NORFOLK JULY 2021

North Elmham Chapel  Ruin
North Elmham  St Mary -  Open
Houghton On The Hill  St Mary   -  Open

Late April 2021 and a gloriously sunny and warm Saturday afternoon. We had made our way around a dozen or so Norfolk village churches; with the intention being to end the day's churchcrawl at Houghton On The Hill. Before that though, we paid a visit to North Elmham; which in the past was a very important Christian centre.

    North Elmham can be found mid way between East Dereham and Fakenham, with a population of around 1,400 at the time of the 2011 census. The river Wensum runs close by and it appeared that every teenager in the area was out enjoying the river on what was the warmest day of the year thus far.

   The village sign shows a parish church and a chapel. The chapel is now in ruins and is looked after by English Heritage; this in turn standing on the site of a former wooden structure which was the Anglo Saxon Cathedral of East Anglia. 

   A short distance away from the ruins is the village church, a magnificent structure, which I will get to in a moment.

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The site of the chapel ruins has a fascinating history. It is thought that an earlier wooden structure here was the Anglo Saxon Cathedral of East Anglia. In the late Saxon period North Elmham was of great importance, and was the principal seat of the Bishops of East Anglia. This cathedral went out of use after the seat of the Bishop was transferred to Thetford in 1071.

    The chapel is thought to have been built by Bishop Herbert De Losinga, in the very late 11th or early 12th centuries. He was the first Bishop of Norwich and founded Norwich Cathedral in 1096. Losinga built a new parish church for the village and erected the chapel as a private place of worship for himself.

    It consisted of western tower, nave with north and south transepts, each of which had a small tower, chancel and apse. In the late 14th century,  Bishop Henry le Despencer held the manor of North Elmham. He turned the chapel into a house and fortified it. He was not a popular man; with the measure of his popularity such that he needed to fortify his home! He was known as the 'Fighting Bishop', an oxymoron to my mind and was hated for the merciless suppression of the Peasants Revolt in 1381.

    This reminded me of a 2019 visit to Norwich Cathedral. I spent some time in the cloisters. There is a door there, with a carved archway. The arch has Jesus at the apex, flanked by angels and Kings. The figures are each standing on top of a depiction of the common man. Even Jesus Himself is depicted with a man underfoot. 

    Jesus is depicted with crucifixion wounds, including the wound in His side which is visible through a hole in His tunic and to which He points. Those wounds were for us all, rich and poor. He died for us all, including the man who he is trampling underfoot. When I was photographing this a man came up and passed on his comments. He mentioned that the subject matter meant that the tours would gloss over this and not mention it! In 15 years of visiting churches this is the single most offensive thing that I have seen in any church or cathedral! The 'fighting Bishop' seems to fit in with the mindset of those who sanctioned this carving! 

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It was an enjoyable few minutes wandering around the ruins; but it was difficult to visualize what the church would have looked like. Perhaps the 14th century fortified additions made it harder to associate this as being a church. We looked over to the south and saw the fine church of St Mary a short distance away and headed over there. The church was open to visitors.

   What a fine structure this is! Indicative of the wealth and importance of this village in past centuries. Standing to the west, I took in the perpendicular tower, with flushwork buttresses and intricate battlemented parapet with blind arcading. The church clock is set to the west face and alongside the west door, a weathered grotesque pulls its mouth open in medieval gesture of insult at those approaching!  This would easily fit in to my list of favourite Norfolk church towers!

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On entering the church it was lovely to see a small teddy bear sat on duty at a table; greeting the visitor. The aisles were taped off, and yellow footprints at two meter intervals were to be seen leading up to the chancel. 

    Some will look at the photos of the interior, with the aisles taped off and yellow footprints and think that they have been ruined. I disagree; this is how this church was at this particular point in history; how it was coping with covid, and it is good to record it as such.

    There is some fine stained glass here, with the east window having the risen Christ at the centre; hand raised in blessing with flames radiating out from Him. Curiously, there are no signs of crucifixion wounds though! For me though, the real interest is to be found by looking up, at a window over the chancel arch. Medieval stained glass here includes a very weathered Madonna and child and an angel wearing a long flowing robe, with small green wings, playing a stringed instrument.

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   The bottom panels of a late 15th century rood screen separates nave from chancel. This is a glorious piece of work, with the marks of the reformers still evident; with faces crossed out and some eyes punched through. Fascinating history that is there right in front of you! The depictions of saints are separated in to male and female, with the male saints to the north and the females to the south side.

    Starting off with the males; St Thomas, doubting Thomas, is depicted with a spear, which denotes the manner of his martyrdom. St Jude carries a boat. Jude is thought to be Judas Thaddeus, one of the 12 disciples, who was termed Jude to avoid being confused with Judas Iscariot who betrayed Jesus. St John is depicted holding a chalice from which a dragon is emerging. The reformers appear to have taken a particular disliking to this one, with John's eyes being punched through. St Paul is pictured with sword; again the reformers have taken a particular dislike to this one as well. 

Over to the south the depiction of St Agnes is particularly graphic; she carries a lamb whilst being pierced through the throat with a sword! The reformers hated a depiction of St Barbara, who carries a symbolic tower in one hand; this relating to the tower that she was held captive in by her father after she announced that she had become a Christian.

    Moving in to the chancel itself, this was bathed in a purplish light, courtesy of some tinted glass in the south wall of the chancel. The alter is small, with just a single cross on it. The reredos dates from Victorian restoration and consists of several blind arches, on which are written the Lords Prayer, The 10 Commandments and the Creed.

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There is an interesting collection of carved medieval bench ends to be seen in the nave. These are a mixture of human figures, animals and mythical beasts. The human figures include a male figure in serious need of a dentist and a male figure wearing a turban. Animal figures include a couple of dogs, one of which appears to be on the verge of falling asleep and surprisingly a giraffe.

   One of the plus points of 2020 and 2021 was the emergence of Hercule Van Wolfwinkle, who cheered up the country when it was needed with his, what he termed, 'Rubbish Pet Portraits'. This raised money for a homeless charity in a very self deprecating British fashion! This giraffe looked like one of Hercule's drawings! Grossly over sized head in relation to the rest of the body and neck twisted back in a manner which suggests that it is devoid of bones! A fine carving of a dragon like beast with its tail in its mouth is an ouroboros, an often used symbol for eternity. The ouroboros is normally portrayed in the form of a smake, but it can also be a dragon.

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We left North Elmham and headed off to what was to become the last call of the day.  This was the church of St Mary, Houghton On The Hill. We had seen some beautiful Norfolk churches that day, but this was for me the highlight of the day, or any other day visiting churches to be truthful. This was not due to the beauty and history of this church; although it is beautiful and historic! It is the story behind its survival which captures the imagination!

    These days, Houghton On The Hill contains simply the church of St Mary and a farm. Access is via a bridleway. A sign off the main road helpfully points the visitor to the church; which was useful as the village did not appear in my map book and the post code was not recognized by the sat nav. 

    It is thought that the church here was built around 1090, but it is thought that there may have been a wooden structure here before that time. A south aisle was added around 1150, which collapsed in the 14th century. The original long chancel was demolished, to be replaced with a much smaller chancel in the 18th century., and the original round tower was replaced with a square tower in the 14th or 15th century.

   Over the years the population of the village declined, buildings were demolished and the church found itself alone with no congregation. St Mary was finally abandoned in the 1930's.

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In the early 1990's a WI group stopped at the church for a time and found it completely covered in ivy, with roofs gone and windows missing. One lady, Gloria Davey reported the church to her husband Bob, and he visited, finding the church in a poor state and with evidence of satanic worship having taken place inside.

He started a campaign to reinstate the church to its former glory. Those of us who visit churches do so as we have a love for the buildings. The present generation are caretakers of these churches for a time; we pass on our love to the next generation and so it continues! Here we see this in action. The church of St Mary was saved from joining the list of Norfolk's ruined churches. The actions by Bob Davey and his band of helpers means that the church is still here; still standing pretty much alone but loved and visited by many. 

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The church here is open from 2pm until 4pm each day until the end of October and I think the same time at weekends through the winter. When we arrived there was half a dozen people being shown around. Sadly, Bob Davey passed away in his early 90's early in 2021 but the visitors were being well looked after by friendly and helpful stewards.

   We approached the church from the west, the church surrounded by trees that were finally in blossom after a chilly start to the spring. There was a pleasing warmth in the air and visitors were spilling out and making use of the well tended gardens to the south. There is an outline of where the south aisle would have stood, with a marker showing where a grave was found and a further outline of where a previous, much larger chancel had stood. What looed like Roman tile was incorporated in to an ancient window on the south wall of the nave.

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Moving inside and there was a lovely welcoming feel about the place. It is a small structure inside and covid safety measures meant that entry was through the door in the west face of the tower. Exit was through the south door. A video was playing which detailed the history, ancient and more recent of the church.

    The chancel is tiny, with the east window being of three lights in clear glass. The alter is tastefully done with a single cross and candles. Less is more sometimes. The church here has some fabulous wall paintings in the nave which were not discovered until the church was being restored in the mid 1990's. With the old chancel being demolished in the 18th century, I wonder if any further wall paintings were lost at that time.

    The nave must have looked incredible before the paintings were covered over. All four walls would have had paintings on them, tantelising fragments of which remain today. To one side of the small chancel arch is a depiction of the Last Trump; an angel blows the trumpet of the final day; the day of judgement, and the dead are seen emerging from their graves. 

    A depiction of the creation of Eve is fascinating! Adam sits at the foot of the tree of knowledge whilst God creates Eve from one of his ribs. This is badly damaged, with Eve's head missing. God Himself is portrayed with blonde hair!

    There is also a depiction of the trinity, again badly damaged, which has God seated on the throne, with Jesus on the cross on His lap. A series of roundels has Jesus at the centre with the righteous and the condemned on either side. They all carry objects that might be scrolls but whose exact meaning is lost in the mists of time.

    This was a very, very good churchcrawl.