North Elmham, Norfolk – Chapel and Church of St Mary

Wednesday 11 July. A trip on the Mid Norfolk Railway from Dereham to Wymondham. Please note the wonderful Great Eastern Railway bench.

Then we drove north to North Elmham for a wander round the old Cathedral and the parish church – TF 987216. North Elmham Chapel is a Norman chapel, built on the site of an earlier timber church, which was probably the Saxon Cathedral for East Anglia. In 1071 the Norman conquerors instructed that the bishop’s seat should be moved to Thetford. Bishop Herfast installed himself there, intending to move himself to nearby Bury St Edmunds with its wealthy monastery. The abbot had other ideas – he needed his independence. (900 years later us Canons of Bury St Edmunds were very pleased that our bishops (lovely though they were) lived in Ipswich). In 1094 Bishop Herbert de Losinga moved his seat to Norwich. He retained a palace and a large estate at Elmham, and his chapel consists of a massive western tower with projecting stair turret, a nave without aisles, a transept with flanking towers, and an apse. The great ditches which surround the chapel were excavated when Bishop Henry Despencer turned the chapel into a castle during the C14. This also explains the walls across the Nave.

The parish church of St Mary is a grade 1 listed building, just south of the church. The Village Sign is rather impressive. There is a flickr album of them all here, and various websites all about them.

The Diocese of Norwich has a page about each of its churches – this is the relevant one – with a link to the Benefice website. It was lovely to find one guidebook for the 13 churches in the benefice. That’s twelve more to visit!

Before I looked up at the stunning tower, let us enjoy some gravestones. Give thanks for those who have cared for these places over the centuries, and the work being done today.

You enter the church through the C15 porch. There are some lovely figures (has one got toothache?) and a massive door – but who on earth allowed them to paint said door? The door under the tower is this colour too – a churchwarden once had a job lot of blue paint? Apparently I missed a carved salamander (that’s not a line I’ve ever written before). While we’re doing doors and carving – here are some more.

As you enter you look up and long the Nave. The original Norman part of the church, built by Herbert de Losinga, is the Chancel, but the Nave is not much later – or, at least, the Nave pillars are not much later. This was  Norman aisled church, and there aren’t many of them around. Note the different shaped pillars. A new roof was added in the C13, so the tops of the pillars are different, then the Clerestory level was added in the C15. It is a lovely, light church. You can also look up into the C15 tower. While looking up, don’t forget to look down at the War Memorial, and the little line drawings on it.

The pew ends are C15. Here are just a few of them.

The wall painting dates to 1400, and then was painted over at the Reformation in about 1540 – covered with the Apostles’ Creed. It was rediscovered in 2010. The pulpit is dated 1626. It celebrates the uniting of the Kingdoms of England and Scotland with roses, thistles, etc. A standard design, or a one-off commission?

The rood screen is also C15. It survived destruction from the Puritans by being turned downwards as the standing for pews, to be rediscovered by the Victorians. I tried to work out which saint was which – and I’m a bit surprised there isn’t an Edmund. Brother Dave commented on how many women there are.

Interesting wooden cover for the font, hatchment, Victorian stained glass, memorials – and a table with tea, coffee, milk, water and a kettle. “Please help yourself” – what a lovely welcome.


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