Wednesday 2 October 2013
Norfolk Churches: Beechamwell to Gooderstone
And back again, catching a last Beechamwell ruin in a sunset we wondered if we'd ever see as we trudged out in the morning drizzle. It could have been much worse: Friday night departure was a hellish confusion in London downpours as a pre-train meal at Diwani in Euston didn't work out and I arrived at Kings Cross with soaked trousers despite umbrella. But we knew the hour by hour forecast for Saturday was sunshine by 4pm. It took a little longer; the clouds began to lift at our most spectacular stop, Oxborough, its Indian-suggestive renaissance terracotta tombery depicted in the central photo above.
Yet even had the pall not drawn back, we'd have been happy with the treasures and contrasts in churches 123-136, that's to say 14 including ruins and home-converted Methody in 16 miles, of our long-term project, raising funds as ever - with people giving generously yet again, also as ever, and I'm amazed they still do it - for the Norfolk Churches Trust. We progressed, in essence, from cosy thatch and a round tower to aristocratic grandeur and massy pillars.
Hold on, then: again it's going to be a long journey. You can always just flick through the pictures if the way becomes tiresome. First stop was the village green at Beechamwell (for some reason the district still has the old spelling, Beachamwell). Simon Knott on his exhaustive Churches of Norfolk site declares that 'St Mary must surely be one of the prettiest churches in Norfolk...And the setting is delightful, too...with cottages for company and a tight little graveyard just sufficiently overgrown enough to be beautiful...No one passes through here - you only come to Beachamwell [Knott uses the old spelling] if you want to be here'.
And very happy we were to be there too, soon discovering that there was more to St Mary than the round Saxon tower surmounted by 15th century octagon, roosted by doves which seemed unperturbed by the sawing, circling flights of rooks (which I hope you can make out in the top photo). The thatch is clearer on the north side, and the porch is attractive, too. Shame the diplo-mate won't permit close facial inspection, as I have a lovely shot of him, Jill and Cally that way. We'll just have to see their backs in this and other photos.
It's a shame the church doesn't have its own guide, though Pevsner was informative enough. A one-off in my experience so far was the demon graffito below masons' records of quantities and prices of materials.
Lest you can't make it out too well, they've provide a drawing alongside.
Other draws, quite apart from the welcoming interior, the right size I reckon for Sunday village worship, are the two brasses either side of the altar, one to John Grymeston, who died in 1430,
and another, this time, full length figure of a priest, slightly earlier (late 14th century).
There's a simple Jacobean pulpit
and most unusual of all, perhaps, this iron chest on legs made by locksmiths Joseph Bramah and Sons of London.
Its date - 1835 - and the inscription telling us it was donated by John Motteux are further clarified by one of the two memorials in the chancel. The earlier is to John Motteux Senior, who died in 1793, the later to the son mentioned on the chest.
My special interest in this is that the Motteux family also owned Banstead Place, familiar to me from my youth in that Surrey one-time village. These were wealthy landowners indeed; their Sandringham estate was eventually sold off to Edward VII who, lucky for us, rejected splendid Houghton Hall (we went there the next day to see the reunion of the William Kent Rooms and the Walpole picture collection, mostly in the Hermitage and on an incredibly successful loan - see my Arts Desk piece on the visit). John Junior was responsible for the restoration of St Mary in the 1830s, a very early feat of its kind, and grateful we must be to him for that.
Beechamwell was once rich enough to support four churches. The other three are in ruins, as we'll see, but there's a standing church very close to the village, in what is actually called Shingham. It was the only church on our walk to be shut: pity, as Pevsner describes reasonably interesting things within. We reached St Botolph via a pretty wood and mushroom rings in the graveyard.
Its glory - a complete surprise to us as we hadn't checked the book - is the Norman south doorway (apart from a window, the rest is 14th century).
Pevsner sums up: 'two orders of shafts with enriched scallop capitals, and several geometrical motifs of decoration in the arch'.
Ticking off a methodist chapel converted into an attractive home, we retraced our steps to Beechamwell and headed towards a farm near which stood the tower of St John, one of the many casualties of post-Catholic England. Knott thought it not long for this world, though it seems to have been shored up since he visited. The hollowed-out oak in front of it makes a melancholy companion.
Along lanes hedged by sloes and damsons (very tasty), then across the first of many rather dreary fields, we came to an avenue mostly of beech leading to the attractively named and situated Barton Bendish, listing another converted Methodist chapel on the way. The main church, St Andrew, is the least spectacular of the three (though the third, All Saints, was demolished in 1788, it left a real treasure to the second, as we'll see).
Parishioners were busy doing works within - shame about the noisy radio, but there wasn't much to see anyway - and without, where they offered us coffee (though not one of their bacon butties; no matter - we had a packed lunch). There's obviously a pride in the building, though, as a couple of leaflets attested. The nave and west doorway are c.1200, the chancel 1340 and - to me the most interesting feature - the south porch late 15th century. No questioning who's the saint here
and the saltire cross he's carrying also features around the entrance.
The other grotesque head is even more pronounced.
Only a hundred yards or so up the road and then off the beaten track is a much more charming building with more of the thatching we saw at Beechamwell on an even more intimate scale
and the most spectacular of our Norman doorways.
This is what really allowed us to tick off two churches at once: the doorway comes from demolished All Saints, while the rest of St Mary - deprived of its nave's western extent when the tower fell in 1710 - is mostly 14th century Decorated. The overhaul of 1789 gave it a new cupola for the bell and the doorway. St Mary is now cared for by the Redundant Churches Fund, one of several admirable organisations which keep these places going.
I'm indebted to the excellent little guide for details on the arch: 'the outside...has a late 12th century "dogtooth" motif; inside this is a "beakhead" design, a very rare example of the use of this motif in Norfolk, and the innermost carving is a "bobbin" or double-cone design, which is also repeated on the inner shafts. The carving on the outer shafts perhaps resembles leaves. Sir Nikolaus Pevsner includes this doorway as one of the half dozen best examples of Norman doorways in Engliand'.
We took advantage of the church's redundant state by eating our chicken and chutney rolls inside one of the box pews, as it was still damp outside, though clearing. Evidently there'd been a fumigation, as hundreds of wasps lay strewn around the altar, and on the Carolean table with the second of its insciptions - the earlier is 1633 - lay two peacock butterflies as well.
More wasps on the partly obscured ledger slab to Simon, Mary and Sarah Tiffin. 'The octopus', the booklet says, is 'an 18th century symbol of mortality'.
There's a handsome whitewashed arch above the vestry doorway with the 14th century heads of a headdressed woman and a man.
I assumed the wall-painting, also 14th century, to be a wheel of fortune; early sources claim it's St Katharine's martyrdom, but I'm pleased to read that the first option has since been considered.
So we reluctantly left this lovely haven,
retraced our steps and tramped a long stretch of fields redeeemed by a skedaddling hare, hedgerows and the black clouds slowly rolling away in extraordinary shapes (very like a whale et al). A wood eventually broke the monotony
and later there was interesting lichen on fruit trees lining one of the prairie-like croplands.
Oxborough brought with it the treats we by now deserved. It was tantalising to at first walk past the long half-ruined church of St John the Evangelist, its nave destroyed when the steeple fell in 1948, since tea at the Hall called. Here's part of its length as we saw it in the clearer light about an hour later (to be continued).
Oxburgh Hall (again the confusing alternative spelling) is a bipartite treasure of a different sort.
Pevsner summarises with piquancy:
Licence to crenellate his house was given to Edward Bedingfield in 1482. He built a square mansion with a courtyard and a moat closely surrounding the mansions. Of the four ranges the hall range facing the gatehouse was alas pulled down in 1778. Sir Richard Bedingfield, who decided to do this, served his ancestral home badly, Sir Henry Richard, who about 1835 decided to rebuild, served it well: for while the Early Victorian rebuilding was by no means archaeologically correct, it gave us the picturesque house that we see now.
We had our well-earned tea in the cafe by the walls, having paid a visit to the Large Black sow and piglets - reared next to the hall, and rarer than the Siberian tiger, said the nice lady about this indigenous East Anglian species - in the van outside the entrance.
Then we told another nice lady that we would like to see the chapel as part of our charity walk, but that three of us were not (any longer) National Trust members. She did the right thing, consulted her superior and waved us through, which meant we got to walk alongside the moated house and admire the tremendous, thoroughly Tudor brick gatehouse
which is so similar to the one we know at Layer Marney in Essex - check out photo of that in this blog entry to compare - with good reason: Lady Margaret Bedingfield, who endowed the no less remarkable monuments in the church as again we'll see, was the sister of Lord Marney.
The later Bedingfields, who held on to their Catholicism, preferred to worship in the chapel of Our Lady and St Margaret, our official reason for being here. Like the rebuilt bits of the house, but of course far less fantastically done, it dates from1835.
Fundamentally ancient, then, it ain't, but the fittings are special. The retable is an Antwerp altar of about 1525 (slightly fuzzy, this; no flash allowed)
with (sharper) especially fine carvings of the Crucifixion and Nativity.
Fragments of French 13th century, English 14th and later Netherlandish or German specimens make up a fine collection. There didn't seem to be any kind of detailed interpretation, friendly though the steward was. Apologies, but I like my blurry horn-playing angel.
The later heraldic glass is rather fine too
and I was reminded of an even more elaborate Victorian monument in Holkham chapel by this tomb chest of Sir Henry, who died in 1862.
All this, though, pales in its intimate way alongside the splendour of the Renaissance chapel over at St John the Evangelist. Let's leave off talk of miracles and state what a remarkable piece of luck it was that the Bedingfield Chapel along with the Chancel survived the 1948 catastrophe. Certainly the Marney terracotta doesn't prepare one for the Hinduish splendour of sister Margaret's endowment for her late husband Sir Edmund, d. 1496. My favourite shot is the one up top, but these give further ideas of the artistry.
This is a real European alliance - the moulding of the fired brick clay was probably done by Flemish craftsmen trained in Italy. Lady Margaret was also responsible for the windows and the roof with its angel-borne shields - a nice texturing here of wood, stone and terracotta.
Other, later tombs add flabour to the Bedingfield Chapel: the marble skull and cherubic swags, for instance, on the monument to the Sir Henry Bedingfield who died in 1704.
For the chancel, you exit the chapel into the grassy courtyard formed by the ruins.
I loved the details here every inch as much, partly because the locals in attendance were so friendly without being over-forceful National Trust style. Very unusual, I must say, to have a relatively young and knowledgeable gentleman as the main pointer-out of interesting detail. There was a library to the left of the entrance, and just the right amount of modest merchandise (postcards, greetings cards, a bookmark of the lectern). But the eye was immediately drawn to the large Perpendicular east window with early 15th century stained glass including six angels in the tracery and the head of a king.
The king's head comes from a full sized figure in a larger window, but nothing seems to be known about him.
The angels represent six of the nine orders, all originally with scrolls giving their status. Whatever's been done to this one to give it skills upon the organ, I still like it immensely.
Colours glow in the tracery lights of the south windows.
These are Old Testament prophets, again with the scrolls all the angels were supposed to have had.
The brass eagle lectern, one of 12 pre-Reformation specimens in Norfolk, is inscribed with the name of the donor, John Kypping, chantry priest, d. 1498. Slots of either side of the beak take coins for the annual tax of 'Peter's Pence' to fill Roman coffers; the coins came out through the tail.
Just as remarkable is the angel frieze of angels and flowers topping the piscina and sedilia behind. Further detail of the finely preserved paintwork:
Our friendly gentleman took us outside to show us further treasures: masons' scrawlings on the exterior stonework, including a rather crude one of the church with its original steeple and a rather finer one of a fish:
By now my spirits had soared with all these wonders as well as the fast clearing skies and I was reluctant to leave this truly heavenly place behind.
Still, we had one more church interior to see, and the Oxborough resident made it quite clear that it was not to be missed. So we walked a pleasant late-afternoon mile or thereabouts to Gooderstone
clocked another Methodist chapel with ubiquitous wood pigeon on the cross
and arrived at St George
just as a cheery fellow with a thick Norfolk accent was locking up. No special pleading was needed for him to stay his course, and he jovially announced he'd be back around 8. Well, we didn't need that long, but there was plenty to examine inside. This is a well cared for church, more or less of a piece thanks to the 15th century benches with their carved and pierced backs and numerous poppy heads.
Alas, unlike at All Saints Thornham and Wiggenhall St Mary, the carved figures on the arm rests are mere ghosts of priests and animals, their presences announced by the bases of two or four feet. More, though by no means entirely, intact is the rood screen of the same era.
The 12 apostles on the base panels are in fairly good nick. Here are the first four, St Peter with his keys and St Andrew again with the familiar saltire cross
followed by James the Great with staff and pilgrim's scrip and John with a demon coming out of his chalice.
St Jude clutches a boat with rigging among the group of six further to the south.
There are quite a few of these rood screens throughout Norfolk: the one at Loddon is especially curious for reasons I explained some way back. On the other hand I've never quite seen a Last Judgment narrative in glass quite like this, the 14th century figures below God - censing and musical angels, bodies rising from their tombs - in unusual positions and attitudes. Can their locations within the tracery really be original?
Even the money that needs to go into the slot on the way out has an interesting destination - an alms box proudly advertised as having been in circulation for over 500 years.
The route northwards back to Beechamwell might have been monotonous had it not been for the ever changing early evening light. Clouds shone above Corsican pines and neatly stacked haybales in a nearby field
after which we took a puddle-filled lane past a pig farm, the porkers beneath two oaks running and stampeding in unfathomable excitement (I sang to them).
A little further we passed the hillock with the 'scantiest remains of a former parish church' (Pevsner) at Caldecote - 13th tick - and then we were on the home leg to Beechamwell.
The only parts remaining of our second All Saints are several chancel walls
yet it was memorable, since here we watched the sun go down
and caught the last glow as we walked through the last fields before the village green.
So back to Lynn for Cromer crab, fish pie and a round of cards before we dropped into bed from exhaustion. That's some chronicle for you, but each of these wonderful buildings needed special attention, and it's become a habit. Normal blogservice can now be resumed.
Previous church walks listed and linked at the end of last year's entry.