Saturday, 6 August 2011

St Mary the Virgin, Isle Abbotts

If ever there was a gem of a parish church, St Mary the Virgin in Isle Abbotts has a strong claim. Set in a small and relatively inaccessible village on the edge of the Somerset Levels, St Mary’s demonstrates the ability of an isolated rural community to furnish us with truly glorious architecture. Its tower is regarded as one of the finest in Somerset, but the interior is also full of fascinating details.

History

The existence of an earlier church is testified by the well-preserved and unusually decorated Norman font. The present church dates from around 1300, when the nave, chancel and the main structure of the south porch were built. The tower was built between 1510 and 1520, and the splendid north aisle and porch fan vault were also added in the 16th century, although the details of the squint imply an earlier north aisle on the same position. Both the aisle and the vaulting are associated with Lady Margaret Beaufort (1441-1509), mother of Henry VII.

Subsequent periods left the fabric relatively untouched, and Victorian repairs have been thankfully sensitive; although it has lost its original rood screen, the tower niches have retained their statuary. The roofs and bench ends have also survived from the mediaeval period.

The church

The tower faces Church Street and makes an immediate impact: although only 81ft high, the proportions and balance of its decoration are near-perfect. The tower is built of blue lias limestone, balanced by golden Ham stone for the decorative detail. The west side has a large, transomed four light window, with a transomed two-light window above, and twin transomed bell-openings above that, all flanked with pinnacles and niches. More pinnacles adorn the set-back buttresses, and the crown of traceried battlements.

The other sides are simpler, but still with niches and pinnacles, and above ground level the niches retain their original statues – a great rarity in a parish church. These include depictions of Christ steeping from his sarcophagus, St George mounted on his horse, St Clement of Rome and other saints. The crown is adorned with ‘hunky punks’ – Somerset gargoyles, crouching on their haunches. My favourite is that on the north west corner, a man playing a rare double-barrelled bagpipe. Also worth a look is the exterior of the north aisle, again with a traceried pinnacle parapet, with more hunky punks and traditional gargoyles.

Entry is via a lovely porch: the stoup has 14th century detailing, so the splendid fan vault was added later. On my visit, the central pendant provided a home to a nest of martins. Inside, the clear glass makes the most of the architecture, and particularly the beautiful north aisle, with its elegant late Perpendicular arcade, executed in honey-coloured stone, with its panelled Tudor roof.

A large, pillared squint from the north aisle gives a view into the chancel, through the surviving rood staircase – another great rarity. The font has a mixture of Norman motifs of birds and dragons with later motifs of heraldic shields with fleur-de-lis decoration (upside down, so it may have been reversed at some point).

The chancel retains its 14th century windows, with the East window of five stepped lights, the north and south of three stepped lancets with quatrefoils above. These contain fragments of mediaeval stained glass. Below, the large and elaborately panelled piscina is surely worthy of a cathedral, as are the elegantly flowing sedilia of three seats. To the left of the altar are the remains of a large, crude and ancient sarcophagus, found in the churchyard. In contrast, the mediaeval rood screen is rather simple, and may have been moved here from elsewhere in the church.

Finally, the nave has its original mediaeval bench ends, with simple but elegant tracery panel decoration, a Jacobean pulpit, and the original 14th century roof. The west (tower) arch is a suitably grand finish, rising two storeys in height, with a screen made from a Jacobean communion rail. The church is still used every week for services, albeit on a rather irregular pattern.

St Mary the Virgin, Church Street, Isle Abbotts, near Ilminster TA3 6RH

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