NORFOLK   APRIL 2021

SOUTH ACRE, ASHWICKEN, GAYTON THORPE AND EAST WALTON.

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Early April 2021, and the most glorious of Spring days. The intention was to visit all ten churches in the Great Massingham Benefice. The helpful vicar had informed me that most of the churches would be open on the day; wishing me a happy time visiting them. Well, some beautiful churches and the sun shining down meant that the latter was a definite! To start with though, we popped back to St George, South Acre, which had been closed on a previous visit back in December. South Acre is to be found five miles north of Swaffham; the river Nar flows close by. The population in the census of 2001 was 32, after that the population of neighbouring Narford was included, distorting the figures.

That December day was bitterly cold, with visibility poor due to early morning fog. What a difference on the return! The warmest day of the year to date, and a relaxing of restrictions leaving us free to travel again; with many taking the opportunity to do so, We are close to the tourist attraction of Castle Acre here, which is a mile or so away to the north. Here though, it is quiet and peaceful; the daffodils were out and the bees were hard at work. A glorious sight.

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As mentioned, there is very little left of South Acre as a village, with just a scattering of houses alongside this beautiful medieval church. The church of St George consists of west tower, which is battlemented and buttressed, with nave, north aisle, north porch and chancel. There is no clerestory. The main road through the village runs to the north of the church and entry to the church is via the north porch. The remains of a churchyard cross stand to the north of the grounds, close to the main road, this thought to date from the 14th century and having a Grade II Listing in its own right. It was a good shout to try this one again, with the church being open.

The church here is known mainly for a fine monument to Sir Edward Barkham, who died in 1634. The monument is against the north wall of the north chapel and is closed off to visitors; a locked metal fence keeping it secure. It is, however, visible through a squint in the north wall of the chancel.

    Sir Edward, dressed in armour and also wearing the robe and chains of the Lord Maylor of London, which post he held in 1621, lays recumbent alongside his wife. He wears an elaborate ruff and holds what could be a prayer book, which is held slightly open. From my viewpoint in the chancel, all that I can see of his wife are her feet

Underneath, are five children, three girls and two boys, with the figures at prayer. Curiously, the figures are not all looking straight in front of them as you would expect. One of the girls looks out to her right, in the general direction of the alter in the chancel next door.  One of the male figures looks to be peering over the shoulder of his brother at something.

In between the male and female figures is a charnel cage, in which are carved skulls and bones. I saw similar a few years previously at Stratton Strawless, also in Norfolk. A message to the onlooker as to the transitory nature of human life.

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Above the recumbent figures, a depiction of a female figure holds a laurel wreath symbolising victory; the victory here being over death. To counter that, on the opposite side of the monument is a shrouded skeleton, the shroud is tied at the top but is open so that the full length of the skeleton can be seen. Another symbol of the mortality of man.

    Approaching the entrance to the north chapel there is a recumbent effigy of a knight in armour, hands raised in prayer. This is thought to be Eudo Hersick, who fought in the Crusades and dates from the 12th century The chancel is spacious and plain; clear glass in the east window and the alter, which can be reached by climbing three steps, is itself decorated simply with a single cross and nothing else. There is no reredos.  At the west end, a medieval screen separates nave from tower arch, a couple of vertigo inducing ladders at the west end head up to the ringing chamber. A fine church.

    

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We headed on to the church of All Saints at Ashwicken, a small village five miles or so east of Kings Lynn. This was the first of the churches in the Great Massingham Benefice to be visited that day. Most were due to be open. A friendly and welcoming benefice. This is a very remote location, with the church sign saying 'Welcome To Our Church In The Fields'

The church of All Saints dates back to the 13th century, with the west tower being the oldest part of the current structure. The church consists of west tower, nave with south porch,  north vestry and chancel. There are no aisles or clerestory. The square tower has a 19th century cap on the top, and  is supported by two massive buttresses.

What a pleasant scene, this isolated church, with its sloping red tiled roofs, looked a picture. The sun was blazing down and there was hardly a cloud in the sky. A bench is situated against the south wall of the nave, looking out across the fields. What a pleasant place to sit during lockdown, armed with a book and a packed lunch; finding a little calm as the horrors unfolded around us. 

The war memorial stands to the south of the church, recording those who died in both world wars. This has a Grade II Listing in its own right.

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All Saints was open to visitors; there were still covid restrictions in place but we were free to travel and the churches were allowed to be open again. There was no restrictions on movement throughout the church. 

   The interior of this church dates mostly from a period of Victorian restoration. The walls are whitewashed and it is bright and welcoming inside. The alter has the words 'Do This In Remembrance Of Me' carved in to it. Below this wording is a carving of Christ crucified, with images of the crucifixion; ladder, spear and hyssop stick also included. A floral display of daffodils could be seen on the alter, a green cross rising up from the display. 

    Two boards on either side of the alter depict the 10 Commandments; in the nave a figure with wild lockdown hair and large ears, looks down at the congregation from a capital, tongue stuck out in medieval gesture of insult,

   The fine east window has a depiction of the crucifixion at the centre; the parable of the Good Samaritan told in four panels around it. Jesus told this parable to an expert in the law who asked Jesus 'who is my neighbour?" The answer that Jesus gave him was not what he would have been expecting! The first panel shows the Jewish traveler left for dead; his two attackers making off with a bag of money each, with one robber looking back over his shoulder as they flee. The second panel shows the Jewish man being helped by a Samaritan, traditionally the bitter enemy of the Jews, They would have nothing to do with each other but here the thankful Jew clutches the arm of his helper whilst a priest and a Levite each walk past, ignoring the plight of their fellow Jew. 

   The third panel shows the Jew on the Samaritan's donkey, being taken to safety; the two holding hands as they go. The fourth shows their arrival at an inn, the Samaritan arranging for the Jewish man to be looked after at his own expense. What a powerful and challenging parable to tell the Jewish people at that time; to love their bitter enemy as themselves. Jesus completed the exchange with the expert in the Law by saying 'go and do likewise' The challenge was given to the expert then to the expert in the Law, and the same challenge is issued to us today

    The elaborately carved font looks to be Victorian and is again adorned on top with daffodils. The British Listed Buildings entry for this church states that much of the interior is wholly of the 19th century with no features of special interest! That may well be so, but it does not stop it from being beautiful; and a lovely tranquil place to visit on a glorious day in challenging times!

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The church of St Mary, Gayton Thorpe

We headed off east a short distance and came to the delightful round tower church of St Mary at Gayton Thorpe. Another fairly isolated church, and another basic structure of round tower, nave with south porch and north vestry and chancel. This is another with no aisles or clerestory. 

    As I mentioned in my page covering East and West Lexham, some of my favourite sights involving churches over the years have been in Norfolk; involving round tower churches. Burnham Norton, Hales, Little Snoring and the Lexham's hold special memories for me. To be fair, the church here is also on this list. A lovely sight on a glorious day.

    Entrance to the church grounds is via a wide gravel path to the west, daffodils in bloom to both side of the path. A sign up on the gate tells of the Bats In Churches project. The church here holds regular 'Bats Nights' and Gayton Thorpe has, according to the Bats In Churches website, one of the largest colonies of pipistrelle bats in Norfolk, with over 800 Common and Soprano Pipistrelles to be found here. Beautiful and charming creatures and good to see them thriving in a safe environment; I do cast my mind back though to a trip to the Lincolnshire coast a few years ago, and a visit to Theddlethorpe All Saints. There was so much bat droppings in the church here that I had to wash my hands on leaving, with the only liquid available being a bottle of Volvic hint of lemon water!

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The round tower here, with the exception of the upper section, is Saxon. The upper section is a Norman addition, zig zag carvings above the windows at the belfry pointing to this period. This is another church to stand isolated, surrounded by trees; which were still skeletal after what had been, on the whole,  a very cold start to the Spring.

   The church was open to visitors. As with the previous churches there is no aisles or clerestory here. No need for clerestory windows here on this gloriously sunny day. It was bright and welcoming inside, with no stained glass here to affect the natural light. It is plain and simple inside with the chancel offset a little to the south, so that it is in alignment with the tower. Someone with a talent for flower arranging had left two displays either side of the alter; which has just a single cross on it. The east wall behind has white 18th century paneling. Less is more; basic and pleasing.

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The most notable feature of the interior of St Mary is the seven sacrament font. These were popular in Norfolk and Suffolk and they highlight the seven sacraments of the Catholic faith, Catholicism being the religion of this country prior to the Reformation. The first three sacraments are those of Initiation, namely Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist. The belief is that the person is born anew by Baptism, strengthened by Confirmation and nourished by the Eucharist.

    The next two sacraments are sacraments of healing. The first of these is Confession (penance and reconciliation) and the second is the anointing of the sick, where the priest anoints the afflicted with Holy Oil. When this is administered to those who are dying it is called Extreme Unction. The final two sacraments are Holy Orders, which is the Sacrament by which a man is made a bishop, a priest, or a deacon, and thus dedicated to be an image of Christ. The final sacrament is marriage.

    On an eight sides octagonal font there will be one side that doesn't have a depiction of a sacrament. On this there is normally a carving of Christ crucified or, as is the case here, a depiction of the Virgin Mary with the baby Jesus. 

These fonts were hated by the reformers and were often defaced; seen as being idolatrous. The font here has come through pretty much unscathed but I did find some of the carvings difficult to pick out.

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The church of St Mary East Walton

We headed onwards, a short distance to the south west, to East Walton, another round tower church off the beaten path. This was the fourth church visited so far that day and the fourth to be open. Pre covid, Norfolk was a county of, for the most part, open and welcoming churches. A county rightly proud of its church heritage, and keen to show them off to people. It was good to see this most friendly and welcoming county start to open up again after a terrible year!

    We approached the church of St Mary from the south, the battlemented round tower visible above the trees. Another delightfully rural church. Arriving at the church, a gravel path leads to the south porch from the west, making its way past a decent selection of 18th century gravestones. Easy to image the faithful walking the same route to church hundreds of years ago, seeing the same view that we see now.

   The church here consists of round west tower, which leans slightly to the west, nave, south porch and chancel. The tower dates back to the 12th century, and is plain with the exception of lancet windows at the belfry stage and some very weathered and long retired gargoyles. As with the other churches visited in this benefice there is no clerestory here. Again, there is no need with three, three light windows running the length of the nave, with each window almost running from floor to ceiling!

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Moving inside, elegant Georgian box pews leadup to the chancel arch. At one point, the chancel arch here was bigger and it has been filled in at some point, decorated outlines of the previous arch are cut part way by what would be a lowered ceiling. Red curtains also help to separate nave from chancel should the need arise. A triple decker pulpit stands to the south of the chancel arch. Double and triple decker pulpits were popular during the 18th century, with each tier having its own importance. The bottom tier was for the clerk, the middle was the reading desk for the minister, and the top tier was reserved for the delivery of the sermon.

    The east window is of five lights and is of plain glass. There are two steps up to the alter, which is in keeping with others in the area that I had visited that day so far; plain and simple with just a cross on it and nothing else. Standing at the chancel and looking west, there is a Royal Coat of Arms attached to the west wall above the tower arch, close by is a medieval font, with octagonal bowl with each of the eight faces having a quatre foil design

    Visitors entering in through the south porch are greeted with a delightful old stove. Again, the mental images of past times are conjured up; the faithful entering in to the church on a freezing cold winters day, huddled around the stove to get some warmth back in to them before service starts. 

   Again, a simple and beautiful Norfolk village church, full of interest and history and captured on the most glorious of days. This was turning in to a really good churchcrawl. We headed off in the direction of Harpley, which will be covered on another page on this site,