Monday, 27 May 2019

St. Vincent's Church on Solly Street

The vaulted ceiling in the south chapel

As a geologist and a former co-owner of a building restoration company in London, I have a particular interest in historic architecture and the building stones used in their construction. Since 2016, I have concentrated on the investigation of mediaeval churches to further my professional aspirations in standing buildings archaeology but, quite often, I encounter churches of a later date that are very striking 

A general view of the south elevation

In the case of St. Vincent’s church, I came across it quite by accident when investigating street art in an old industrial area just outside Sheffield city centre, which is being redeveloped at a rapid pace with massive, featureless blocks of student flats that have very little space around them. 

A view up White Croft

Noticing it at the top of White Croft, I walked up a steep hill formed by an outcrop of the Silkstone Rock to further investigate it. Although not a listed building, this Victorian Catholic church has very surprisingly escaped demolition, particularly as it was unused from 1998 to 2017, until it was rejuvenated as a communal space for the adjoining Unite Students accommodation. 

A carved angel retained for decoration

Initially built as a small chapel and school in 1853, using locally sourced thin bedded and laminated sandstone, which is possibly Brincliffe Edge Rock, a short tower was later added in 1870 and further extended to its present height in 1911 using two different types of much more massive sandstone that can be distinguished by their masonry styles and colours. 

A view of the former nave

The plain extension that was built following severe bomb damage during the Sheffield Blitz mars the only remaining elevation of the church that is visible to the public but, once inside there are some interesting features. Although not public accessible, the receptionist let me look around the ground floor, where the arcades, with stone columns and alternating stone and brick comprising the arches, forming a feature in the student’s communal area. 

 Marbles and granite in the sanctuary

The old sanctuary within the former chancel has been left in place, with a grey granite altar being surrounded with grey veined, white 'Sicilian' marble, and a chequerboard pattern floor – with white Carrara marble and polished black Carboniferous limestone, probably from Belgium, forming a very attractive feature. 

Intricately carved Caen stone in the south chapel

Particularly interesting is the chapel, which forms a bay that projects from the south aisle. It has a very ornate carved stone screen that separates it from the aisle and has a fine vaulted ceiling. The stone itself is a very pale creamed coloured limestone, which can be carved into very fine details and which looks very similar to the Caen stone that I had seen in Leeds Central Library

Marble panels in the south chapel

On the walls, various marbles of unknown provenance have been used for panels, which flank ornate mosaics that are largely intact and elsewhere there are terrazzo floors. The latter was probably laid by Italians who formed a community in the area known as St. Vincent’s, along with Irish immigrants, for whom the Catholic church was originally built.

Mosaics in the south chapel

Sunday, 19 May 2019

A Trip to Poole's Cavern

Flowstone and stalagmites in the Poached Egg Chamber

After a busy start to 2019, preparing the visit to Leeds to look at its building stones and then visiting mediaeval churches in Dronfield and Adwick le Street, and Selby Abbey, I then prepared a talk for the Friends of Rotherham Archives – partially based on the one I had given a year earlier to Aston-cum-Aughton History Group, which highlighted a few mediaeval churches that are built of Rotherham Red sandstone. 

At the entrance of Poole's Cavern

My next trip out, a couple of weeks later, was with the Sheffield U3A Geology Group to Poole's Cavern, a show cave that was developed as a tourist attraction in 1853 by the 6th Duke of Devonshire, to complement the thriving spa town of Buxton nearby, which his predecessor, the 5th Duke, had established using the profits of his copper mines at Ecton

Entering the cavern

Having visited Peak Cavern and Treak Cliff Cavern in Castleton and the Nottingham Castle caves with groups of Spanish students, as part of their English language summer schools, and being quite disappointed with what I saw, I was hoping that this would be a much better experience. 

A general view of the cavern roof

Starting with an introduction by our nonstop speaking guide outside the entrance, I have to say that, from this moment onward, I stood back from the group and decided to treat this trip as an exercise in taking photographs in light conditions that stretched my Canon Powershot G16 camera to its limits. 

A general view of the ubiquitous flowstone

Although the cave has a very interesting history, I was much more interested in the various formations that could be seen in the Carboniferous limestone, which included ubiquitous flowstone on the cavern walls and examples of stalactites and stalagmites that are considered to be the longest in Derbyshire. 

Stalagmites in the Poached Egg Cavern

The part of the cave known as the Poached Egg Chamber, was described by our guide as being unique, with their yellow/orange colour and extremely fast rate of growth. This has been attributed to the percolation of water saturated with calcium carbonate from the lime burning industry that took place at Grin Low on the surface above the caves. 

A general view of flowstone

The cave system open to the public is much more extensive than those in Castleton and it also contains a fast flowing underground water course that forms part of the system that feeds the River Wye, and which is designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest

A general view 

By 11:30, our tour had finished and after having a quick look at the displays in the visitor centre, which had some interesting artefacts collected from the caves - which include a petrified rook's nest - we had a very leisurely lunch in the sunshine, before walking up to Solomon’s Temple.

Various artefacts and curiosities on display in the visitor centre

Friday, 17 May 2019

Selby Abby - Monuments & Memorials

A detail from the grave slab of Abbot John Barwic

In the interior of Selby Abbey, along both of the arcades and in the aisles, there are numerous monuments and memorials, including various large sarcophagi and grave slabs,  which are extremely variable in their condition and state of preservation. 

The tomb of Lord John D'Arcy

Against the west wall of the north aisle, the largest of these is the largest sarcophagus, which commemorates Lord John D’Arcy, who died in 1411. Carved out of alabaster, the panelled chest depicts angels holding shields, with the eroded remains of a mutilated torso lying on the top. 

The tomb of a crusader

Further along the arcade, two large dolomitic limestone tombs of a C13/C14 crusader and a smaller than life size representation of Margaret de Pickford, with her head surrounded with a crocketted canopy and further decoration of four shields. 

The tomb of Margaret de Pickford

Others monuments of note in the south arcade, depicting former abbots, are those of John Shireburn (1368-1407), which comprises various remaining alabaster fragments pieced together, and dolomitic limestone slabs of Lawrence Selby (1486-1504) and John Barwic (1522-6), with the latter being in far the best condition. 

The tomb of Abbot John Barwic

Along the wall of the north aisle, there are various monuments of a much later date, including neoclassical designs, which are mainly constructed in white and dark grey marble but the most interesting is that of Richard Spencer of Leeds d.1690, with its coat of arms and a skull and crossbones over it. 

A memorial to Richard Spencer of Leeds

In the south aisle, I particularly liked the large lump of coal that was taken from the Wistow Mine on the Selby Coalfield, which produced 121 million tonnes of coal between 1983 and 2004 before geological conditions and the low price of coal forced it to close.

Coal from Wistow Mine

Thursday, 16 May 2019

Selby Abbey - The Interior

A distorted Norman arch in the north arcade of Selby Abbey

When analysing the various architectural styles on the exterior of Selby Abbey, I was very dependent on my old copy of the Buildings of England – Yorkshire West Riding, by Nikolaus Pevsner and, for the interior, it is also essential.

A view of the south arcade from the west door

During my visit, I just photographed the principal structural elements, or features that caught my eye, and did not systematically record the complex details, which I have since discovered are a lot more varied than I noticed at the time. 

A view of the  north arcade from the west door

Although my investigation of mediaeval churches to date has provided me with a good introduction to various architectural styles - from the Romanesque to the English Perpendicular Gothic – when reading Pevsner’s description, as well as the very detailed account of Selby Abbey by the Corpus of Romanesque Sculpture , I have to admit feeling a little bit out of my depth. 

A view of the south arcade from the crossing

Entering by the west door, both of the 8 bay arcades to the nave are seen to be round arched but, looking at the columns and their details, their form changes from what the official guide describes as 13th century to an obviously Norman style, with simple circular columns, chevrons and a single incised diamond design that is named after Abbot Hugh – based on those used at Durham Cathedral, which was built c.1110. 

Norman arches with chevron detail in the north arcade

At another time, I will come back to take a much closer look at the various architectural elements and sculptural details but, being more comfortable as a geologist and building stone specialist than an archaeologist, the highlight for me was to see the distorted arches to the arcades and the triforiums above them. 

Distorted arches in the north arcade and triforium

A consequence of the abbey being built on unconsolidated Quaternary sand and clay, is that the foundations of the crossing tower have proved to be completely inadequate – with the tower partially collapsing in 1690 and further concerns raised about its stability in the late 19th century. 

A distorted arch to the south arcade

Wandering around the rest of the interior, I didn’t take much note of the architectural features of the transepts and, after having a long conversation with one of the guides, I only had enough time to look very quickly at the stonework of the choir, the chancel and its aisles. 

A detail of stonework in the choir

Before John Oldrid Scott restored substantial parts of its exterior, his better known father – Sir George Gilbert Scott – had been responsible for restoring the choir and, probably, the various statues/figurative sculptures seen here are his work. 

A carved detail in the choir

Interesting for me is that some of the ‘primitive’ stone carvings, which they stand above, are to me noticeably slightly red in colour. As, in my examination of the photographs that I have taken of the masonry to the C13 gable on the west front, I assumed that this would be due to the great fire of 1906 – with my thoughts confirmed when I saw the stonework in the east end of the chancel.

Ornate stonework in the chancel reddened by the great fire of 1906

Monday, 13 May 2019

Selby Abbey – The 15th Century Onward

A modern grotesque at Selby Abbey

Based on Pevsner’s analysis of the various changes in tracery at Selby Abbey, particularly the chancel and its aisles, the bulk of the construction had been completed by the end of the Decorated Gothic period, which ended c.1350-1380. 

A Perpendicular Gothic window in the north transept

The following Perpendicular Gothic period is generally recognised by its large windows, with horizontal transoms, mullions and rectilinear tracery patterns, which are further emphasised by the use of castellated parapets and crocketted finials

The Perpendicular Gothic window on the west front

During this period at Selby Abbey, work was restricted to the insertion of the very large windows on the west front and the north side, with the last addition being the Lathom Chapel in 1465. 

A large Perpendicular Gothic window in the Lathom Chapel

Although I have not seen references to their building, various drawings, paintings and photos up to the time of the great fire in 1906 show large finials to the height of the gable on the west front, and others on the transept and the chancel, which are presumably 15th century in date. 

The parapet and towers added to the west front by John Oldrid Scott

The final shape of the abbey, as it is seen today, is the result of the work by John Oldrid Scott after the great fire, which includes the raising of the crossing tower in 1908, the rebuilding of the south transept in 1912 and the remodelling of the west front and its towers in 1935. 

The south transept

Having spent considerable time closely examining the very many photographs that I took of its exterior, the stone used for all phases of major construction work – from the 12th to the early 20th century - appears to be the same kind of dolomitic limestone, except perhaps for the upper stage of the tower, which is noticeably different in colour from the masonry below it. 

The crossing tower

The blocks are all quite massive, mainly pale cream to yellow in colour and often with differential weathering that gives them a striped appearance, similar to that seen in some of the masonry to St. Laurence’s church in Adwick le Street. When on site or back at home, I have not seen anything that would dissuade me from my opinion that Selby Abbey has essentially been built from a stone that has been quarried from the Cadeby Formation

Old and new masonry on the north transept

Although of academic interest, especially since the purported quarry source at Monk Fryston has been infilled and redeveloped with a housing estate, as a building stone specialist, I would like to explore the geology and historic buildings of this area – to satisfy my professional curiosity. 

Restored and unrestored capitals on a window to the south chancel aisle

The recent restoration history of Selby Abbey can be quite clearly seen in the essential repairs to sections of plain ashlar walling, various moulded details to arches, tracery and other architectural details – including some wonderful grotesques and headstops, including that of the current Archbishop of York and his predecessors. 

A headstop depicting the Archbishop of York

The stone used for the modern restoration is much more yellow in colour than the original masonry, and dolomitic limestone from the Highmoor Quarry near to Tadcaster was used for the work that won the Natural Stone Awards in 2010It also appears that certain repairs have been carried out recently, with the limestone being fresh and unweathered, but details are not known.

Various modern grotesques and stone carvings

Friday, 10 May 2019

Selby Abbey - The 13th & 14th Centuries

A general view of Selby Abbey

The Early English Gothic period of architecture runs approximately from 1180 to 1275, and is mainly distinguished from the Norman or Romanesque period that it follows, by the development of pointed arches, which are stronger and enable thinner walls, and the use of lancet windows. 

A view of the west front of Selby Abbey

At Selby Abbey, the west front provides an example of this style, which is described as mature Early English by Pevsner, with its various lancet windows, dog tooth decoration and sunk trefoil windows set into the blank arches - including the five stepped lancets to the central gable.

A general view of the porch on the north elevation

On the north elevation, the porch was built not long after the Norman west front, and shows both a round headed arch and a frieze with pointed arches to the blank arcade, along with moulded capitals to the shafts. Although the gate was locked and I couldn't take a good photo, it has a quadripartite rib vault, which is another characteristic of the Early English style. 

A view of the north elevation of the clerestory and the north aisle 

The north side to the clerestory has single lancet windows, which is repeated on the south, but the aisle windows, except for the single Norman west window, have late Geometrical tracery with quatrefoils that are assigned to the late 13th century and falls within the early part of the Decorated Gothic period – approximately 1280-1350. 

A general view of the north elevation of the chancel

Moving west beyond the transept to the chancel, the windows are still considered to be Late Geometrical, but the circled quatrefoil tracery, the mouldings to the window jambs and the associated half shafts and capitals are a lot more robust. Pevsner considers that these are probably earlier than those of the north aisle and I noted that they have been heavily restored

A general view of Selby Abbey from the north-east

To both sides of the chancel clerestory, and the east window, the window tracery changes from the rigid Geometrical form to a more experimental flowing variety that is considered to be representative of the later Decorated Gothic period. 

Tracery on the south elevation of the chancel

The south aisle of the chancel again reverts to a Geometrical style that appears intermediate to that of the north aisle and the clerestory, with the inclusion of reticulated tracery. I couldn't discover how long it took to build the chancel from start to finish, but the changes that take place in the tracery provide the buildings archaeologist with a means to sequence the building works. 

The sacristy

Further changes in the style of tracery can be seen when following the south elevation westwards, with the two storied sacristy having cusped and stepped lancet lights to the ground floor and simple Decorated Gothic two-light windows above. 

A general view of the south elevation of the nave and south aisle

Finishing an anticlockwise walk around the abbey, to look at its various styles of windows and tracery from the 13th and 14th centuries, the south aisle of the nave possesses yet another variation. This time, an early Decorated Gothic style of a similar age to the north aisle are composed of three cusped lights, with a pointed cinquefoil above.

A general view of Selby Abbey