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Dedication : St Michael & All Angels         Simon Jenkins: Excluded                           Principal Features : A Galaxy of Norman Carvings within a Victorian neo-Norman church.

Barton-le-Street, about midway between York and Scarborough, is not a church you will find within most of the books on English churches. We only found out about it through one of those priceless little leaflets that many dioceses and local authorities produce to advertise their churches. Intriguingly, however, it is mentioned in “A Guide to Norman Sites on Britain” by Nigel and Mary Kerr, a book usually inside the glove compartment of our car.

The contradiction is easily explained. Barton-le-Street Church contains a treasure house of Norman sculpture, including some of the finest chancel arch capitals you will find anywhere in England, within a Norman church that was built around 1160 and totally rebuilt in 1871, albeit in the “Norman style”. Much Norman decoration remains, some of it quite fine, but much of it has been relocated, restored and/or re-cut so that it is sometimes hard to discern whether a given item is original. Much of it, however, is original and it is, to my mind, perverse to celebrate the preserved Saxon carvings within the much later structure of St Mary & St Hardulph Breeden-on-the-Hill in Leicesterhire  whilst overlooking the much more profuse Norman ones in Barton-le-Street.

The richly-carved north doorway was originally the south doorway. The gorgeous outer doorway of the north porch was originally the north door itself. Thus two Norman doorways have been moved and amalgamated into one entrance! The carvings are, in my view, very reminiscent of some of those at St Nicholas, Barfreston in Kent and St Mary the Vigin,  Iffley in Oxfordshire. Yes, it is confusing, but it is also magnificent.

Similarly, within the church are corbels, almost all original, that were originally on the outside of the church. Remarkably, much of it has a double row of carvings, the top one set beneath a series of small arches.  Whether the row set below it was originally contiguous with the top row, I don’t know. Just to confuse things further, the restorers have laid some of the top row in a horizontal plane that obviously was not their original aspect! Confusing, yes, but most of it clearly original and of the most interesting design. The arched corbels are more reminiscent of France than of England, which is a timely reminder that our Norman churches were generally founded by Normans! There are even original corbels mounted along the side walls of the porch. Inside the church we also see Norman friezes - some but not all original - adorning the walls. The Norman pillar piscina is one of the finest you will see anywhere.

Above the north door, within the porch, are finely decorated Norman panels. There are three complete figures as well as fragments of “Labours of the Months” carvings such as those which adorn the font at Brooklands Church in Kent. We can also see The Virgin Mary in bed and the Three Wise Men paying homage. Two of these eleven panels are known to have been either side of the original chancel arch but the others, remarkably, were found face inwards on the north and south walls of the original nave walls. Why?

There is too much to explain here, and there seems to be a considerable element of speculation even amongst the more authoritative sources. If you can divorce your appreciation of the Norman sculpture here from your frustration at its re-location then a visit to Barton-le-Street will be a rewarding one. The carving itself may not be of the first rank, but the richness of the imagery is. Let us also pay tribute to the restorer. A Victorian “reproduction” of a Norman church it might be, but it’s not at all bad and is a decent setting for its Norman treasures. And how easy it would have been to discard them all....

The north porch was originally the north doorway. The outer order of decoration is of various figures and grotesques. The two courses of chevron moulding in the centre appear to have been recut, whilst the inner one looks original, although

The north doorway itself. Above the door are the 11 sculpted panels. The re-located Norman corbel table can be seen to run along both sides of the porch. Around the doorway itself are two orders of decoration. The outer is of grotesque faces, most of them paired. The inner order voussoirs have a sort of sinuous, possibly foliage, design interspersed with small beasts. This particular jigsaw seems not to have been re-assembled quite right!

Close up of the voussoirs (stones forming arches) of the north doorway.

And some of the voussoirs of the outer doorway. There is a cornucopia of figures here, many of them quite hard to distinguish. Piecing together even the inner chevron moulding seems to have presented quite a challenge to the restorers. Note the “fruit” that has been inset into the underside of the chevrons.

Detail of some of the voussoirs of the outer order of decoration on the north doorway. There are many paired heads. We can also, however, see a finely-carved bull. To the right of him is a curious scebe that seems to show a crocodile-like head  devouring some sort of scaly fish or dragon

The left hand area of the 11 panels over the north door. In the rectangular panel Mary is lying in her bed whilst a pair of angels swing their censers above her head. At various places around this scene are scattered scenes from the “labours of the months” cycle. Well-preserved as they are, without a complete sequence they are difficult to make out. The bottom left hand figure may be threshing (with what looks rather like a sword!). The one above Mary could be either “planting” or, more likely, “pruning”.

The right hand area gives us the three wise men in he rectangular panel. Behind them are probably a couple of shepherds and one imagines that this panel must have originally been contiguous with the scene of Mary in her bed in the picture left. Another head from the Labours of the Month is above this scene.

The surviving complete figures from the Labours of the Months. On the left, I believe, is June - Hay Cutting. The others are difficult to make out. The central figure could be January - Feasting. The right hand figure is clear enough but it is still impossible to make out what it represents; possibly wheat harvesting - August.

The decoration on the outer door is where there is most evidence of recutting or complete re-design. Only the top stone and the lowest three on the east side seem to be indisputably original. To what extent the others have been completely replaced or re-cut is open to conjecture but if they are completely “new” then the sculptor had a fine appreciation of Romanesque art. On the other hand, perhaps some stones were damaged and the restorers simply copied them? We do know that the jamb shafts at the extreme left and right of the doorway are modern.

The Green man here looks very like a lion! It is difficult to believe, sadly, that this is not an entirely Victorian creation. The capital above is certainly original. On the right is an Agnus Dei - Lamb of God - and there are two angels to thr right.

This lute-playing angel is certainly not original.

Whereas we know that much of the porch doorway is not original, the north door itself, although it was moved from the south, is another story. Of these voussoirs, perhaps the best example is (top left) of Samson, hair streaming behind him, sitting astride the lion and killing it with with his bare hands. Below left we have a man sitting on a rather under-sized ass who has his nose in a bucket! it is not clear what he holds in his hand, but there is a likelihood that this carving has some connection with Jesus’s entry to Jerusalem on a donkey. Top right is a dog of some sort with a curious “Prince of Wales Feathers” attached to his torso! Bottom right someone - maybe Sagittarius? - is firing off a bow and arrow. I don’t think he would be able to aim for well in that posture! Note to the left of the archer a modern jamb pillar.

Looking east towards the chancel. The fine chancel arch is mainly modern, but the capitals are original and amongst the best of their kind.

The utterly magnificent - and mainly original - chancel arch capitals which are surely amongst the finest in England and deserve better recognition in the literature on parish churches. This is in fact a double arch so there are four capitals on each side. The human head - on the picture top left - is a c19 restoration. There is little to be said about these carvings and I haven’t tried to place the pictures in any particular order.  They are a superb product of the Norman imagination with heads, beasts and foliage in riotous profusion.

Below: part of the Norman string course that runs around the interior of this church.

The view to the west end. All of this structure is modern but the re-sited original corbels can clearly be seen under the ceiling on either side.

Barton-le-Street also boasts a magnificent and unusually complete Norman pillar piscina. There is a distinct difference in texture between the bowl and the pillar which makes me wonder whether the bowl has been re-cut. The base, of course, is modern. The pillar itself seems completely original. The pattern seems to be of intertwined tendrils, or possibly serpents.

The corbel table within the modern church has been moved from the outside of the original church. In the top two pictures the unusual “arched” setting is visible. Below the arched corbels there is another course that I assume were separate before the relocation. The corbels themselves are in fact extremely crude and not very interesting - compare these with those at Kilpeck or Iffley. Note also that the restorers seem to have put some of the corbels into the arches horizontally (see picture lower left). It seems strange that such crudeness co-existed with the superb chancel arch capitals. However, this is one of the fascinations of Barton-le-Street : fine work sits alongside what is gimcrack! I am not the staunchest of defenders of Victorian “improvements” to churches but it is worth comparing the originals with the elaborate and finely-carved modern corbels on the outside of the church (lower right) which also have all the whimsy and some of the subject matter of Norman corbels.

The church from the south aspect/

Barton-le-Street is a “living church”, serving the needs of the local population as it has done for over 1000 years. To see the activities of this and other churches in the “Street” group please visit their website at : To go straight to the Barton-le-Street section see

Note that I will be covering Hovingham Church, another fascinating church within the Street group shortly.