Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Crude but effective

click photo to enlarge
In my very first paid job I worked with a man who often described makeshift engineering work as "crude but effective". It's his phrase that always comes to mind when I gaze upon the nave roof timbers of the church of St Mary at Swineshead, Lincolnshire. The roofs of English medieval churches are well known for their structural timbers. Often these are ingenious, functional, elaborate, inventive and ornate. The angel roofs of St Wendreda at March, Cambridgeshire, and All Hallows, Dean in Bedfordshire, both exemplify the latter quality in particular. Victorian timber roofs are often well made too, and the work that the restorers of the nineteenth century did on older roofs is frequently very sensitive, retaining the essentials of the medieval carpenter's craft whilst replacing wood that has succumbed to death watch beetle and rot, and adding metal bracing as required.

However, sometimes I gaze upon a medieval timber roof that is severely functional and think that it has many of the qualities that might be seen in a great barn of the same age. Ornate has been eschewed in favour of utility giving a rustic feel to the whole enterprise. The roof of Swineshead church has some of those qualities. It perhaps comes from the use of timbers that retain something of the shape of the original tree trunk or limb. These irregularly shaped pieces catch the eye and suggest that either thrift or a "good enough" spirit underpinned the making of the roof. The roof was restored by Wilfred Bond in 1925.

At Swineshead the roof retains its original, steeply pitched, form (see photograph in yesterday's post). So many English church roofs were lowered to a very shallow pitch in the fifteenth century, to be hidden behind parapets, often invisible from ground level. This was done to stop the downward creep of the lead covering that became the favoured roof finish; unsurprising really in the country that was Europe's premier producer of lead. All of which makes me wonder just what is the age of the main timbers in the nave roof? Pevsner notes that the north aisle has a fifteenth century roof: are parts of the main roof earlier still?

photographs and text (c) T. Boughen

Photo 1
Camera: Canon
Mode: Aperture Priority
Focal Length: 17mm
F No: f8
Shutter Speed: 1/20
ISO: 1600
Exposure Compensation:  -1.0 EV
Image Stabilisation: On