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The emblem of St James on the lych gate at Avebury

A scallop shell (the emblem of St James, the patron saint of pilgrims) carved in the middle of the nineteenth century lych gate at the main entrance to the church of St James, Avebury.

 

The significance of skew passages

Most people will be familiar with a famous children's story which involves a whole world discovered by parting the fur coats in the back of a wardrobe. Well something similar happened when an expert on church buildings pulled back a curtain inside Avebury church.


The Curtain.


Frankly, given all the other 'attractions' in St James – Anglo-Saxon windows and sculpture fragments, a wonderful twelfth century font and Romanesque doorway, a restored pre-Reformation rood screen, medieval floor tiles, and much else then frankly the curtain at the eastern end of the north aisle would easily be overlooked.

Even those curious enough to pull back the curtain would see that it is hiding a 'bunging space' for stackable chairs and the like. Only the more astute would try to look past the chairs, or try to work out how old the doorway was. Only an expert would see that this is not a normal feature of parish churches. Looking past the stacks of chairs reveals a view of the altar and reredos at the east end of the chancel – the 'bunging space' is at an angle to the rest of the church.


Behind the curtain at the east end of the north aisle. To the right of the photogaph are the stairs to the former rood loft.

 

Looking back from the chancel. Choir stalls are late nineteenth century innovations so would not have been present when the doorway was built.


The doorway looks fifteenth century. This is something that was intentionally added before the Reformation. Walking to the north side of the church and looking at this feature from the outside reveals that it looks rather like a 'lean-to' addition. Though, as it has survived for well over five hundred years, it clearly was built rather more solidly than most lean-to's!


The piscina in the north aisle. The bottom of the gate to the rood loft stairs (see above) is just visible to the left of this photograph.


Why go to all the trouble? There is one well-attested reason and one plausible reason. I'll deal with the well-known reason first and come back to the plausible one towards the end of this article. Before the Reformation there would have been an altar at the eastern end of the north aisle as well as in the chancel. The evidence for this still survives – a small piscina set into the wall behind the pulpit. This would have been used to rinse the vessels used in the Mass, with the water draining away into the rubble core of the wall.

This second altar meant more than one priest could celebrate Mass at the same time. Part of the liturgical 'niceties' is that both priests should elevate the Host at the same time. But all that is needed to do this is a much smaller aperture. Indeed between the south aisle and the chancel at Avebury is just such an angled 'aperture'. They are known to architectural historians as 'squints' and are relatively common.


The squint in the south aisle of Avebury church.


But 'walk-through squints' – which is the best way of describing the structure leading from the north aisle at Avebury – are not at all common. Indeed this was the first one I had knowingly encountered. The English Heritage listing for Avebury church simply refers to there being two squints, so there was no obvious way to search for other examples of walk-through squints.

Tracking down more

I let the matter rest, wondering how I might track down other examples of walk-through squints. Then, shortly before Christmas 2014, my partner fancied a day out. The weather was sunny and mild, and I'd just been reading about an early Anglo-Saxon church – known at the time as a 'minster – just to the west of Malmesbury at a place called Foxley. There's nothing to see of the Anglo-Saxon site now but there had been a dig in 1985. Seemingly it was the focus for early Christianity in the area before St Aldhelm founded what was to become the abbey at Malmesbury, five miles to the east, soon after AD 675. Once the Malmesbury church was founded then Foxley faded away quite rapidly.


Foxley in mid-December 2014 – no suggestion of the early minster.


Although Foxley would still have been a minster when Avebury was founded, all of this has got nothing to do with squints. However a trip out requires a lunch break and the pub at Sherston seemed the best option. But notions of piety required a look inside the church there before we went off for ale and wine. Sherston is a splendid edifice, complete with central tower and transepts. I walked from the nave into the chancel and then turned to go towards the north transept. Only after I'd got to the transept did I do a double-take. I'd just walked through a rather impressive 'walk-through squint'. It's roughly the same date as Avebury, but bigger and wider. It's even got a mullioned window facing out the north-east. No curtains or stacks of chairs here!


Sherston passage squint (on left) – looking eastwards from the north transcept.

 

Sherston passage squint (on right) – looking westwards from the chancel.


Now the plot thickens. I looked up the English Heritage listing for Sherston. Lo and behold, this feature is referred to as a 'walk-through squint'. Ah ha, that's the phrase I need to search the EH database to come up with other examples. No, doing that only brought up Sherston. But playing around with search terms revealed references to 'passage squints'. And searching for these brought forth a whole host. Pembrokeshire has the most – nine examples listed, all at seemingly quite minor places. If you really must know, they're at Cwm Gwaun, Jeffreyston, Llanstadwell, Martletwy, Rhoscrowther, Rosemarket, St Florence, Scleddau and Uzmaston. No, I hadn't heard of most of them either.

Subsequently I discovered the term 'skew passage' was also used to refer to the same feature. Relevant databases once again reveal that Wales has the most, with Pembrokeshire yielding an still-extant example at Gumfeston and a possible but since removed example at Crunwere. The other skew passages between side aisles and chancels in Wales are at Bosherston (Dyfed), Llangynin (Carmarthenshire) where there is evidence for two former skew passages from both north and south aisles, St Ishmael's (Carmarthenshire) and St Twynnells (Dyfed).

Gloucestershire has six passage squints: Beverston, Bledington, Colesbourne, North Cerney, Sevenhampton and Tormarton. Idbury almost counts too as, although situated in Oxfordshire it is little more than a stone's throw from the Gloucestershire border. Idbury is two miles to the south of Bledington. While there is no obvious reason why two churches with passage squints should be in such close proximity they do conform to the broadly north-south relationship of other examples in Gloucestershire.

Berkshire had one passage squint, at Stanford in the Vale, but this village became part of Oxfordshire in 1974. Further afield, Cornwall has two surviving examples at St Mawgan and Cury, while at Manaccan the squint was built as a passage but has since been partially blocked. At Pillaton, also in Cornwall, the squint may be large enough to walk through although online information is ambiguous. There are also single examples in Derbyshire, Monmouthshire and Norfolk.

The English Heritage listings are inconsistently written. Presumably some listing inspectors called all squints just that, while others distinguished 'passage squints' from 'ordinary' squints while in Wales the term 'skew passage' was also used. Whoever listed Sherston seemingly did not know the term 'passage squint' and used the term 'walk-through squint'. Quite plausibly the apparent profusion in Pembrokeshire and Gloucestershire is simply a result of the relevant EH inspectors being a little more knowledgeable of the nomenclature. Using Google to track down other examples of these phrases produced some of the examples listed above but did not suggest there was a significant bias in the EH listings.

Why were they built?

Further work may clarify the distribution but for the moment the known examples are most revealing. However this is based around the more speculative reason for the passage squints. For reasons that are explored in other articles, (see St James' – from minster to mother church and St James dedications in Wiltshire) Avebury probably had relics of St James and was a local pilgrimage destination. It was at the junction of the London to Bath/Bristol road and north-south routes either along the Winterbourne valley or the Ridgeway. Pilgrims heading to various major shrines – including Reading and Canterbury – could have converged here. Presumably on the feast of St James, 25th July, the church could attract thousands of visitors, all of whom would want to touch or kiss the reliquary.

From contemporary reports of such feast days at Continental churches this could lead to a lot of pushing and shoving, if not worse. How to control the crowds? Well although direct evidence is lacking, there seems to have been a tradition that pilgrims gathered in the north aisle and went into the chancel in a clockwise direction. After touching the reliquary they would leave the chancel through the chancel arch.

Having one group of people jostling to get into the chancel one side while others were leaving – or dawdling – on the other side sounds like a recipe for confusion. The passage squints at Avebury and Sherston would avoid this problem. Furthermore a pair of stout 'beadles' or deacons at the chancel end of these squints could effectively control the numbers of people in the chancel at any one time. In other words, the squint acted as 'funnel' and the beadles as a 'tap'.

While this seems an effective way of managing large numbers of visitors, there is no direct evidence that beadles or such like were used in this way. But this scenario does seem to justify going to all the trouble of building a passage squint.

In passing, wealthier groups of pilgrims would have travelled with their own priest. From surviving accounts it seems the priest said Mass each morning before the group set off for the day. Presumably these priests used the altars at the east end of the north aisle. Whether the parish priest also led Mass at the same time, at the main altar, is a moot point but the presence of an 'ordinary' squint would have sufficed. The synchronising of the raising of the Host is not sufficient reason to build a passage squint.

The evidence for pilgrimage routes

I wasn't familiar with all the minor places in Gloucestershire where the EH listed passage squints. However, as I plotted them out I realised Colesbourne, Beverston, North Cerney, Tormarton and Sherston were all along a roughly north-south route. This route was close to Tetbury and Cirencester which would have been important pilgrimage shrines in their own right. Seemingly the more minor Gloucestershire churches had, like Avebury, been adapted to cope with large numbers of visitors. The dedications of the churches did little to shed any light. But the southerly 'destination' of the routeway certainly did: Marshfield.


Map of passage squints and St James dedications

    red dots = passage squints

    blue dots = places relevant to pilgrimage

    blue and yellow dots = St James dedications

    green arrows = putative pilgrimage routes. Note that Marlborough to Burbage (not marked with an arrow) would have been the main route down to Winchester from Anglo-Saxon times, following a Roman road and the Chute causeway.

Note that there are no known passage squints to the south of the Bristol to London road (the modern A4) although a surprising number of dedications to St James.


Like Avebury and Cherhill, this church sits on the original course of the London to Bath/Bristol road. Similarly it is dedicated to St James, the patron saint of pilgrims. All three churches have long-established routeways running to the north or north-east, bringing people from the Midlands down towards Bristol. Marshfield is about one day's walk from the docks at Bristol – which had a hospital dedicated to St James right by the quay. Indeed, the building still survives.

Anyone in medieval times coming down these routes from the Midlands who was not intent on going to Bristol could instead have turned left at what is now the A4. They would then be heading to Reading, where the abbey had a major relic of St James – his arm – until the Reformation. Beyond there was London but also Canterbury and the Cinque Ports, such as Dover. This was this route which was used by pilgrims heading to Rome and, until the early fifteenth century, almost all those heading to the Holy Land too.


The skew passage in St Mary's, Guildford.
Photograph by 'Stiffleaf' (www.ipernity.com/doc/stiffleaf/).


Interestingly the only passage squint known to me on the route used from Reading to Canterbury is at St Mary's, Guildford – the oldest of the churches in the town with a tower which may date to the tenth century. Back in 1949 Mary Anderson wrote:

    Returning to Guildford… in St. Mary's the slanting passages which lead from the High Altar to the transeptal chapels, and the unusual eastern apses of these chapels, are strongly suggestive of a plan influenced by the need to accommodate processions of pilgrims passing before the holy relics.

    Mary Anderson, Looking for History in British Churches (John Murray 1949) p192

As at Avebury, there is a second 'look through' rather than walk-through squint between the south aisle and the chancel.

The string of churches in Gloucestershire with passage squints seemingly confirm that the walk-through squint at Avebury is also part of the response to large numbers of visitors on patronal feast days, and perhaps also when larger groups of pilgrims came through.

Similar pilgrimage routes elsewhere in England

Dr Graham Jones has identified a 'corridor' of churches dedicated to St James the Great running from Bristol up through Stoke Orchard (near Gloucester), across through Warwickshire and Leicestershire. Another cluster links together eastern Herefordshire to northern Buckinghamshire via Worcestershire and southern Northamptonshire.

There are also three churches dedicated to St Thomas à Beckett in Leicestershire which fall on a route from Nottinghamshire towards Walsingham, which was the nearest 'nationally important' shrine to the East Midlands and, not coincidentally, for as on the same route as the wool trade to the east coast ports.

Quite probably the churches with skew passages in Gloucestershire and Wiltshire were on routes used as much for trade as for pilgrimage. Indeed, all medieval travellers would have stopped at the shrines along their way, seeking protection for the next stage of their travel, offering thanks for overcoming any recent challenges, and making a modest donation.

If East Anglia seems a little remote from Wessex then think again. One of the various former Roman roads known as the Icknield Way begins near Wells next the Sea, on the north Norfolk coast, runs south-westwards through Walsingham, Swaffham, Newmarket, Luton and Goring, where it crosses the Thames. From here onwards it is known as The Ridgeway. After Goring it runs along the northern edge of the Berkshire Downs towards Swindon, Avebury and Salisbury Plain. There is no reason why, in medieval times, someone from this part of the world would not set off heading towards Walsingham.

Sometimes pulling back a curtain can lead to a whole new realm of ideas…

Acknowledgements

My grateful thanks to various friends and acquaintance, including Jeremy Harte for commenting on an early draft and information about other examples of skew passages; Gerald Long for researching Bledington and Idbury; and Dr Alastair Ward for his extensive expertise on architectural history and generous encouragement.

 

I would especially welcome information about any skew passages not mentioned in this article. Please email me.

 


Articles about Medieval life in and around Avebury

St James' – from minster to mother church

St James dedications in Wiltshire

Skew passages

The alien priors

Medieval graffiti

The 'barber-surgeon'


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Copyright Bob Trubshaw 2015

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Articles about the prehistory of Avebury and environs

Overview of prehistoric Avebury and environs

Altars not burial mounds

Henges – brands or performances

Henges – dead or alive

Simulacra photos

Sound in the prehistoric landscape


Avebury and environs in the Roman period


Articles about Anglo-Saxons in and around Avebury

What was a bury?

St Afa

East Kennett: the church on the boundary

Upstream-downstream

Wiltshire battles

Understanding the Wansdykes


Articles about Medieval life in and around Avebury

Overview of medieval Avebury and environs

St James' – from minster to mother church

St James dedications in Wiltshire

Skew passages

The alien priors

Medieval graffiti

The 'barber-surgeon'


Articles about aspects of Avebury's twentieth century history

Overview of twentieth century Avebury

Avebury ghosts

Keiller's occult connections

Halloween 1938

Mary's annunciation

photo gallery