Church Towers: Signposts in the landscape

Travel down any road in England and it won't be long before a church tower or spire come into view.  Great structures that house bells and have for centuries, acted as unofficial signposts for travellers have also been at the centre of local prestige and pride.  Tim Bridges, historian, writer and guide encourages us to take a closer look.



Tim Bridges

We are drawn towards many churches because they have towers and spires which dominate the landscape.  They are key to much interest, and a closer look at them, along with the rest of the church, will reveal a huge variety of ages, styles and shapes


Tower Positions

Take note of the position of the tower on the church.  Most, like Leigh, are situated at the west end.  Several, like Beckford, are centrally situated, especially when the church is of cruciform shape.  On occasions, the tower is positioned on another part of the church.  At St. Mary Kidderminster the tower is on the south-west corner, presumably because the steep slope to the west of the church made construction of a west tower difficult. In Herefordshire the church at Canon Pyon the tower is on the south side and also serves as the porch.  At Stoke Prior the tower is towards the east end, in the position of a transept.


Tower Functions - signposts, lanterns, strongholds and communicators

A tower or spire indicates the location of a church and many of them appear to have been built in the later middle-ages to the glory of God as a result of fundraising by the community or individual donations.  The addition of a tower or spire was impressive but also a very costly exercise.  Whilst most towers contain bells which often still provide direct and very audible communication between church and parish, tower have many functions.  Some were built as lanterns to allow light into the body of the church, whereas others maintained a light to provide direction for night-time travel.  In many cases Saxon or Norman towers were also built as accommodation and refuge in times of unrest.  Indeed there is evidence for bells in some ninth century towers, in many smaller early church the bell appears to have been hung in the west gable of the nave as in Warndon.  Often the evidence of this can be seen in a small window-like opening high in the west wall such as in Moccas in Herefordshire.


Age, Architecture, Materials and Style

Indeed the oldest church towers in the area are Anglo-Saxon.  Look out for the roundheaded arches and long and short stones as at Deerhurst (G) and Wootton Wawen (W) both in the pre Reformation Diocese of Worcester.  After the Norman Conquest numerous towers were built onto churches, many survive.  These were often massive like towers on contemporary castles, and the absence of a west doorway may indicate a defensive structure.  Examples of Norman towers included Fladbury and Harvington. Defence was probably the principal motive for the building of several detached stone towers on Herefordshire churches into the thirteenth century, and the towers of Bosbury, Ledbury, Richard's Casltel and Homer are well worth seeing.  By this time the style of building was Early English Gothic with pointed lancet windows, which can be seen at Madley (H) and Stoke Prior.  Elegant towers were sometimes adorned with spires in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries especially in areas which were becoming wealthy with the wool and cloth trade.