Nowadays the arch is generally locked away from prying eyes, being it surrounded by a much later porch. However, when the church is open for business, it’s well worth taking a look.
Here’s what the Victoria County History has to say about it: “The Norman arch appears to have stood untouched till 1883, when it was pulled down, the stones numbered, and rebuilt again in its original position.”
The illustration below details the left hand side of the arch, with the signs of the zodiac running around it. (Cheers to Chris Clayton for sneaking into the church during a wedding one weekend and taking the photographs for us. Unfortunately, as you’ve probably gathered by now, I’ve currently mislaid said photographs, so you’ll just have to trust me that the illustrations supplied with this article are fairly accurate representations. Also, I’d like to extend my apologies to the unfortunate bride whose wedding photographs were all horribly ruined by Chris’s enthusiastic clicking and flashing in the background.)
It might be an idea to quickly run through the symbols for those not familiar with astrology. From the bottom left corner of the illustration to the top right then, we can see: Aries the Ram, Taurus the Bull, Gemini the Twins, Cancer the Crab, Leo the Lion and Virgo, whose job description speaks for itself. The blocks above them are all carved with typical Norman chevrons.
Nothing is ever straightforward with Blackpool’s history, however, and, whereas the chevron blocks are undoubtedly original, the County History continues: “Unfortunately in the rebuilding the whole of the stonework was re-chiselled and the Zodiacal carving was entirely re-cut.”
Exactly how close the carvings we can see nowadays are to the originals we’ll probably never know, the Norman originals having, apparently, been lost. Some of the modern replacements, however, also seem to have taken a battering, most notably Taurus, Cancer and Aquarius. The Victoria Country History mentions that the Norman versions of Cancer and Taurus were two of the least defaced. Whether they were considered worthy enough to leave alone, or were replaced and have since deteriorated, we couldn’t honestly say.
The next illustration details the right hand side of the arch. Again, for any of our readers not familiar with the astrological symbols, from top left to bottom right the signs are as follows: Libra the Scales, Scorpio the Scorpion, Aquarius the Water Bearer, Capricorn the Goat, Sagittarius the Hunter and Pisces the Fish.
The more observant amongst you (possibly the more fanatically ‘New Age’) might have noticed that the carvings are not in their usual order. Exactly why this is the case we don’t know. It’s possible that, during the arch’s rebuilding, several blocks were simply repositioned incorrectly.
Whatever the reason, the Victoria County History has this to add about the re-chiselling: “The carvings are very good specimens of modern sculpture, but the loss of the original 12th Century work is greatly to be deplored.”
Leaving the rehash of the Zodiac aside, the remainder of the arch, consisting of fourteen stones, ‘the two outer orders spring from circular shafts with cushion capitals and moulded bases’, is certainly Norman.
Unfortunately, there’s also some dispute as to whether or not the arch has always belonged to the church. Reverend Bulpit takes up the story in his ‘Notes from the Fylde’: “The Rev. C. S. Hope told me that there was a tradition that the Bispham Zodiac arch had been brought from elsewhere.”
Records verifying Reverend Hope’s assertion, however, don’t appear to exist, so it’s highly possible that the tradition originated from some cynical local historian refusing to believe that anything relating to Blackpool’s Norman heritage could still be found.
So that’s that cleared up then. No wonder we couldn’t find a single photograph/illustration of this ‘grand old piece of local history’ in any books. Speaking of which, here’s one last drawing to round this article off, whilst I go and tend to my flagging soul with a bottle or two of Holy Spirit courtesy of ASDA: