Centuries of Gothic – A History of St Andrew’s, Girton

With thanks to Charles Stone (July 2012), this is an extended written history of the church. John Robson’s History of St Andrew’s Church Girton can be found here.

As the Cambridge road bisecting the village of Girton meanders leftward toward its estuarial union with High street, a path on the far corner extends subtly into the mouth of one of Cambridgeshire’s oldest churches: St. Andrew’s. Dating back to the Saxon times, the St. Andrew’s Church has served as Girton’s spiritual home for nearly one thousand years. Indeed, a Saxon altar stone that was found in the St. Andrew’s churchyard in 1951 now functions as a side altar on the nave’s southeastern interior, a quiet reminder of the church’s storied and lengthy past.

The desire to write a rudimentary architectural analysis of St. Andrew’s stems from my familial relations with the church, ties which remain salient despite my areligious upbringing in a foreign country and culture. As one of two St. Andrew’s churchwardens, my uncle oversees and partakes in many of the church’s religious and administrative processions. And, after attending my first church service there just a couple of weeks ago (at the tender or old age of twenty, depending on how you see it), the flurry of ex post social interactions that ensued underscored my aunt’s close involvement in the church community. Etched in faded tombstones in the graveyard facing the church’s north wall are the names of my paternal grandmother and grandfather.

In true traditional, English church fashion, they are in ample company, surrounded by a sea of headstones of varying shapes, colours and sizes that rest amidst the frayed grass and thick shrubbery that border the burial grounds.

Under a curtain of dense tree lining, some of the church’s most prominent headstones greet the visitor on the stroll up the path towards its entrance. Among these emboldened fonts, sharp spires and detailed statuettes lies the modest burial stone of Cambridge University alumnus Charles Darwin’s daughter-in-law, just to the right of the path, though because of its muted tone and proximity to the ground, you wouldn’t have known it had you not been informed by a regular churchgoer.

Midway up the path, the church appears in unobscured view. Basking in the afternoon glow on the west end is a small porch building and gaping archway entrance, dwarfed by a clock tower on its right shoulder about twice its height. Tattooed on the south face of this west tower are a centered blue clock and a tilted cross on the upper right corner, the latter an image that resurfaces just below the roof of the porch. A directional compass creaks above this miniature-castle, as if to guide lost visitors toward Girton’s pious epicenter.

Along the length of the protruding south wall, the church’s west end and nave comprise of two distinct levels, encasing the south aisle and the majority of the building in a square fashion. As if to reach a compromise, the south wall of the retracted east end stands at an intermediate height between the nave’s south aisle and clerestory wall. From an exterior vantage point facing the south wall, the east end boasts of taller windows than the rest of the nave, and sits in a cool shade created by the body to its left and the lush foliage to its right.

Every visible roof edge of the south end is adorned with alternating carvings of crenels and merlons – often referred to as crenellated parapets or embattlement moldings – allowing the figurative archer to fire his bow and arrow through the rectangular slits. The faces along the south wall, particularly on the west tower, look to be assembled with an improvised system of densely packed pebbles and limestone, which John Robson, author of the informative booklet A history of St. Andrew’s church, Girton (1996) describes as a “distinct herringbone pattern of pebble courses” dating back to the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries.

The porch functions as the main entrance and provides access to the church through a widened, almost triangular arch opening with a basic profile and design. Chiseled overhead is an arch-shaped projection, similar in size and dimension to a small string course, which is secured on either side at mid-height with circular springers. Tucked in a tiny niche that sits above the arch is a sculpture of Saint Andrew, who has presided over the church entrance since 1926.2 Under the porch roof’s crenellated parapets and slanted cross symbol, a modest window divided by a pair of mullions into three narrow glass panels allows light into the dark porch hallway.

Simple trefoil cusping, along with slender, rectangular plate tracery and narrow carvings that resemble wayward wisdom teeth, provide clues that the window and the porch were constructed in the late “Perpendicular” gothic period, one characterized by a greater emphasis on vertical lines and elegance through aesthetic simplicity. Robson explains that the church porch’s construction in about 1400 was indicative of the village’s recovery from the pervasive Black Plague that marred the area in the mid- to late 14th century. Girton could finally enjoy a secular and social space in this porch in which to conduct various affairs such as business and marriage, near to the homes of the village’s inhabitants.

Down a few steps into the porch and the visitor faces an equilateral arched doorway, this time etched with a set of five or six discrete archivolts. Constructed in Barnack stone, its elaborate design dates back to the early Decorated Gothic period circa 1300. Modern, wooden and glass doors hinge crisply outward and receive the visitor into the southwest portion of the nave. On a sunny day, which I gather is a bit of a rarity in England (even during the summer), the concept of “light” immediately springs to mind to describe the church’s interior.

The nave’s surrounding walls, from the west end to the north and south aisles and through into the presbytery on the east end, are smothered in white and reflect the sunlight pouring in from the lofty aisle and clerestory windows. Thick piers and tall, tan arches provide a helpful intermediary to the dark chocolate hues of the ceiling vault, organ and pews. In addition to covering the north and south aisle floors, blue carpeting runs from the west wall along the central aisle, adjoining the nave to the east end. Five equilateral, pointed arches on either side of the nave anchor the clerestory to the arcade and stone floor below. The upper level is roughly half the height of the lower level; a gallery or triforium would be neither practical nor necessary in such a limited space. The arch profiles consistently display of four layers of archivolts, and the outer etchings of each arch merge on their bottom ends to form rectangular support shafts that stream down the fronts of the piers. At roughly eleven feet from floor to peak, the arch elevation allows ample direct light emanating from the aisle windows to flood into the nave. Candles dangle from above and in front of each arch as a further luminescent reinforcement in the arcade.

Twelve piers form the skeletal foundation of the nave, and their prominence lies not in any ornate decoration but rather in their thickness and size. Each pier displays a profile of rounded half-columns, of perhaps a foot in diameter, sandwiching a rectangular support shaft that forms at the adjoined arch ends and leads downward in unison. Capital decoration is limited to thin, circular protrusions wrapping around the rounded shafts, circular indentations of similar thickness above this to demarcate the base of the arch from the top of the pier shaft, and bold, wavy rings that complement the arch ridges. Craning the line of sight upward, four clerestory windows lay perched above blank spandrals and vacant, white wall space. Recessed about a foot and a half into the thick wall, they are encased by a bulky arch and wall frame that seems more angular than round. The gradual depression of the lower window ledge and the outward flaring of its sides amplify the light flowing into the nave. Vague shaping of the tops of the wall arches into flattened strips above the windows reveals the sole decorative features of the clerestory walls. The windows are plainly transparent and contain hood-moulding and trefoil cusping that “[terminate] with carved heads;” their narrow shape and design date back to the Perpendicular gothic period.

These initial details – the simple arch and pier profiles, the thickness of the piers and the depths of the clerestory walls – suggest that various fundamental components of the St. Andrew’s Church were built during or up to the early Gothic period, from 1150-1250.

The last major structural changes to St. Andrew’s occurred over 500 years ago, making the church an even more compelling trove of architectural clues. Most visual ingredients found in its interior appear symmetrical at first glance – the number and styles of the windows facing each other on the north and south clerestories and aisles, the simple capital engravings on each of the piers, the widths of the north and south aisles in relation to the width of the nave (about a 1:3:1 ratio) – but there exist some quite subtle mismatches. For example, the south aisle west window, tucked in the back corner behind some straw baskets, consists of two quintessential lancet arch windows separated by a mullion, reminiscent of the early Gothic period. Its opposite window, on the west end of the north aisle, displays clear ogee arching and whose design likely came anything from 20 to 70 years afterwards, during the Decorative middle Gothic period. The subtle but distinguishable arch inflexion
between these two windows tells of an entire generation of development in gothic
architectural design.

A wooden, triangular roof hangs discreetly over the nave and east and west ends, supported by multiple transverse beams running across the width of the clerestory. The roof’s noteworthy aspects include lavish, carved bosses resembling thick roses that dot the ridge beam of the roof, and vertical responds displaying subdued square carvings that fasten the wooden beam system to the adjacent stone walls. The roofs over the north and south aisles are far narrower and lack attention and decoration, supported instead by curvy and seemingly tenuous longitudinal beams. Up to at least the end of the late Perpendicular gothic period, St. Andrew’s was encased by a thatched, pitched roof, but judging by the relatively youthful quality of the wood overhead, my guess is that it was last reconstructed in the late nineteenth or twentieth century.

The windows along the north and south aisles date back to the late Perpendicular Gothic period. Wide arches hug the cinqefoil cusps of the thin windows below. There is a clear visual emphasis on repetitions of the vertical and narrow, evoked in particular by prominent mullions dividing the windowpanes into thirds. The deep, interior recessions enclosing each aisle window reveal that they were probably re-installed at a later date after they were first built. The first windows were probably in the Early Gothic style, with very little (if any) tracery and basic lancet profiles; judging by their current features they were probably replaced in the late fourteenth or early fifteenth century.

All but a couple of aisle windows are blanketed by a transparent and plain checkerboard design. The middle window of the south wall contains a small, upper square of stained glass, and the window on the eastern face of the south aisle boasts of a unique pattern of biblical symbols enshrouded in yellow circles connected by a web of black lines, the nucleus of which is an ovular, stained image. These are most likely further examples of re-laid windows, designed and executed long after its predecessors were built.

The transverse arches exposing the nave to the east and west ends of the church are, predictably, among the finest in the church. At the west end, spanning five meters across and seven meters tall, the arch profile consists of seven alternating thin and thick rchivolts that on the outer ends continue down to the ground. Pier profiles similar to those that line the nave are thicker, with forceful rectangular buffers as part of the outer pairs of archivolts cushioning its interior cylindrical shafts. Embellished with the same system of circular, string capitals below round indentations, themselves below more prominent, wavy rings, this arch plays the important role of holding the west tower in place.

A small step up from the nave to the west end pews marks a slightly raised base to the tower, a palpable clue that this area of the church was built after its other integral areas like the nave and east end. The west end window is comparatively narrower and displays thicker surrounding wall recesses than its east end counterpart, but its design is undeniably Decorated Gothic. Elaborate plate tracery, with two diminutive trefoils bordering a shape that looks like two stretched, capital “D” letters with their rounded sides kissing one another, sits atop a central ogee arch. Stained glass fills the entire upper quarter of the window. The lower three-quarters are divided by a pair of mullions into three window panels, adorned with minor but distinct variations to the trefoil cusping scheme.

The reparations made around the wall arch, along with the thickness of the recession, seem to imply that the initial west end window was not the same one as we see today and was replaced during a later Gothic period, perhaps when the West tower was built to extend the size of the church. Because of its decorative design, its quasicurvilinear ogee arch and its elongated columns, I date this window to the early 14th century, just before the transition into Perpendicular gothic that lasts from roughly 1350-1550.

A royal coat of arms crowns the chancel above the east end archway, indicating that the parish benefice “was not from a local patron, but from the Lord Chancellor in London.” Identical pier design and profiles to those found in the nave flank an unusually round arch and a barely distinguishable pointed tip. Measuring five and a half meters from apex to floor, Robson describes the arch as visibly lower than its west end counterpart.

The major attraction of the slightly raised east end is its magnificent window, which contains five lights horizontally divided into an upper and lower half by a transom. Its arch is widened to a large degree and an emboldened, string course-like bordering protruding from the wall lines the arch shape. Each tall, slim light is capped with gentle cinqefoil cusping and flaunts biblical figures and stories about which I confess to know very little. The window, shorter at its lower end than the length of its wall recess, is a quite remarkable piece of art fashioned in the Perpendicular style. If it was installed during the era of its design (and not during a gothic revival period or a later refurbishment of the church), I would guess that it dates to about 1450, the height of the Perpendicular gothic phase.

I have learned that much of the church’s stone interior is composed of Cambridgeshire clunch, encompassing a wide variety of local materials of stone and chalk that is malleable, convenient and practical for building. In describing the nave arcade, Robson puts it succinctly: “All the stonework is clunch.” The only major material variation in constructing the walls of the church interior is the use of Barnack stone, limestone from the village of Barnack first exploited by the Romans over 1500 years ago,11 which can be located for one at the four clerestory windows on either side of the nave. Simple buttresses along the exterior southwest, south and southwest walls sculpted in rough stone support the church’s holy end, and its herringbone pattern of pebble courses provide a contrast in substance and style to the stonework in the interior.

I feel the need to comment, at this point, that I am under no illusions that this architectural analysis of Girton’s St. Andrew’s Church is by any means exhaustive. Conducting research online and with booklet in hand, finding few websites that usefully delineate the church’s history, I am both humbled and slightly overwhelmed with how much visual detail one can comb through in an attempt to shed light on its past. My attempts to date the numerous elements of the church may falter under more educated scrutiny, though inspecting and analyzing the details of the lesser known St. Andrew’s has been a rewarding exercise of inference and guesswork.

Mysteries to me still exist as to why and when certain niches were filled, doorways blocked and windows smothered, but such is the uncertainty that follows perhaps nearly one thousand years of existence, an unfathomable time span of historical trends, exogenous influences and variations on architectural styles. Terminating the fifth chapter of A history of St. Andrew’s church, Girton, a small but richly informative booklet which I encourage the reader to peruse, Robson writes: “Then in 1539 came the dissolution of the monasteries and the connection of over 500 years between Girton and the Abbey of Ramsey was severed.”12 Orders were made that all suggestive images, relics and monuments be removed from the church, marking the transition into the Reformation that ended the late gothic period. After developing some sort of intimacy with the St. Andrew’s Church, I am glad that it has persevered and thrived through a colourful and at times dark history, and that it continues to serve the people of Girton today.

Page last updated on Thursday 8th December 2022 by Michael Bigg