the interior of all of the mediaeval churches that are set on the Rotherham Red sandstone - with those in Aston and Whiston still outstanding.

Heritage Open Days

Unexpectedly, taking advantage of the national Heritage Open Days event, I finally got the chance to visit All Saints church in Aston. Along with St. Mary's church in Handsworth, which I had already tried to visit – and ended up in Worksop on a Thursday afternoon - I was not going to miss the opportunity to fully explore both of these very interesting churches.

A detail of a memorial at St. Mary's church in Handsworth

Although I have demonstrated on this Language of Stone Blog that, with some good planning, it is possible to travel far and wide from Treeton using public transport – to see a wide variety of spectacular scenery and ancient monuments – I only had 4 days to explore a wide range of historic buildings that I had not seen before in this region.

A view through the squint at All Saints church in Aston

With Heritage Open Days normally coinciding with the Rotherham Show, an event that I don't usually miss, I had to make the most of my time and I therefore decided to finish off a very long weekend by exploring Sheffield Town Hall – where there are very many polished stones.

A bust of Queen Victoria in Sheffield Town Hall