NORFOLK  DECEMBER  2020

HARPLEY, SYDERSTONE AND STANHOE... AVOIDING BARMER!!

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The church of St Lawrence, Harpley.

After leaving Great Massingham,  we headed towards Harpley, a village of some 350 souls, just off the main road which runs between Kings Lynn and Cromer. A quiet, pleasant place to be, even on a cold foggy day such as this! Amner, with its royal connections, is just over three miles away, Castle Rising, where every school child in Peterborough had a field trip in the 1970’s is eight miles off to the south west.

 It was starting to get a little warmer. Perhaps warm was not a word to be used today; it was starting to get less cold, with the frost melting and falling from the trees as we pulled up.

    The church of St Lawrence is set back from the main road, and the only noise was the melting frost hitting the van roof! Even the birds appeared to be having a morning off!  Walking up the path to the south porch, a Norfolk deaths head gravestone catches the eye; a skull in profile with one single eye showing, crossed bones beneath and a few frost covered spider’s webs, which were still refusing to melt!  The message it is telling us today is the same as on the day it was carved, 275 odd years ago. Man is mortal! Live a good Christian life as you do not know when your time will come. A particularly appropriate message in the year of 2020 to be fair!

    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.

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The church itself, set back on slightly high ground behind some metal railings, has a square tower, buttressed and battlemented, north and south aisles, with clerestory, a long chancel and impressive south porch.

I walked up to the wonderful 15th century south door, which is considered to be one of the finest in Norfolk and tried the door. It was open!  A sign attached to the church notice board stated that there had been a midweek communion on Wednesday December 2nd; the very morning that England had come out of its second lockdown. Good for them!

Standing at the west end and taking in the scene in front of me, I was a little surprised at how good the light was inside. It was dull outside and there was some stained glass here but the light was certainly workable. I don’t like photographing in a church with the lights on, especially during the pandemic. The church was good enough to be open and I want to touch as little as possible whilst in there, light switches included or indeed especially!

Victorian floor tiles lead to the chancel. As with Castle Acre before, the nave is separated from the chancel by a medieval rood screen. As with Castle Acre, the one here at Harpley has also been repainted. The repainting at Castle Acre was done sensitively; the onlooker could tell it had been repainted but it was done in the style of the day it was first built. Here though the repainting has bled the age and some of the character out of it sadly.

Stained glass includes a depiction of Jesus walking through a cornfield on the Sabbath with His disciples, eating the corn and being challenged by the Pharisees. From memory, this is the first time that I have seen this Bible passage set in to glass.

The church here a large collection of medieval bench ends, some depicting human figures, some domestic and exotic animals. The pandemic of 2020 has seen the best and sometimes certainly the worst, of the British people.  Three of the best, people to lift the spirits, were 100 years old Captain Tom, who set out to raise £1000 on a sponsored walk and ended up making nearly £32 million, Andrew Cotter, whose videos of his dogs Olive and Mabel  went viral (check out “Walk Of Shame” – “”I’ll just stare at the trees and think about getting a cat”) and Hercule Van Wolfwinkle, another charity fundraiser whose really bad pet portraits were one of the highlights of a challenging year.

Now, with regards the latter, one of the bench ends here was probably what Hercule would have produced if he were a wood carver back in the 15th century. A dog with ears wrapped tight to its head like a hat, no real nose but nostrils anyway and grossly out of proportion front legs!

Most of the human figures have had the heads sawn off at one point in time, with the smart money being on Edward De Gurnay and his fellow reformers who no doubt took exception to the subject matter of the carvings. The heads have been replaced, possibly during Victorian restoration.  This is a lovely church, and a very interesting one; reformation damage still visible today. History that one can reach out and touch, if we were allowed to touch anything in these challenging times!

High up in the tracery of the west window are several sections of medieval glass. Identifiable is St John, holding a goblet from which the devil in the form of a serpent escapes. My favourite amongst these small panels was a golden haired and golden winged angel, playing a lure. Beautiful work!

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Next to visit was the round tower church at Syderstone, one that I had wanted to visit for years. Sadly, the church here was closed . The church website stated that it was open during the pandemic but I obviously caught it on a day when this was not possible.

Architecturally, this church, which dates back to the 12th century, is very interesting.  The round tower itself dates from the 13th century, just a couple of lancet windows high up; otherwise plain. The British Listed Building entry for the church here states that this was originally a cruciform church, with the Norman tower central rather than at the west end.  A bench is placed at the foot of the tower to the south. An extremely pleasant place to sit and relax for a while; but not today!

Interestingly, entry to the church is through a door to the west, an image niche above containing a carving of a beast of some description that appears to be looking towards the heavens.

Wandering around the exterior and looking at the church from the north, there is a lot going on! The ghostly outlines of arches indicate that there was once a north aisle here. This was taken down and bricked up, with windows and a door added. These too were bricked up at some point and there is not a single window on the north side of the nave.

There is just a scattering of gravestones in the large church grounds, with nothing of great interest catching my eye. Looking at the houses to the south of the church, it was evident that the fog was starting to fall again. A cold winter day, but it was great to be out.

Church of St Mary, Syderstone

Next up was Barmer, another round tower church, this one set back from the main road hidden in a copse of trees. The village has long since disappeared, possibly a victim of the 14th century Black Death. It was ruinous by the early 1600;s but was rebuilt as a mausoleum in Victorian times; now being cared for by the Norfolk Churches Trust. There are lots of ruined churches in Norfolk, higher than any other country. The efforts of charities such as the Norfolk Churches Trust help to prevent lonely, isolated churches such as this from joining their number.

This church would have been difficult to see on a normal day but with visibility as poor as it was it was nigh on impossible!  As we approached, Gary said “well it appears to be there” pointing towards a fog shrouded copse of trees, with a waterlogged track leading up to it! This one wasn’t for today no matter how much I wanted to see it. A church has stood here; some say since Saxon times, it will still be there when I am next in the area.

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The church of All Saints, Stanhoe.

Heading for North and South Creake, we took in Stanhoe, and the church of All Saints on the way. A delightful, but curious structure this one! The tower is offset to the south west corner of the south aisle, with entry to the church through the south face of the tower.  Looking at the church from the south the south wall of the nave was built high, but there were no clerestory windows. There was the space for them; they were just not included!

The church was open, which was great! Moving inside, my attention was taken by a sign welcoming visitors. It read… “We hope that you find comfort and peace here. Whatever, or whoever is on your mind today, come in and lay your concerns before God, who cares for you and for those you love” A lovely welcome!

 To my mind that does not just include the members of the church congregation here; it should encompass the rest of the parish who would not normally worship here but who need some peace and calm in troubled times. It should include people like myself, visiting on the day and taking from it whatever they need at that time; whether it be like myself, wandering around doing my own private Bible study through the stained glass; or a non believer just sitting in the quiet and maybe just experiencing something at a time when they most need it.

It was very dull outside and, to be honest, I would really have appreciated some clerestory windows to lighten things up a little. There are some delightful stained glass windows here, although my camera was struggling a little in the light.

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The risen Christ crowned and with hand raised in blessing; flames shooting from around Him is the focal point of the fine east window. Biblical characters from Old and New Testament are depicted below Him, with names on their nimbus (halo) which I did appreciate. Some are easily identifiable such as King David playing his harp and St Peter with the keys to the kingdom of Heaven, but others are not.

One window of six panels depicts a curiously eclectic mixture of scenes from the life of Christ.  The shepherds worship the baby Jesus; Jesus stills the waves on board ship with the disciples; Jesus washes Peter’s feet; Jesus is surrounded by children; the Crucifixion and doubting Thomas.

There are two depictions of Easter morning, with an angel pointing upwards towards Heaven; “He is risen” A second panel in one of the windows illustrates the meeting between Jesus and Mary Magdalene on that day when Mary mistakes Jesus for the gardener. Jesus, hand raised in blessing and crucifixion wounds visible on hand, side and feet greets her; “Maria” He says with His word on the glass beside Him. “Rabboni” Mary replies. A powerful depiction!

It was good to be able to see this church. It wasn’t on the list to visit when we set out but it was a good plan B instead of Barmer. If we had attempted that flooded pathway we would probably been waiting to be pulled out by a tractor at that time!

It was mid afternoon by this time and it was looking as if it would be pretty dark by around 3.30! There was time to visit North Creake and South Creake before the daylight faded completely. These are two of the most impressive churches in Norfolk and they had been on my to visit list for several years. Despite the weather this was turning in to a very decent churchcrawl!