NORFOLK, APRIL 2021

GREAT MASSINGHAM,  TITTLESHALL, STANFIELD & MILEHAM

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It had been a tough winter! The situation in the UK covid wise had been very challenging; the what was to become known as the delta variant leading to a second national lockdown for much of the winter months. By early April, some restrictions were still in place but we were allowed to travel again.

A very pleasant and warm early April day was spent in Norfolk, and I will begin this page with a revisit to St Mary, Great Massingham, a church that I had visited on a cold and misty December day in 2020, not too long before the second national lockdown.

What a glorious village! I had liked it before, in the depth of winter but here, with the sun out and spring in the air it was beautiful! The cyclists, walkers and the odd churchcrawler had emerged from winter hibernation/lockdown and the large village green in front of the church was packed with people enjoying the chance to get out and about. There are quite a few ponds here, with some of these starting out as fish ponds which used to be part of an 11th century Augustinian Abbey.

A picnic table was set up in the church grounds and half a dozen cyclists had taken it over, having a well earned break before they headed back to Kings Lynn. As is often the case, they were interested in what I was doing and why I was doing it. The church was open to visitors, as was most of the ten churches in the GMC Benefice that weekend. 

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On my previous visit here, there were several people helping to prepare for a forthcoming Christmas service. The Christmas trees were up and it was a lovely time spent with friendly and welcoming people. There wasn't a soul about this time though, and I spent an enjoyable time exploring this church in solitude, and in considerably better lighting than before!

The church of St Mary sits in the centre of the village, with much of it dating from the 15th century. The fine south porch though dates from earlier, dating from the early 13th century. This used to be used as a school room and Robert Walpole, who became Britain's first Prime Minister in 1721 attended school here as a child. The font also dates from the 13th century. Other medieval survivals include a wonderful carved bench end depicting a grimacing woman holding prayer beads, which one of the locals was keen on showing me on my previous visit. Also of great interest is surviving fragments of medieval stained glass. As always, I look at what glass is left today and wonder what things would have been like in pre reformation days before so much was destroyed.

There was much Victorian restoration here. Walking to the chancel this is large but quite plain with clear glass at the east end. The sanctuary alter has a large cross and the reredos behind depicts Christ crucified, the Virgin Mary and John standing either side. 

Moving back outside, and feeling a pleasing amount of heat on what was turning in to the most glorious of days, I took in the exterior. The perpendicular square tower is battlemented and buttressed, and has flint flushwork at top. bottom and on the buttresses. A mythical beast sits contentedly, looking out to the west from the south porch. High up, and not so content, an ancient looking gargoyle looks out in distress. A very lovely church, which I enjoyed visiting very much. I also enjoyed the locally sourced sausage rolls from the village shop next to the church. Strange how my memories of churches visited go hand in hand with quality food consumed!

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The church of St Mary, Tittleshall.

We moved on, arriving at Tittleshall, and the church of St Mary, early in the afternoon. This was another church to be open and it was good to see a higher percentage of churches being open at this point. 

I stood to the south of the church taking in the exterior, a friendly dog running across the field behind me. A couple trailed along behind. 'he won't hurt you' the lady shouted across to me. My safety hadn't even crossed my mind to be honest as the friendly looking dog sprinted across the field towards me, tongue hanging out as he ran. 

I spent a very pleasant few minutes with the couple who were rightly proud of their church and the fact that it was open again now, and had been where possible during these challenging times. The pews were taped off and out of bounds, as was the sanctuary, but apart from that this there was freedom of movement within this glorious little church.

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The church itself dates as far back as the 14th century. The square, three stage west tower dates from that time; this being heavily buttressed with clock facing out from the west face. In some ways this is an unremarkable church. There are no aisles nor clerestory but memorials to the Coke family in the chancel are exceptional and will live long in the memory.

The Coke family were the Earls of Leicester with Edmund Coke being the Speaker of the House of Commons, the Solicitor General and the Attorney General. Of great importance, he led the prosecution against Sir Walter Raleigh and the Gunpowder conspirators. He died in 1634 and his elaborate tomb rests against the north wall of the sanctuary, and was therefore out of bounds on the day.

By the side of this is an alabaster memorial to his first wife Briget. She passed away in 1598 and is depicted kneeling on a cushion; Bible resting on a desk in front of her. Her hands are both missing but would have been raised in prayer. 

Below her, all facing to the east lined up behind a single prayer desk, are eight children; six boys and two girls. The boys are at the front with the two girls behind. The boys have hands raised in prayer; the girls hands are missing. Curious if deliberate!

The quality of this memorial in breathtaking. I was drawn to the depiction of the older of the two girls. Damaged yes, with chipped nose and hands missing but a finely detailed depiction with every strand of her hair highlighted. 

Every so often I get particularly taken by something that I see; this memorial being one of these. So much so that, a few weeks later, we were in the general area again and I popped back just to see this memorial again.

An absolute delight to have been able to have seen this. As we came out of this church I said to Gary, who is not a churchcrawler that I liked this church as much as the church at Trunch! This meant nothing at all to him (and to be honest I think that he had turned off as soon as we started off the day at West Bilney) but this was high praise indeed!

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Detail from the memorial to Briget Coke at the church of St Mary, Tittleshall.

We headed off three miles in a vaguely easterly direction to Stanfield, and the church of St Margaret; another open church. The church here is set against the side of the main road, on slightly raised ground. A very small village and a delightfully rural feel to the church here.

The church here dates back to the 13th century, with the chancel dating from that period. The square buttressed tower is from the early 14th century, with the south porch dating from that time as well. Gravestones to the north side were not in situ, lined up in straight rows in order to make mowing easier or someone back in time had a serious neatness issue.

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Moving inside; all is plain and simple. A delightful small village church. A chancel screen from the 15th century separates chancel from nave. The chancel itself is plain with tinted glass in the east window. The Lords Prayer is mounted to the east wall,  left of the alter as we look at it, with the creed to the right.

There is not a great deal to keep the visitor occupied here, with the exception of a collection of late medieval bench ends, depicting animals. These are fairly crudely carved to be honest, but have a great charm. Several are damaged, and some have features worn away, thousands of hands over hundreds of years doing the damage.

On show we have rabbits, a horse with back legs like a kangaroo, what might possibly be a lion, with tail wrapped tightly around its body and styalised facial features. One further appears to have the top half repaired at some point, the replacement having bulging eyes and a bulbous nose, with tongue sticking out. This one stares at the onlooker with a slightly tilted head, and has probably caused a few nightmares over the years to many!

The pulpit is a double decker, with the upper deck I daresay being for those times when someone of more authority than the usual parish priest did the preach. A small but interesting church, in a delightful setting on the most glorious of afternoons. 

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Carved late medieval bench ends at Stanfield

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The church of St John The Baptist, Mileham.

Next up was Mileham, and the church of St John The Baptist, the neighbouring village a short distance off to the south west. There is a great deal of history in this area of Norfolk, between Swaffham and Dereham. To the west of Mileham is East and West Lexham, both having exquisite Saxon round tower churches, which will feature on this site soon. A few miles away to the south west is Great Dunham, another important Saxon church. Off to the east is North Elmham, the ruins of the chapel there standing on what was the site of a mid 10th century Saxon cathedral. 

Mileham also dates back to Saxon times, the site of the Saxon village standing to the south of the church. The church here is dedicated to St John The Baptist, and was another that was open to visitors, and in hindsight, I was really pleased that this one was open as it contains a fine collection of medieval glass 

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The church itself dates mainly from the 14th and 15th centuries, with the tower being curiously offset to the north west corner of the nave. Looking at the church from the south east, the top of the square, battlemented tower is just visible above the wall of the nave. I was interested to see a 15th century chest tomb with cross shaft on top, which has a Grade II listing in its own right.

Moving inside, the church was bright and welcoming, sunlight streaming in through the clerestory windows, The medieval glass here dates from the 14th and 15th centuries, and is very fine.

The west window depicts St Catherine who is depicted, as usual carrying the wheel, which was the manner of her martyrdom. A close look at the wheel shows that the outer edge is lined with blades!  Next to her is a depiction of St John The Baptist  with the Agnus Dei, the lamb of God. Next to him is St Margaret, dragon vanquished at her feet, stabbed by a sword at the top of which is a cross.

Underneath these are two further representations, including another depiction of St Margaret. Wearing a crown and holding a Bible in her left hand she stabs the dragon through the mouth with her right. In between these is a robed figure of a man with nimbus and impressive beard, which looked as if it might have come from a different panel originally.

The east window of the south aisle has more medieval glass, with St Agatha, a Bishop and St John The Evangelist

A further panel, a depiction of two cloaked figures, male and female, was of interest. They are walking huddled together.  My gut reaction on seeing it was to be reminded of a small panel at Burford in which Mary is escorted away from Jesus' crucifixion by John. I am sure if it was this though, there would have been some sort of symbolism to confirm this. 

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The east window is a modern representation of Jesus being baptised by John The Baptist. A beautifully put together depiction, in various shades of blue with the Holy Spirit coming down in the form of a dove. Nothing against this one at all but I will stick with the medieval!

From the exterior, the church at Mileham would not live long in the memory to be honest. On the inside though, it is a different matter. I was really pleased to have seen inside this one.

It was encouraging to see so many churches open at this time. Technically, they were open for private prayer and for the locals only but few appeared to care. Vicars were happy to confirm which of their churches were open and wished me a happy days churchcrawling. Another vicar escorted me around his church as the congregation started of arrive for their first service in 14 months. 

It was like the pre covid days. Open churches and a county that I have grown to love.