Treasures and curiosities in some Norfolk churches

David Berwick
Tuesday 18 May 2021

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This was our 3rd Zoom meeting, this time presented by David Berwick.  David’s passion for Norfolk Churches started as a young boy when he accompanied his mother on summer evenings visiting churches whilst his father was bowling nearby in fixtures up and down the country.  David is a guide at Norwich Cathedral, an organist, a keen gardener and a bird watcher; all of this and a passion for Norfolk churches and the hidden gems which lay within the fabric of these buildings.  We visited 8 churches each with their curiosities and treasures, all bound together within our cradle of the Church of England and all definitely worth a visit.


In Medieval times East Anglia was rich in churches with over 1,000 having been built.  700 remain, it is said that this is the greatest concentration of churches in the world.  The Norfolk landscape is still dominated by the towers of these wonderful buildings.


St. Mary’s – Wroxham – This church sits away from the hustle and bustle of Wroxham, up a hill, secluded and quiet.  There has been a church on this site for 900 years, possibly longer. The present building dates to the 12th century though much of it is 15th century.  The 15th century windows were restored during the Victorian period.  David pointed out the magnificent South doorway ; a Norman architectural gem dating to 1090 [picture: right].  Traditional Norman motifs including zig-zag carvings, chain symbols with interesting imagery make this a treasure indeed.

 St. Mary the Virgin – Elsing – Sits almost in the middle of Norfolk.  David referred to this church as ‘a rare gem’.  It is indeed an unusual church having been built in the early 14th century in one go by Sir Hugh Hastings.  The church has a single central aisle. It is a wide church with a single span nave roof of 12 metres, the biggest in East Anglia.  The 15th century font cover is rare and beautifully carved sitting over a font a century older.  Graffiti on top of the font are Daisy Wheels which are said to have pagan origins, there to protect the holy water within the font.  The brass is of Sir Hugh Hastings; 1.7metres in length, this replica is detailed in every way.  The original is in the chancel, locked away for safe keeping. 

 St. Mary the Virgin – Happisburgh – In 1086 Domesday recorded a church on this site.  This 14th century church with its 15th century tower looks out to sea, sending a warning to shipping of the treacherous coast hereabouts.  From here it is 18 miles to the spire of Norwich Cathedral.  The wonderful rood screen dates to the 15th century together with the ornate font with it’s mythical figures of the Woodwoses widely believed to scare off evil spirits; they sit together with lions, a potent symbol of baptism. During WW2 a bomb exploded on the pathway to the church blowing out all the windows on the south side. You can see shrapnel embedded in the pillars.


St. Mary’s – Saxlingham Nethergate – 5 Miles from Norwich. As you walk the path to the church you are greeted by an unusual colourful combined clock and sundial situated high on the church tower. Ancient Sundials, or Mass Dials as they are also known, are ancient timepieces which are scratched onto the South wall of medieval churches and used by priests to advertise the time of the next service.  Usually a semi circle with a hole in the centre. The priest would place a short stick in the hole and the sun cast a shadow onto one of the lines which would let parishioners know when the next service was about to start.  David pointed out these precious treasures on churches exposed to the elements without any protection.  This church is interesting for its 4 roundels. This figurative glass is the oldest in East Anglia, dating to 1250.

St. Botolph -Trunch – This large church sits between North Walsham and the sea. It holds some fascinating treasures, the church appearing to have been rebuilt in the 15th century.  This church too, in the South porch, has an ancient scratch sundial.  The greatest treasure within the church is the wonderful font canopy. Its date gives us a fascinating insight as to what the English Renaissance would have looked like had it been allowed to flourish. Built in the early 16th century, it is packed with intricate designs.  There is only one other font canopy in Norfolk and that is at St. Peter Mancroft church in Norwich; there is another in Durham Cathedral and the fourth is in Luton.  The North choir stalls hide a sounding chamber.  Between 1646 and 1750 the church was used as a schoolroom and there is much graffiti left - definitely a curiosity. St. Botolph is a rare example and leaves as David described ‘an amazing legacy’.


The next visit was to a site with three churches: St. Mary’s Whitwell – Reepham,

St. Michael’s - Whitwell, and All Saints Hackford.


St. Mary’s, the largest of the three and Grade 1 listed, dates to the 14th century. There was a major restoration in 1885.  There is a monument to Sir Roger de Kerdiston who died in 1337. He lies, rather uncomfortably, on a bed of pebbles.  The Norman font is 13th century and is made of Purbeck marble.


There is a passage linking this church to St. Michael’s, the smaller of the two.  A complete refurbishment in 2011 has made this space a perfect venue for social gatherings. 

 All Saints Hackford, the 3rd church, was destroyed by fire in 1543 and taken down in 1790.  A section of the south porch is all that is left, now overgrown as if nature is protecting this once precious building.

Holy Trinity – Ingham – There has been a church on this site since the late Saxon period.  The present church dates to the 13th century. The monument to Oliver de Ingham, founder of the nearby priory, again rests on pebbles the same as Sir Roger de Kerdiston at Reepham. It is likely that the same stone mason carried out the work on both monuments. The unique treasure in this church is its porch with 2 storeys above.  There are only 7 like this in England.  It was used as a residence by the Sacrist from Ingham Priory in his role as Vicar of the church.  The font is 13th century and of Purbeck marble.


St. Marys – Worstead - This enormous church was built on the profits of the wool trade and founded in the 14th century.  The church was further developed following the Black Death in the late 14th and early 15th century. The stepped font was added in the late 15th century, and in the early 16th century the chancel screen painted with 16 figures. The beautiful rood screen is one of the tallest in Norfolk.  This church has a font cover dating to 1400. The North door shows heraldic shields and weaving looms associated with Worstead, famous for its cloth and tweed.  The pulpit has a selection of unique brasses.


All Saint’s – Sheringham – Upper Sheringham is where this church looks out over the bustling town below.  Built in the 15th century and famous for its bench ends which date to this period, including a mermaid who was refused entry to the church having sought refuge from a storm at sea, and a mother with her child wrapped in swaddling bands.  The wonderful treasure in this church is the floor and front parapet to the rood loft.  It is said to be the best one of its kind in East Anglia.


David finished his talk with a look at a selection of biers from various churches throughout Norfolk.


Janet Edwards
Photos: Stephen Johnson

May 2021

Wroxham St Mary's

[Above: St Mary's, Wroxham]

[Below: St Mary the Virgin, Happisburgh; rood screen and font]

Happisburgh St Mary's
Happisburgh St Mary's
Trunch St Botolph 1
Trunch St Botolph 2

[Above: Trunch, St Botolph, font cover and rood screen]

[Below: Ingham, Holy Trinity church, porch and Oliver de Ingham]
Ingham, Holy Trinity Church
Ingham Holy Trinity Church
Worsted, St Mary the Virgin
Worsted, St Mary the Virgin
[Above: Worsted, St Mary the Virgin, exterior and rood screen]
[Below: Baby in swaddling bands, All Saints church, Upper Sheringham]

                in swaddling bands
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