Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Norfolk's round church towers

click photo to enlarge
The eastern counties of England include the lands of the round tower churches. There are about 180 such buildings in Britain, with more than two thirds of these in Norfolk. To anyone who has never ventured into this part of England, and is therefore used to square cornered towers, they come as something of a surprise - decidedly odd. The question of why these towers were built, and when, has long vexed architectural historians, and continues to do so to this day.

Let's consider the question of "why" first of all. It is suggested that the absence of good building stone for constructing corners and quoins forced the shape on those who constructed them. This is not a persuasive argument. The plentiful flint can and has been used to build square towers, and the carstone of west Norfolk, where round towers were built, could easily have been turned to this purpose there and elsewhere, and would have made construction much easier. Then there is the belief that they were built as watch-towers or with defensive purposes in mind. Again, more easily built square towers would have served just as well. Probably the strongest arguments for the shape is stylistic: round towers exist in a few countries bordering the North Sea, and migrations may have distributed people with a knowledge of, and a liking for this particular style into these areas of eastern of England.

The "when" of round towers has changed over the years. It was originally thought that all of them were of Saxon origin, pre-dating the Conquest. Their lack of ornament, apparent simplicity of style and the widespread use of round-headed arches in their windows and bell-openings were the principal reasons for this school of thought. Today the consensus is that a minority date from Saxon times, but most are Norman i.e. built during the late eleventh and twelfth centuries, and so the term Romanesque is the only architectural style name that embraces them all.

Many of the round towers are topped with nothing other than a lip of stone. Others have castellation in brick, stones or ashlar. Where this is found it sometimes accompanies an octagonal stage, and is always a later embellishment, often Victorian. A few have a small spire, such as that at Titchwell, and these go quite well on top of towers that are essentially tapered cylinders. I took this photograph during a cycle ride that included my second visit to the church and tried to place the building in the context of its churchyard that April was bringing back to life.

photograph & text (c) T.Boughen

Camera: Olympus E510
Mode: Aperture Priority
Focal Length: 11mm (22mm/35mm equiv.)
F No: f6.3
Shutter Speed: 1/320
ISO: 100
Exposure Compensation: -0.3 EV
Image Stabilisation: On