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The church of St James, Castle Acre, on a frosty, foggy morning.

It was fair to say that as the end of the year approached, I had seen vastly different attitudes to church opening since the first English three month lockdown ended in June and churches were again allowed to open.  In the week before my December trip to Norfolk, which will be detailed in this article, a church door was closed in my face in Buckinghamshire; “blame Boris” being a less than helpful parting shot as the door closed. To counter that, I was virtually thrown in to a church In Lincolnshire by a church warden who had seen me in the grounds from his house and came over to ensure that I had been inside if I wanted to.

   It was back in to Norfolk, an area that I love.  If Norfolk was a person it would be that friend who you could turn to always; honest, reliable and friendly. They would be a gentle soul who never shouted!  They would be the kind of person who you would immediately pick up with where you left off, even if you hadn’t seen them for a while.  A person to sit with by the fire and simply be with! Norfolk has been this friend to me for many years!

The main reason for the trip out that day was to finally see the churches in the Acres. There are three villages close to each other; Castle Acre, West Acre and South Acre. This benefice has been really good at keeping their churches open where possible and each of the three churches is open at different days during the week. On the day that I visited, Castle Acre was open and the other two were closed.

What an important place Castle Acre must have been in centuries past. Geographically, it is placed on the Peddars Way, a Roman road which ran from London to Brancaster. The church of St James has the ruins of a priory to the west, and the remains of a castle to the east. The main road through the village runs through one of the gatehouses to the castle.  Both of these are looked after by English Heritage. The village sign shows a representation of what the priory would have looked like pre reformation, a monk at the foot of the sign enveloped in frost covered spiders web. A place to return to on a warm summer afternoon, when covid is a beaten!

 The church of St James sits by the side of the main road, a long path leading up to the north porch. The church open sign was out. It was cold, frosty and foggy. It was totally still. No sound except the distant chatter of two ramblers. The least terrifying dog that I have seen for some time ambled over and had his ears tickled. A faint track worn in to the ground suggests that he has been doing this for some time. His owner described him as being a savage fighting machine that hides it well!

This is a very large church. Most of the church that we see today dates from the 15th century, but there has been a church on this site since the end of the 12th century.  Norfolk is a county of large churches, many built on the profits from the wool trade, a rich county in its day; with Norwich once being England’s second city behind London. It was thought in the day that the provision of a large church would lessen the time that the benefactor would spend in purgatory after their death.

There was hand sanitiser on entry and unrestricted movement inside the church, with the exception of the chancel which was out of bounds to visitors. The walls are whitewashed and it was bright and welcoming inside, despite the dull day. There is a medieval rood screen here, which has been painted over, possibly in Victorian times, but still bears the marks of the reformers.

Rood is an Anglo Saxon word for cross. There would have been a screen, separating nave from chancel. This would be painted with depictions of saints and apostles. An upper tier would have had a wooden carving of a cross, with Mary and John standing alongside. These were hated by the 16th century reformers with the overwhelming majority of the crosses destroyed and the images on the lower part of the screen for the most part defaced.

The painting of St James, with scallop shell on his hat, after whom the church is dedicated has had his eyes punched out. This reminded me of a depiction of the resurrection as Loddon which I saw a few years ago. The eyes were punched out on every figure there. The onlooker can almost still feel the anger that went in to this 16th century destruction! What strange times they were.

Close by St Peter, holding the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven, has had his face crossed out. To the right of St Peter as we look at it, is a depiction of St Andrew, holding saltire cross. His face has also been crossed out but there are many puncture wounds on this panel and the church guide suggests that this is lead shot; someone having taken a shot at it during the English Civil War,

The pulpit is a superb piece of work, thought to date from around 1440, and originally painted by the same person that did the rood. Wonderful to see!


The church of All Saints, West Acre.

As mentioned earlier, both West Acre and Castle Acre were both closed, but open for private prayer on different days.  The visitor, walking towards the north porch at All Saints, West Acre will see a carving of a human skull peering down at them from above the porch. A symbol of the mortality of man and a warning for those looking on to live a good Christian life as you never knew when your time would come.  Those looking up will probably note that the church clock has the wording “Watch and Pray” instead of numerals.

There was a priory at West Acre as well, with the ruins of the gatehouse to be seen immediately to the west of the church.  The church of All Saints dates back to the 14th century, but a repositioned carving in the north porch is older than that and may have come from the nearby Priory, which was founded as far back as 1100.

The square tower is battlemented, as is the nave and chancel. There is a large north transept. A very pleasing church! Wandering around the exterior, and looking at the church from the south, there is a bricked up doorway which opened up in to the chancel. This may have been a doorway which was used as part of processions, which were an important part of religious life prior to the reformation, particularly at times such as Holy Week, when the congregation would process around  and through the church, reenacting such things as the triumphal entry. There is no clerestory here!

We are a mile or so away from the tourist area of Castle Acre; out in the depths of the countryside.  It was really quiet. Just a few birds singing; probably making the effort to keep warm!  Not a soul about in all the time I was there. West Acre appeared to be closed on this cold winter morning. It was a tad chilly! I had lost contact with my toes a little while before but this was a lovely scene before me.


South Acre, church of St George, with Royal Mail pandemic priority postbox in foreground.

Next up was South Acre and the church of St George.  South Acre is just a few houses and a church. This is really a very isolated and beautiful part of Norfolk. Again, entry is via a porch to the north side, with the shield of St George on the porch gate.

A priest’s door to the north side caught my eye. Nothing unusual about the door itself, but if anyone was to exit the church from the north chapel using that door they would have a drop of about two foot to the ground. Curious!  The square tower is battlemented and exquisite, particularly when looking at it from the west. The north aisle flows almost seamlessly in to the north chapel; with clerestory windows above. From the south things are different. There are larger nave windows and no clerestory. It is very unusual to have a clerestory on one side and not the other. Architecturally, this is a slightly unusual. but a very pleasing church to look at.

As mentioned earlier, this church was closed, but it is definitely one to go back to one day. I am often visiting Simon Knott’s excellent website devoted to Norfolk’s churches and I had a look at the entry for this page after I got home. I must admit, I wish I hadn’t as I regretted missing what must be one of the finest monuments in Norfolk. An elaborate monument to Sir Edward Barkham, dated 1623; he lies with his wife, a depiction of a charnel box filled with human bones underneath and death in the form of a shrouded skeleton above. The photographs are wonderful and I hope to see it myself one day. I have only seen one charnel box from memory, this also being in Norfolk, in the north chapel at Stratton Strawless.

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The church of St Mary, Great Massingham. Open, friendly and decorated for Christmas.

After leaving the Acres, it was a short drive to Great Massingham, a hugely impressive church looming out of the fog, in the centre of a very pleasant, duck pond filled village. It looked as if there were people in the church and I opened the door with a little trepidation, not knowing what the response would be these days to a visitor.

Then response was good! Half a dozen or so ladies were decorating the church up for Christmas.  They had been busy already. There was a decorated tree outside the west door of the tower and the south porch was lit up with strings of lights. Inside, a lit tree stood at the chancel entrance.  Bench ends were decorated with tinsel and one of the most impressive biers that I have come across had red ribbons and pine cones.

It was interesting to see some medieval glass in the tracery of the south chancel windows.  These are badly damaged, with every single head having been replaced by clear glass and other bits and pieces missing. This was no doubt the work of reformers who took exception to the subject matter.  Easily identifiable is Peter, carrying the keys to the kingdom of Heaven. Simon the Zealot is depicted carrying a boat and Bartholomew carries a knife, depicting the manner of his execution. Sometimes he is seen carrying his own skin.

There are a couple of interesting carved bench ends here. A very friendly lady showed me a carved figure of a lady holding prayer beads and a bearded figure with impressive eyebrows can be seen in the nave. It was lovely to spend a little time here. While looking around the church it was nice to listen to the chatter. Apart from Gary, who I travel with, I have seen hardly anyone in any of the churches that I have visited during the pandemic.  I always enjoy attending churches where there is a coffee morning on. A cup of tea and a cheese scone or two! Fond memories of walking in to the church at Buckden, Cambridgeshire ten years and more ago and hearing the chatter of people, “I’m In The Mood For Love” being played on the church organ.

The question was asked “what do you do with your photos” and within a few seconds the “tech department”, two young girls who were among the work party, had found my facebook page on their phones!  What a difference in attitude and outlook! It was great to be welcomed for a short time in to their church and this made me very happy.

There will be a second part to this Norfolk journey and I went on that day to photograph a couple of the grandest churches in North Norfolk, North and South Creake, but Great Massingham left me with some really good memories. It’s not solely about the buildings…

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