Three Saturdays ago, on a walk we'd feared might not happen, we began our annual effort for the Norfok Churches Trust in territory much futher south than usual: starting at the Norman tower of St Andrew South Lopham - the finest of its kind in the county;
capping that at the two-thirds mark with a church that rivals those in Salle and Walpole St Peter for treasures, St Peter and St Paul East Harling;
and ending at the ruin of St Mary Roudham for a very apt sunset.
It was as well that we could be adaptable. Our usual host and co-walker Jill in Southrepps was sticking by the rules and having only one of the original four to stay, Cally, so J and I sought out our friends Kate and Fairless in Norwich. Various plans were proposed and rejected - around Norwich itself (which would have amassed a spectacular total as well as infinite riches, many of which we haven't seen already, but we wanted to get out into the country after six months in London), around Wymondham (too few and far between), from Diss, where we could have ticked off a whole batch, to the Lophams (too few footpaths, too many roads), a round walk from Thetford (too long for one of us with an ailment). Then Jill came up with what turned out to be a perfect plan, reliant on the two cars. We'd start at South Lopham, two would drive to Roudham, leave one car there and come back in the other. It meant fewer churches than usual, but between 12 to 14 miles' walking (records diverge) in country that is different from our familiar stamping grounds in North Norfolk.
I begin with a digression: arriving at the old rectory of St Matthew, Rosary Road, which Kate and Fairless have made splendidly welcoming, a temple to books and baking, with a superbly planted garden, and finding that supper including 'mourgettes' from the vegetable patch (courgettes grown marrow like in size) was a while in the offing, I went out to catch the sunset around the cathedral precincts, a beloved stamping ground.
The last of the light made the west end glow
and instead of retracing my steps, I thought I'd walk back via Tombland and Palace Street, taking in St Martin-at-Palace, where Shakespeare readings were to take place in the churchyard on Sunday afternoon (we'd be at the seaside),
and St Helen's of the Great Hospital.
There will be time enough to see inside these buildings in the future. The following morning, having raved about Fairless's sourdough bread, made with flour from the mill at the Weald and Downland Museum (he buys copious quantities from this treasure near his former Sussex home), we headed out to the car, glimpsing the belcote of St Matthew (built in 1851 by Diocesan architect John Brown, saved from demolition and converted into offices - my thanks to Simon Knott on his excellent Churches of Norfolk website for the information).
Excitement at Southrepps - the gardener's dog had jumped into the pond - made Jill and Cally a bit late, but South Lopham was a lovely place to hang around in - thus three of the first four at the start -
and as we waited for one car to come back, two having driven off, I had to take in the sun (this pic simply to complement the loungers you'll see later at East Harling).
Unfortunately it was also at South Lopham that we got the first ever major disappointment in several decades of church walking. The form to fill in was in the porch, the door of the church firmly locked. There was a number to call. Would the lady come and open the church for us? No, she couldn't do that, there needed to be two people in attendance and she was going to catch a train. It would have mattered less if there weren't some gems inside - I wanted especially to tick off my second elephant-and-howdah bench end. But it was not to be. Folk at North Lopham would make generous amends.
Meanwhile, there was still much to see outside. Round the back, the north doorway with an order of shafts and zigzag in the arch is also Norman, slightly later than the tower, and above it to the right is a circular Anglo-Saxon window, proving that the tower was added to a church of earlier date.
The glory, from 1120, can take any amount of inspection
and the very well-kept graveyard has many fine trees as well as richly-lichened headstones.
We did a loop around the village to take the footpath to North Lopham. The sign indicates the nearby Lopham Fen and its rare inhabitant the fen raft spider (Dolomedes plantarius), brought back from the verge of extinction. There's even a website devoted to it.
The route to North Lopham goes up Primrose Lane past the farm building of the same name, which recently revealed a 16th century shop front at one end - no mention of this in Pevsner -
and soon St Nicholas comes into sight
Each of our walks has a predominance of one thing or another: last year it was painted screens, the year before brasses. Towers with special features punctuated the present trail. Here and in our next destination, Gardboldisham, the novelty was the decoration on flint flushwork, its signs and symbols not always easy to decode. I'm thankful that I left my Pevsner behind in North Lopham, because in kindly posting it back, the lady who was on duty at the church, Jennie Vere, enclosed a photocopy of relevant pages from the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and History publication covering said work in the two counties (we were close to the river-bound borders here). As it points out, 'there is a wealth of abbreviated messages displayed in the outer walls of almost eighty churches from about 1440 to 1530...the majority...[are] the work of the Aldryche family of North Lopham'. Of what was formerly St Andrew - the saint was shifted, as it were, to South Lopham - 'the south face of the tower has seven pairs of initials arranged in a vertical column and one longer inscription which has long defeated interpretation'.
The 't' with a crown stands for the Holy Trinity. On the inscription running the width of the south face one third of the way up, new research has led to a different conclusion from Pevsner's. He thought it was a prayer for the soul of John Kailli, but David and Marion Allen have established that what was read as a 'k' is a florid ampersand. So the abbreviated inscription reads 'o rate p aia bz io'b' &alli' - 'orate pro animabus Johannis B[arker] & Alli [cie uxoris eius] - 'pray for the soulds of John Barker and Alice [his wife]. Since records show that Barker left money in his will for work on the new tower, that seems a very likely interpretation. Other donors are cryptically recorded in the vertical column high up.
Inside the church has a pleasant feel
and a few details worth noting: some damaged medieval bench ends (clearly the ones in South Lopham are in better nick, hurrumph),
The south aisle's east window has a four-petal flower in its upper tracery, and some original glazing,
while the font has elegantly cut geometric designs around the bowl and a fluted stem.
The blacksmith's iron fish on the door is a reminder that St Andrew was the original patron saint.
It's a shame there wasn't time to parade up and down the main street with its 'many colour washed and timber houses with high pitched roofs' (Harrod and Linnell's Shell Guide to Norfolk). Driving through it on the way to the start, I also noted a converted Methodist chapel which we claim for our list, though I don't suppose anyone much cares one way or another. At any rate, there was a tower to collect on the way out, though of the water variety.
On one side of the straight path - must have been a disused railway track - someone had planted an abundance of fruit trees. Walnuts not too common, methinks, in Norfolk.
Next stop Gariboldisham (Norfolk pronunciation 'GARbledsham'), a singular settlement off the main rod with two churches, one in ruins, All Saints,
with a neat noticeboard on a little green in front of it, full of local children's observations,
and the other very close, down a pretty path, St John Baptist. That the Aldryches of North Lopham have been at work here is immediately apparent from the porch (a bit in the shade here, so the inscription commemorating William Pece, chaplain here c. 1500, isn't so clear).
The tower is handsome in itself,
and there's more splendid flushwork and inscriptions to see around the outside,
while there's more to the left and right of the porch entrance (Pevsner is a bit vague, simply asserting that there are invocations of 'Christ, St John Baptist, Zachary, Elizabeth and Johannes') I've used two to frame the worn but happily extant statues in the niches).
Socially distanced apples, ready for Harvest Festival time, line the way in.
The Victorians, as Simon Knott points out, dealt lovingly with the interior. The four pre-Raphaelite windows are very lovely. Here are flowers, birds and animals at the feet of St Elizabeth and St Francis.
The treasure is the base of a 15th century painted screen in the north aisle.
The featured saints are St Germanus, patriarch of Constantinople and St William of York on one side,
St Mary of Magdala and St Agnes on the other.
To the west of the church is one of the village's two 'pretty cottages' (Shell).
From the lovely sweep beyond, an undulating mix of fields and woods, the ensemble looks even more attractive
and you also see the ruined tower from the other side.
We now found ourselves in a pocket of farmland surrounded by woods, seemingly far from any roads,
skirting a maize field
before edging what is now officially known as 'the Brecks' - though even our starting point was in Breckland. We associate the Brecks now with woods and forests like these, but as the eloquent Anglophile German Peter Sager tells us in East Anglia (Pallas), the original brecks were 'fields planted in the barren land [of sand and stone] and later left to run wild again'. The great sheep boom of the Middle Ages led to erosion and devastation by sand storms, described by John Evelyn in his diary. The 'great East Anglian Desert' was transformed by the Forestry Commission's large-scale planting of Scots pine, and Thetford Forest is now England's largest. It's not just pine - the noble beech has taken hold in some areas -
and along its margins a fair few fungi were thriving.
Before we skirted the forest proper along an area called the Devil's Ditch, we traversed a potato field, the crop yet to be gathered.
Then our longest stretch of walking became pure pleasure,
marked by the singular spectacle of tree ivy, from which came some of the best Breckland honey I tasted at breakfast
Free-range pig farms marked the open space to our right; how they came running at our greeting.
Once past their friendly and not at all smelly presence, it was time for picnic lunch, partly in the shade of a handsome oak.
and then past more woodland - Fairless very much disapproving of the invasive sycamores - and some singular bracket fungus at one spot
until at the north end of our big stretch we turned to the left and then through a willowy path to South Harling and on along a road which finally led to East Harling, where a lively game of football was in progress.
I'd assumed the spire was a Victorian addition, as it is in the similar design at St Peter Mancroft in Norwich. Not so; the lead-covered fleche atop the tower of 1300 is 15th century, and worth inspecting, along with the handsome animal carvings beneath it.
The interior is grand, with a steeply pitched hammerbeam roof, though I wonder if the angel corbels aren't Victorian remodellings. but at any rate the variety of poses, with instruments of the Passion and shields being held, is striking.
St Peter and St Paul is very rich in screens. The dado section of the one which originally served as the rood screen was moved to the west end of the nave.
The six main panels have superb carving in the quatrefoils, including a crucifixion with disfigured heads
and the IHC monogram amidst leaves and branches.
While the churches at North Lopham and Garboldisham had marked-out one way systems to cater for current ruling, here the main body of the church was blocked off, as you can see from the three chairs above. That meant no close inspection of the detailed animal carving on the 15th century canopied screen at the west end of the Lady Chapel, probably brought here from the dissolved monastery at Rashford, but this at least gives a suggestion of it.
Let me confess that as the lady in the porch seemed to be on the phone for a very long time discussing parish matters, I took the liberty of moving one of the chairs aside with arm in sleeve, and taking care not to touch anything walked up the central aisle. That gave me a view in to the Lady Chapel where I would not have seen the two splendid monuments - the one on the left to Sir Robert Herling (died 1435, defending Paris as a knight in Henry V's army) and the double tomb on the right with effigies of Sir Thomas Lovell (died 1604) and Dame Alice (nee Huddlestown of Sawston, died 1602).
In the chancel there's the tomb of Anne Herling and her first husband, Sir William Chamberlain, also serving as the Easter sepulchre and with a view throught to St Anne's Chapel.
I wish I'd had time to look at the misericord stalls, a mixture of 15th century woodwork and Victorian carving. At any rate the lioness on the armrest to the left of the misericord with coat of arms here is certainly old.
The main reason for braving the wrath of the attendant, though - in fact she was still on the phone when I put the chair back - was to look more closely at the greatest glory of all: the fifteen Norwich-made medieval windows telling the Bible story from the Annunciation to the Ascension, plus figures of Sir William Chamberlain and Sir Robert Wingfield bottom left and right and a few panels of reassembled glass. The set is absolutely the equal of the glorious east window of St Peter Mancroft. We owe their preservation to two crucial removals: one to East Harling Hall during the 1640s, the other during the Second World War (restoration followed in 1947).
The tops and tracery fillings are mostly of 19th century design, but the two angels are of 1430-50.
Praise be to the church for providing not only a well-produced guide full of colour illustrations but also a set of 20 postcards allowing one to look at the details of each panel at leisure. Even so I closed in to varying degrees on some of them. Thus the Annunciation and the visit to Elizabeth;
the star shining over the new-born Jesus, the visit of the shepherds and the adoration of the magi (where Mary's head has been replaced by that of a medieval angel);
five angels bearing Mary into heaven;
the Ascension (love the disappearing feet);
and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
There's one little gem I've not so far mentioned: what looks from a distance like a red devil is a squirrel, neatly placed in one of the upper lights.
The squirrel is represented in the arms of the Lovell family and also features in carvings around the church (though limited access meant I couldn't search these out). Jill, in her capacity as picture restorer at the National Gallery, had been here before: a scholar was immensely excited to make the connection with the squirrel in the exquisite Holbein portrait of a lady with a squirrel and a starling, originally hanging in Houghton Hall but moved to the NG in 1992. It allowed the reasonable deduction that the lady was Anne Lovell, whose husband Francis may have commissioned it when he inherited the East Harling estate to indicate his family's rising status in the eyes of King Henry VIII's court. The other clue is in the starling, which rhymes with 'Harling'...
Needless to say the church has postcards of the portrait too. The lady in attendance told me that the squirrel trail was always a good way of getting school parties involved. Meanwhile, the others had given up on cultural pursuit and were dozing or resting in the sun.
But it still wasn't time for tea; to merit that, in the shape of Kate's fabulous mourgette cake, we had to make our way to West Harling, which we knew would be closed - the East Harling team were taking signatures for that as well. Here we hit another end-of-the-world secluded wonderland, entered via a gate with auspicious spiders' webs.
Clearly All Saints served the now-demolished local hall.
I'd said I thought all that was lacking on our walk was a really beautifully situated church, and this was it, approached across a field with two pine trees at one end (not pictured).
Had we been able to get inside, we would have seen some fine brasses, an octagonal font with shields and flowers and a wall painting contemporary witht the date of the chancel (late 13th century; the tower is 14th century). So I'll make do with a head on one side of the porch arch.
The building is equally attractive from the churchyard side, wood behind me.
There were a number of nettle-covered paths through the trees, so we asked a lady out walking with a dog (one of the few people we actually met en route; absolutely none along the Brecks) and she put us right. The darkness
was eventually relieved by late afternoon sun through more beech trees
before we hit a very lively, fun camp site, going straight through it and out the other side through open land, with puffballs in the grass
and a dead tree colonised by fine bracket fungi.
That we were near Bridgham was clear from the two handsome bridges - the second, actually over water (the river ), being the grander -
and then the outline of St Mary appeared.
corresponded with John Piper's depiction of it.
What a deliciously higgledy-piggledy construction this is. A west tower must have disappeared at one stage; the nave windows are of c.1300, the ones in the chancel about a century later. The mix of knapped flint and red brick looked especially attractive in the light of the setting sun.
Even on a 'normal' church walking day we would have expected this one to be shut by the time we got there. It was a pity, anyway, because we should, according to Pevsner, have seen the piscina and double sedilia, the Perpendicular font from ruined Roudham with four lions against the stem and an El Greco-esque painting of Moses dating from the 18th century. At least by peering in I got to see fragments of early 14th century glass in one of the chancel windows.
We sat for a bit, nicely spaced out, on two benches; someone had left an acorn on the wall
and the church prepared to retreat into shadow as we walked away from it.
The last stage could not have been lovelier (and apart from our valiant, uncomplaining wounded member, I don't think any of us felt very tired). It started with a gentle hill up a quiet lane, oaks overhanging,
and then a gentle descent with fields to our left
and the sun setting above a clump of trees.
Then the tower of ruined St Andrew appeared through a pretty garden on our right
and we reached our final destination. Jill and Fairless drove off to pick up the other car at South Lopham, allowing the rest of us to enjoy the solitude of the place (along with the birds, which had mostly been silent on our route).
The church was only abandoned in 1736 after a fire, but beyond it are the remains of a medieval village, first decimated by the Black Death before going into slow decline over centuries, which have the status of Scheduled Ancient Monument under the care of English Heritage (there's generous information on this in the pavilion constructed as a millennium project, which gave us shelter as we waited and allowed us to sit at some distance from each other.
The tower needs some stabilising
and the 'inside' is fairly overgrown, but I like that.
And so to part from Jill and Cally until the next afternoon, and back to Norwich, where the four of us had a gourmet burger experience in a pub garden. And to say we were lucky with the weather is an understatement; last Friday a mini Great Storm brought down 220 trees in North Norfolk and left Jill without power, so she drove back to London. All a huge contrast to the weekend which began a blissful 14 days of Indian summer. Of course we swam in the North Sea off Overstrand, an obligatory ritual on the Sunday of the churches walk. Cally and I did the first swim, Cally and Kate the second, and in between we dined off the crab and lobster from the shack at the top of the cliff - I know of nothing food-wise more satisfying (Fairless had the excellent idea of housing them in naan bread).
The incoming tide gave us a good couple of hours before we scrambled up the seaweed-coated steps
and thence, fully dressed, back to Norwich and London.
If you got this far, still haven't donated and would like to, then here's J's JustGiving page. We've reached the £2000 mark between us, but we have some way to go to match previous years' bests. Just for the record, here are all links to previous chronicles (which don't go back as far as the walks from Burnham Thorpe) :