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Fifty English Steeples

Posted on 17 Feb 2017

The founder of architectural practice Flannery & de la Pole, author Julian Flannery has always been fascinated by historic buildings. His architect’s training affords him special insight, and in addition to English medieval parish churches, he has made a close study of Hampton Court Palace and was involved in its restoration in 1986. His book 'Fifty English Steeples' is testament to a lifelong passion: here he talks about the lure of architectural drawing, Victorian restorations and the beauty of the medieval landscape

Somerset, Northamptonshire and Lincolnshire dominate the history of the English steeple: situated on the Great Limestone Belt, these counties had access to the best building materials. [Credit: Julian Flannery]

Why dedicate a book to steeples?

They tend to dominate the landscape but people rather take them for granted and there has not been a systematic study for a long time. Nobody’s actually looked at the subject as a whole, which is what I’ve attempted to do here: I’ve taken this one element in isolation and mapped out its history across 500 years.

Most parish churches are an accumulation of developments over long periods of history – there are very few which are built in one period – but the towers were frequently built completely separately from the body of the church and so I don’t think it’s wrong to look at them in isolation. By doing that it allows you to compare the development of the steeple across the country and by surveying them and producing drawings as I’ve done, it allows an easy comparison of one with another.

You’re an architect, not a historian: how has that affected your approach?

I understand the process of building and the way buildings are structured, the correspondence between interiors and exteriors, while art historians are trained to look for stylistic clues and so on. I love architectural drawing – that’s really what started me on the book – and it’s only by measuring and drawing these things that constructional issues become apparent. You can’t understand things like that really just by walking around and taking photographs and so on. When you spend a couple of days crawling over these churches you really understand how they were built. To me understanding construction is really important to understanding the aesthetics. A good example of that is the development of the broach spire. It is often approached as an aesthetic device but actually it is constructional; as the masons improved the technology the height of the broaches around the base of the spires reduced, eventually disappearing completely behind a parapet.

This was the Age of the Mason: how much do we know about individual craftsmen?

Not much to begin with although some of the masons on the major cathedrals are known by name, but in the later medieval period there are records of complete families of masons, connecting churches in particular regions or sometimes at quite considerable distances from each other. In the book I’ve summarised the accounts for the building of the spire at Louth and you start to get a feel for how they worked. I don’t think we know much about the individuals as characters – that comes later with architects from Wren onwards. A lot of the more minor steeples which are still well worthy of inclusion in the book would have been by local masons who we don’t know the names of.

Leigh-on-Mendip, Somerset, section looking east (detail): Flannery’s detailed drawings reflect not only his love of architectural drawing, but his understanding of construction. [Credit: Julian Flannery]

In your introduction you say that England was never more beautiful than in the early years of the 16th century – an observation tinged with regret?

Yes I suppose it is. The whole history comes to an abrupt halt with the Reformation because church building just more or less stopped overnight. So you get these fantastic constructions at Boston and Louth at the end of the period which are quite radical in the way they are constructed. They hint that if it weren’t for that break in churchbuilding there might have been more, equally magnificent structures, particularly in the cities which were becoming larger. By the time churchbuilding restarted everything had moved on to the classical style.

Has time been kind?

To most of them. Partly because the ones that I have featured tend to be on the Great Limestone Belt so the materials were brilliant – particularly in Lincolnshire and Northamptonshire. St Michael, Coventry and Ludlow, in the red sandstone area, have both been completely refaced so what we see now relies on the fact that the Victorians copied the existing detail. Today they are obviously protected and well looked after, but I do worry that the interiors aren’t given as much protection as the exteriors, perhaps because people think of them as less important.

Florence Hallett

Fifty English Steeples

The Finest Medieval Parish Church Towers and Spires in England Julian Flannery
£50.00