Saturday, 30 January 2016

St Mary and St Gabriel, Harting

Ancient churches rarely have their original roofs. Being at the top of the building, roofs are particularly vulnerable to rot, fire and over-zealous restorers.
Harting church lost its roof in a devastating fire of 1576, but luckily for us its replacement is a tour de force of Elizabethan carpentry.
The church itself was probably originally built just before the Norman conquest, as shown by the tall, thin walls of the nave. In the 14th century a central tower, transepts and aisles were added.
The fire destroyed the roofs and led to severe structural problems with the tower. To shore it up, supporting arches were inserted under the original arches of the crossing, and the first bay of the nave arcade was replaced with smaller, stronger arches.
The roofs of the transepts and aisles are simple and would not look out of place in a tithe barn of the period. The main element of the nave roof is a line of tie beams on which sit crown posts that help support the apex of the roof.
So far, so plain. In the chancel, however, the carpenters really let rip. The tie beams are supported on brackets with massive curved braces. Above, delicate turned struts like balusters hold up a second, lighter tie beam. Carved pendents and corbels create a rich effect.
If the other roofs are barn-like, this is ornate enough for a grand country house, perhaps the seat of the Cowper-Coles family whose tomb dominates the south transept. There they are in their heavy brocades, firs and stiff ruffs, looking thoroughly uncomfortable as they wait for the judgment day.