NORFOLK APRIL 2021

HARPLEY, BARMER AND CONGHAM

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We continued our early April Norfolk churchcrawl. After leaving East Walton, we headed off towards Harpley as we continued our crawl around churches in the friendly and welcoming Great Massingham Benefice. We missed out Great Massingham itself, which had been visited on a previous occasion, and neighbouring Little Massingham which was closed to visitors and had scaffolding up. That one would keep for another day.

    The church of St Lawrence at Harpley was a revisit, this church having been visited the previous December, on a freezing cold and foggy day. It was a brief visit that day, as we wished to take in the churches at North and South Creake before the daylight faded completely. It was about 20 degrees warmer and there was hardly a cloud in the sky as we returned.  

     The church here dates back to the 13th century, but it is thought that there might have been a church here in Saxon times.  There was a vicar here in the 17th century called Edward De Gurnay who was a prominent reformer, writing “Homily against images in Churches” which was published in 1639. It is thought that the empty images niches, which would have held statues of saints prior to the reformation, and some internal desecration, could be down to him.

    The church consists of west tower, which is offset to the west end of the south aisle, nave with north and south aisles and clerestories, south porch and chancel. The church is buttressed throughout. An ornate battlemented parapet runs the length of the nave. A beast sits at one corner, coats of arms of benefactors below, looking upwards. Close by, a lion with long flowing mane contentedly basks in the early afternoon sunshine.

    

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The church was open to visitors, as it was on my previous visit, and it was good to see two couples already in the church exploring. There was no restriction on movement within the church. This is a big church! The population of the village was a little less than 340 at the time of the 2011 census and I suspect that the whole lot could fit in here should the need arise. These churches were not built to reflect the size of the population of the village, a large church was built for the glory of God, and also to lessen the time that the benefactor would need to spend in purgatory after their death, the religion of the country being Catholic pre reformation. Norfolk was particularly prosperous in the middle ages and we see many large churches for that reason.

   Nave is separated from chancel by a medieval rood screen. This was repainted during Victorian times and has a selection of Old Testament prophets on the lower panels. Not to my taste at all; either in terms of subject matter or the fact that it was repainted in the first place. The rood screen door leading to the chancel has, amongst others, a depiction of the Virgin Mary with the baby Jesus,

    The chancel is was beautifully lit by the afternoon sunshine. The east window is of three lights and is plain glass. There is some restored medieval glass in the tracery though. The alter is plain and simple with four candles (no, handles for forks I hear from Two Ronnies' fans everywhere!) A wooden reredos depicts Christ crucified. An Easter Sepulchre can be seen against the north wall of the chancel, a rare survival and perhaps an unlikely survival given that De Gurnay was vicar here.

    I will mention some medieval glass in a moment, but there is a couple of pieces of Victorian glass to note. One shows Jesus as the Good Shepherd; 'Feed My Sheep' it says at the top. The other shows Jesus with His disciples in a cornfield on the Sabbath, picking at the corn. They are being questioned by the Pharisees as to why they are doing this on the Sabbath. I haven't seen this passage in stained glass much over the years. An interesting choice.

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Lighting conditions were more favourable this time and I was able to shoot properly some fine medieval stained glass in the tracery at the top of the fine west window. With the tower being offset to the south west corner, there is no tower arch in view and there is a fine uninterrupted view of this. The glass is said to date from the 15th century, this being the time that the nave was rebuilt. Perhaps this glass dates from the time of the rebuilding. At the centre of the scene is a depiction of the Annunciation, close by St John holds a chalice from which a serpent emerges. Central at the top is a praying figure which is thought to be the donor who was possibly the wealthy merchant who paid for the restoration at that time. Jesus would normally be given the place at the top of the window; it is certainly unusual to see the donor given pride of place.

    At the bottom of this west window is a series of depictions of angels. The Great Massingham Benefice website suggests that these are depictions of the nine orders of Angels.  These are depicted with human faces and golden wings. One looks intently at a set of scales, two are holding books, one further plays a stringed instrument, one holds a urine bowl. Some are cloaked whilst others have feathers on their body, If these do represent the nine orders of angels then they are a watered down version; perhaps so that the onlooker will not be frightened by what they see. Biblically, normally when an angel appears the first words that they say are something like 'do not be afraid'. The cherubim for example are said to have four faces; that of man, ox, lion and eagle and wings covered in eyes. 

   There are nine orders of angels but ten angels depicted; the tenth is likely to be the personal guardian angel that was believed to be assigned to each person; Christian or not.

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A look up shows a fascinating series of angels which can be seen running along the central beam of the roof. The top half of the angels only are shown. They have hands raised, long flowing hair and fabulously carved wings. 

    There are several carved medieval bench ends to be seen here, with several of these having been damaged over the years and repaired. Perhaps these fell foul of the iconoclasts during the reformation. One shows a figure wearing a bishops hat which appears to now have a more modern head. There is no damage evident to a lovely depiction of a squirrel!

    One of the bench ends is inscribed to John Martin and dated 1638. This was just four years before the English Civil War and some of the most turbulent times in our nation's history. Fascinating to think what he might have seen during those years of war, should he still have been alive. This is one of my most favourite Norfolk churches, A joy to visit it with the sun shining!

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The interior at St Lawrence, Harpley

We moved on, moving out of the Great Massingham Benefice for a while, and heading off in search of the church of All Saints, Barmer. We had attempted to visit this one the previous December, on the same cold foggy December day which saw the first visit to Harpley. All Saints stands set back from a B road, down a track and completely hidden by trees. It stands on its own, the village having disappeared long ago. Not easy to find in sunshine; really difficult in the fog!. The sat nav suggested that we had arrived, but the church, which we suspected was behind the trees that were just visible through the fog off in the distance, was left for another day. The standing water on the track itself helping to make this decision.

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The church of All Saints dates back to the 12th century, and consists of round tower, nave with north aisle and chancel. It stood in ruins for many years before it was repaired and used as a private mausoleum in the mid 1880's. Standing in the grounds and looking at the exterior it is obvious that the church has had a tough life. Large areas of the tower have been repaired and the chancel and nave show signs of the restoration.

   The church these days is cared for by the Norfolk Churches Trust and is kept open to visitors.  The track from the main road leads to the west of the church, the tower of All Saints coming in to view from between the trees. The daffodils were out, in full bloom amongst a scattering of fairly modern gravestones. Shadows from the nearby trees were cast on to the tower. A peaceful scene.

   Moving inside, the walls and whitewashed and it is bright and welcoming. The three light east window is of plain glass. The alter is basic, with a simple cross and two small candlesticks. Much of the interior dates from the 1880's; there is nothing remarkable here, but it has survived; possibility with an element of good fortune, but it has survived, it is visited, it is loved and cared for! It is to be treasured!

    

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The interior of the church of All Saints, Barmer

We moved on, returning to the Great Massingham benefice, to Congham and the delightful church of St Andrew. Congham can be found to the south of the Sandringham estate, around eight miles east of Kings Lynn. There used to be three churches here, with now only St Andrew still standing. One previous Rector here was Edmund Nelson, first cousin of Admiral Nelson's father, who also called Edmund Nelson.

    This is a village with a rich past, with a Roman villa once standing here; but I am sure that as many will be interested in knowing that Congham is the home of the world snail racing championships. The 2020 and 2021 championships were postponed due to covid, but the 2019 title was won by a snail called Sammy from Grantham. The championships has it own website and amusingly the slogan on the homepage reads 'Ready, Steady, Slow''. Only in England!!

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The church here dates back to the 13th century with restoration taking place during the 1870's. The church of St Andrew consists of slender, buttressed and battlemented west tower, nave and chancel. There are no aisles and no clerestory; just a simple but beautiful parish church in a delightful setting. Another place where, especially on a beautiful day like this, it would be a peaceful and calm place to spend lockdown. A place to sit and read, a refuge from what was going on around us!

    It was good to see Norfolk start to reopen following the last lockdown. The previous day I arrived at a church a few minutes before it was due to hold its first in person service for 14 months. The kindly vicar offered to show me around his church before the congregation arrived. Here at Congham there was a note up on the door to say that the church was open for private prayer and reflection from 6am until 6pm daily, with this being the first day that they had been open. 

   I am a practicing Christian and often pray in the churches that I visit; there is always plenty of reflection as I wander around enjoying the peace and calm. For me though, it is the mental health benefits that were important as well. To be able to travel again and to enjoy beautiful things; some semblance of normality slowly returning, In truth, the churches were open primarily for local people but no one seemed to care! I was welcomed and that was good enough for me.

    Moving inside, the lights were on and there was a beautiful light quality to the interior. Certain pews were taped off but apart from that the visitor could move freely throughout the church.

   

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The fine east window is of three lights and is of high quality. The left hand panel as we look at it features the nativity; less is more with just Jesus and His parents with a single lamb. Central is the crucifixion; Mary mother of Jesus and John look up intently at Jesus, hands clenched! Mary Magdalene, is collapsed at the foot of the cross in anguish.

    As I was looking at this panel, doing a small private Bible study, something came to mind, which I Googled, to find that it was from Luke Chapter 7. Verse 47 reads 'I tell you, her sins, and they are many, have been forgiven, so she has shown me much love. But a person who is forgiven little shows only little love.” (New Living Translation) Mary Magdalene was forgiven much and is often depicted as the person most visibly affected! 

   The third panel shows Jesus meeting Mary Magdalene after rising from the tomb. Just a little thing that I noticed but in the second panel, Mary Magdalene's nimbus, her halo, is white. When meeting the risen Christ though, her nimbus is a radiant golden! Is this symbolic of a change in her emotional state? 
    Other stained glass include a depiction of Faith Hope and Charity and an intriguing depiction of St Hubert and St Elizabeth. The former is an interesting choice and one that I can't remember seeing before in glass. The legend is that Hubert was hunting one Good Friday morning whilst the faithful were in church. The stag that he was hunting turned and looked at him, with a crucifix floating between its antlers. Hubert heard a voice which said that unless he amended his ways and lived a holy life, he would go quickly to hell! He did amend his ways and was to become the first Bishop of Liege in 708AD.

    St Elizabeth is often, as is the case here, depicted holding a basket of bread, or some other sort of food or drink, characteristic of her devotion to the poor and hungry.

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This had been a really good churchcrawl. We headed back towards Peterborough, enjoying the warmth, which had been very welcomed after what had been a very cold start to the Spring. It was good to be out and about again, and good to see so many others out there enjoying it as well. We had earned this!