Saturday 19 September 2009
Norfolk churches: Walpoles to Wiggenhalls
Forgive me for slacking on this one, those of you who are expecting a full report before you part with your cheques for a good cause, I just didn't know where to start. I have far too many photos of just about every corbel, bench end and misericord, because on this sixth of our walks for the Norfolk Churches Trust, we saw some of the great treasures among English churches. Then I found Simon Knott's Norfolk churches site, and his enthusiastic, thorough and pictorially well-documented coverage saves me from mentioning every jot and tittle. Don't be daunted by the list of those he's seen; go straight to the one you want to read about, and marvel. Opinion is abundant, certainly, but I sense he doesn't have Simon Jenkins's self-regard in that irritating but well-produced handbook, and he really does care more for the churches than his own ego. Congratulations, Mr. Knott: keep up the good work!
This is going to take some time. The light on that rare Saturday was so exceptional that I went wild with the camera. I hope I've selected the best.
This is fenland, south-east of King's Lynn where we spent so much time on the last churches walk. Jill and I knew we had to show the third member of our walking party Walpole St Peter after our December visit, but I was also intrigued by the Wiggenhalls on the River Ouse after reading Jeremy Page's evocative novel Salt.
We started at the overshadowed Walpole church which symbolises in its semi-dilapidated state what we're walking for: the fine 15th century St Andrew with the first of many mostly brick towers we were to see that day.
This is work in progress for the Churches Conservation Trust, which has restored so many buildings to something like their original purity: museums rather than living places of worship, no doubt, but in marked contrast to the frequent happy-clappy overlay. Walpole St Andrew awaits treatment of its crumbling floor and rather attractively peeling pillars - damaged, I'm told, by upward-seeping salt water.
The greatest curiosity was the name of a 19th century vicar, the Rev Demetrius P Calliphronas: how did he end up here, I wonder?
It was then a ten-minute walk through the built-up but eerily quiet development of the Walpoles to St. Peter, Alec Clifton-Taylor's favourite English church. I see why more than ever. Like St Andrew, this much bigger and more active church was locked. Rang a number on the porch message board, got a lady who said she'd send her son over. The temporary rector had, apparently, biked off to do his own Norfolk Churches thing, forgetting to unlock, setting the fast-assembling villagers abuzz with indignation.
But there could have been no better church to spend twenty minutes waiting outside in the morning sunshine, aware though we were of the passing time.
The exterior of this long and lofty giant - one of several candidates for 'cathedral of the fens' - is rich in decorated battlements and corbels like these ones.
The great glory, as I tried to show in the December blog entry, is the two-storey south porch
with its abundance of elaborate roof bosses, from Last Judgement to the rather realistic local fauna.
The interior is rich and comfortable despite its grandeur, De Hooch in stone as we must grudgingly admit Jenkins to be right in saying. The Dutch chandelier of 1701, which was being repaired back in December, adds to the handsome impression.
Fine woodwork adorns the beautiful chancel, where the altar is raised nine steps to accommodate the open passageway beneath the east end (seen from the yew hedge in the churchyard).
Last time we admired the bench ends; this time we had the opportunity to look at handsome misericords such as the pelican in her piety.
I could go on about the pulpit and the Jacobean font cover, but I'll refer you to Simon Knott and take us onwards to Terrington St Clement, a big loop of a detour which meant twice crossing an impossibly busy road, but well worth it.
Again, a key was needed, though this time there were refreshments for the church walkers/cyclists within and a patina representing, erm, a certain taste which indicated that this must be a well-frequented hostelry on Sundays. And again, much to see without including a detached tower with sunflowers neatly arranged at its base and this unusual arrangement of six windows in the incomplete south transept, with little figures clinging to the stonework.
Undoubtedly the greatest of many individual gems here is the font - 15th century, with a 16th century cover and what are believed to be 17th century Flemish paintings dealing with the Temptation of Christ.
Of a piece with the more naive designs of earlier stained glass, they include a wealth of animals including a bear
and a snail.
On which note, on our way back south we crossed a splendid field of cabbages
heading towards yet another rich offering of sorts, Tilney All Saints. A wedding had just come to an end and a somewhat haughty visiting vicar - not the incumbent, Diana Penny, who looks very jolly in the church guide - turned his nose up at our telling him that even when weddings had been taking place on previous walks, the locals had set up a table outside to greet the sweating toilers. 'These are not the leafy glades of Cambridgeshire' came the retort. Not that I thought there were any more glades in Cambridgeshire than there are around here. Anyway, the church, which kind regulars did usher us into through the back door, boasts a nice combination here of decorated Norman arches
with our first angel roof of 2009.
This, at least, tallied with the description fen-reared Dorothy L Sayers gives of 'Fenchurch St Paul' in what some claim to be the top detective novel of all time, The Nine Tailors. Halfway through it at the moment, with some theory of my own as to what's been going on, I'd have to agree (I photographed the book, by the way, on one of the misericords of St Margaret King's Lynn the next morning).
Sayers not only captures with brio and humour the individual language of each character, but also evokes the sense of place with very poetic prose. I can't resist quoting a passage, with, forgive, a few onomatopoeic omissions:
The bells gave tongue: Gaude, Sabaoth, John, Jericho, Jubilee, Dimity, Batty Thomas and Tailor Paul, rioting and exulting high up in the dark tower, wide mouths rising and falling, brazen tongues clamouring, huge wheels turning to the dance of the leaping ropes...every bell in her place striking tuneably, hunting up, hunting down, dodging, snapping, laying her blows behind, making her thirds and fourths, working down to lead the dance again. Out over the flat, white wastes of fen, over the spear-straight, steel-dark dykes and the wind-bent, groaning poplar trees, bursting from the snow-choked louvres of the belfry, whirled away southward and westward in gusty blasts of clamour to the sleeping counties went the music of the bells - little Gaude, silver Sabaoth, strong John and Jericho, glad Jubilee, sweet Dimity and old Batty Thomas, with great Tailor Paul bawling and striding like a giant in the midst of them. Up and down went the shadows of the ringers upon the walls, up and down went the scarlet sallies flickering roofwards and floorwards, and up and down, hunting in their courses, went the bells of Fenchurch St Paul.
What makes me think that Tilney is the most likely candidate for elements of the evidently composite 'Fenchurch St Paul'? Chiefly the plaques commemorating the noble art of bell-ringing in the tower, kicked off by a peal of 1848 rung in that year on 31 December (Sayers also begins on New Year's Eve).
There are also fun photos on the same tower wall of Tilney ringers down the ages.
The plan of the church corresponds roughly to the one given in The Nine Tailors, too, though the squat 13th century tower has a 14th century spire.
The lovely churchyard is full of interesting old tombstones. This one isn't especially antique, as it dates from the mid 19th century, but the design of the reading girl took my fancy.
Then it was southwards to another too-close church which has fallen into ruin, though again with the Churches Conservation Trust keeping a weather eye on it. This is Tilney-cum-Islington.
By now it was late afternoon and, owing to the wonders of our first three churches as well as the key problem at Walpole St Peter, we were way behind schedule. So we legged it down farm tracks and past sunflower fields to the Ouse, and then, sagging a little from dehydration in the late afternoon heat, back along another channel to the first of our Wiggenhalls, St Mary the Virgin. This has a magical approach, across an overgrown bridge disused by all but walkers
and an especially welcome tree-flanked churchyard, where another red brick belfry is crowned by four gurning gargoyles, one of which is visible from the western approach.
The Shell Guide to Norfolk claims the carved bench ends as the finest in the country, and you can see them all on the Norfolk Churches website. Yet I was impressed more both by the Kervile monument, with two children who died in infancy carved on the tomb beneath their recumbent parents
and by the more robust bench ends of Wiggenhall St Germans. This boasts the most evocative setting, on the banks of the Ouse with its disused brother Wiggenhall St Peter visible in the distance
The bench ends here include the Seven Deadly Sins, among them a lustful couple in a demon's jaw,
and among the pews on the south side, there's a dog with a duck in its mouth.
The homeliness of this church was complemented by the ONLY parishioner in any of the buildings we visited this year present to greet us, a delightful old lady who responded to my observation with a 'thank you, kind sir' and a coquettish curtsey. Sadly funds are short and it showed in the present state of the church. But time was pressing, as the hourglass in the 1631 pulpit reminded us
along with the clock on the tower
so off we sped along the banks of the Ouse, via the picturesque ruin of St Peter, to our grand finale, Wiggenhall St Mary Magdalene, on the other side of the river. Its glory is supposed to be its stained glass in the tracery lights of the north aisle windows. I've seen much more spectacular, but since this was the first glass treat we'd had, I recorded the saints anyway.
Scaffolding covered the south facade, but round the back the north was flaming in the early evening light.
Then we took ourselves off for a well-earned pint in the skanky pub by the river before crossing the Ouse and its parallel canal
for the train back to Lynn.
There, haven't I gone on. If you like what you've read, or just peeked at the pictures and enjoyed them, might I end by reminding you that cheques can be made payable to the Norfolk Churches Trust. I'm a bit behind on my fundraising...