Alan Crosby: Exploring Norfolk's best churches

By Guest, 27 August 2014 - 12:17pm

Alan revisits his favourite Norfolk churches and imagines the role they would have played in the lives of his East Anglian ancestors

Dr Alan Crosby is the editor of the Local Historian and a columnist for WDYTYA? MagazineWednesday 27 August 2014
Alan Crosby
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St Mary's Church in West Winch, Norfolk, taken from a book from the 19th century

A 19th-century illustration of St Mary's Church in West Winch, near King's Lynn (Credit: British Library)

I was in Norfolk earlier this year, visiting some of that county’s hundreds of wonderful churches. We lived in Norwich for a few years – a really great city – and it was a pleasure to return to those familiar places.

Famously, there are parts of Norfolk where you can stand on a hill (all things are relative!) and see church towers in all directions – there were at least 750 medieval churches, more than in any other county, and even today more than 600 survive, a unique treasury of art and architecture.

Many are built of flint, giving them a distinctive grey and speckled appearance, and they range from small simple Anglo-Saxon or Norman structures to spectacular cathedral-like buildings. Quite often, a huge church stands isolated in the fields and woods, no village or even cluster of houses within sight. Indeed, in some cases, such as Salle near Reepham in mid-Norfolk, there never was a village – simply a tremendous church and a few cottages.

Inside, they can be humble but some are breathtaking in their scale and magnificence with the sort of decorations that you’d expect to find in a great cathedral rather than a village church. At Salle, for instance, the font has an extraordinary medieval cover, designed to prevent dust and dirt contaminating the holy water.

It’s like a wooden church spire, soaring up towards the roof and – though it looks a delicate construction like a wooden three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle – it is so heavy that its medieval builders had to construct a crane, perched in a gallery high above, to allow the cover to be lifted off the font and hang, suspended in mid-air, over the baptism ceremonies taking place below.

At the church of St Agnes in Cawston there is a superb medieval hammerbeam roof, decorated with dozens of carved wooden angels. Some are fixed to the main roof timbers and though they are high in the roof space you can still see traces of the red and green paint with which they were once brightly coloured. Others line the horizontal beams between the main timbers, busts of angels with outspread wings. Even today a worshipper below is watched by a great angelic host.

Rood screen inside St Helen's Church in Ranworth, Norfolk

The rood screen at St Helen's Church in Ranworth, taken from a book published in 1841 (Credit: British Library)

St Helen’s Church in Ranworth, north-east of Norwich, stands on a hilltop overlooking the Broads. You can climb the tower there for a fine view of lakes and fens, reeds and woodland.

But downstairs in the church are two remarkable treasures – a stunning illuminated antiphoner or service book, brought from a nearby monastic house at the Reformation and lovingly preserved. How extraordinary that this gem, which is internationally significant, can still be seen in a glass case just inside the door, in the church where it’s rested for almost half a millennium.

Between the nave and the chancel is also a wonderfully preserved 15th-century carved wooden screen, vividly painted with images of saints and biblical figures. Quite a few of my ancestors were Norfolk people, yeomen and smallholders from a scatter of villages across the middle of the county.

Looking at a brightly-painted screen, such as in Ranworth, or a wonderfully-designed and beautifully-carved roof as in Cawston, I think about those distant forebears in churches such as these. They were there when the travelling craftsmen arrived six or seven centuries ago, with their pots of paint and brushes, gold leaf and design sketches, carpentry tools and lifting gear.

They watched those angels being prefabricated in the nave of the church and then painstakingly hauled up to the high roof space. We, in the 21st century, gaze in awe at these ancient treasures and marvel at their survival over 600 years of war, religious upheaval and potential disaster such as fire or flood. Surely my distant forebears were filled with just as much wonder and excitement when, back in the reign of Henry VI or Edward IV, they saw them being created.

This article originally appeared in the August 2014 edition of Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine


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