Barton Turf Catfield Irstead Ludham Ranworth Upton

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The Norfolk Churches Site: an occasional sideways glance at the churches of Norfolk

St Michael, Barton Turf

Barton Turf

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    St Michael, Barton Turf
St Apollonia and her teeth (15th Century)   2013: This lovely church has been open every day for about eight years now, but I've left the original 2004 article below as it is, because I feel it has some kind of value as a historical account, and also because it is a memory of Tom Muckley, a companion of mine on many visits to Norfolk churches before his death in 2009. Tom would love it that this church is now one of the most welcoming I know, and thousands of people find their way to it and its treasures every year.

I most recently revisited Barton Turf church in June 2013, and rephotographed the roodscreen. These photographs, and some others, have now been added to this page below.

2004: Time was when I protested too long and too loudly about Norfolk. As I passed the 600-mark on the Suffolk Churches site, the e-mails increased in volume and intensity. What are you going to do next? Are you going to do Norfolk? When are you going to do Norfolk? I was pretty pleased to be finishing one county, and was looking forward to a nice rest. I wasn't terribly fussed about jumping with both feet into a new county, especially such a big one. But I hadn't reckoned on the enthusiasm of several of the county's champions, and before 2004 was very old I was being enticed into cars and taken over the border. Before I knew it, I had visited fifty Norfolk churches, and the bug had bit. I had caught Norfolk.

One of my kidnappers was Tom Muckley, a regular correspondent since the early days of the Suffolk site. Tom lives in Hampshire, and is very fond of Suffolk. But he loves Norfolk, and was determined that I should too. Part of his game plan was to describe churches that were simply, well, better than those in Suffolk, and I began to get an impression of a vast county full of vast churches full of medieval survivals. As it turned out, there would be plenty that would fit this bill. However, I had heard from contacts that, while the Anglican Diocese of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich (bless its cotton socks) promoted a policy of open churches, the Anglican Diocese of Norwich encouraged them to be locked. Now, this may or may not have been the case, but my experience would soon be that most Norfolk churches are open, at least as many as in Suffolk. But there were exceptions...

One church that Tom was very keen for me to know about was this one, St Michael at Barton Turf, in the north of the Broads. His descriptions of the gorgeous screen made me hungry to see it. On the introduction to Broadland screens I suggest that some Norfolk screens were painted by artists of national significance, and Barton Turf is an example.

But Tom's delight in the church was shot through with wistfulness; he had been unable to get inside it for thirty years or more. He had found the churchwardens quite unhelpful, and had even gone to the extent of writing to the Bishop of Norwich to ask why access was not available. It turned out that everyone was wary because there had been a break-in (ummm, that would be because the church was locked, I always want to say).

  North porch

On one of our trips, we set off around the northern half of the Broads, discovering amazing screens and some pretty damn fine fonts as well. Tom had included Barton Turf on the itinerary without much hope; but I was quietly determined. As a way of returning at least some of the favour to Tom for his kindness and support, we would get inside Barton Turf church.

Another correspondent of mine has an amazing list of every keyholder in the county, and he kindly pointed me in the direction of the one for Barton Turf. I rang the day before, but there was no reply. Again, in the morning, all I could hear was the ringing in an empty room. Often, on our slow stopping curve up through Norfolk, I whipped out my mobile, but it was to no avail. However, at Stalham I noticed that one of the Lay Ministers for the benefice actually lived in Barton Turf, and I took careful note of his address and phone number. When we got to St Michael, there was a sign saying that if we wanted to get inside we should ring one of the keyholders, and make an appointment to return on another occasion.

What a stupid sign. I had only travelled from Ipswich; what if you were a family history chaser from Australia or the States making a special trip? I decided to ring the Lay Minister instead. Well, he was very polite, and terribly posh, and perhaps a little perturbed. He insisted that I should try the other numbers first, and if nobody could help me we could drop by and he would lend us the key. Result! Except that I might get through to a keyholder, who would disapprove of me and make me come back another day. Hmmm...

I thought about suggesting to Tom that we should just drop in on the Lay Minister anyway, but that didn't seem in the spirit of the thing. I decided I should try ringing the keyholders. One of them, I knew, was out - heavens knows, I had been ringing her since the previous afternoon - so I was down to two. The first number rang, and rang, and rang. Don't answer, I breathed. And he didn't.

The second number rang several times, and then the answer machine cut in. Yes! We were halfway there. We leapt into the car and hightailed it to the village, a mile or so away.I don't know what picture you have in your mind when a house is called The Hall, but whatever it is you are going to have to double it. This was BIG. I thought about going up the main steps, and pretending I was Anthony Hopkins in The Remains of the Day, but suspected that the servants' entrance would be more appropriate. I still wasn't entirely confident of being granted access. Tom, I think, fully assumed that this would be another occasion that he wouldn't get into Barton Turf.

Fortunately, the first person I bumped into was the Lay Minister's wife. She was lovely, and I was charming (I can be, you know) and I simply told her that her husband had said that if we called we could have the key to the church, which was true. And there it was - she placed the sacred object in my hand, and we were away.

Even then, I wasn't a hundred per cent sure. I once took a key to a church in Suffolk and spent twenty minutes trying to get in. It was a bog-standard Victorian church, and I wrenched my wrist trying to get the blessed thing to turn. In the end, I just gave up and took the key back - she was a frail little old lady, and if I couldn't open it I didn't feel I could ask her to try. But I had learned a lesson. I would not be confident of getting into Barton Turf until I was actually inside.

Memorial to four young sons lost in an accident on Barton Broad   St Michael's graveyard sits, as I have said, away from the village, on a narrow lane in flat fields to the west of Barton Broad. The church is surrounded by trees which were rather forbidding on this close July day, and I couldn't help thinking that this must be a rather bleak place in winter. There is a sombre memorial against the south porch that remembers four young brothers who drowned in Barton Broad on Boxing Day 1781. You can see it at the top of this page. It made me feel rather serious.

But it is the grand north porch that you let yourself into, and yes, the key did turn, and yes we did get in. I was teasing you. Mind you, if you had scrolled down to the interior photographs at the bottom of the page you would have known this anyway.

As I said earlier, Barton Turf's glory is its screen, and although the structure is not as magnificent as that at Ranworth, the paintings are, for my money, the best I've seen anywhere in England. There are actually two screens; the stunning twelve panel rood screen across the chancel arch, and a rather more primitive four panel parclose screen across the south aisle chapel.

The figures on the rood screen are astounding, gobsmacking. I really was stunned into silence, which isn't a thing that happens very often, I can tell you. The north range features St Apollonia with her pincers and tooth, St Sitha with her household keys, and then four of the orders of angels: Powers, Virtues, Dominions and Seraphim. Partnering this last, the south range begins with Cherubim, and then continues Principalities, Thrones, Archangels and Angels, before finishing with St Barbara holding her tower. The orders of angels can also be found over the border in Suffolk at Southwold, Hitcham and Blundeston, but nothing like as good quality. You can see them all below; my favourites are the three women, but notice also the monstrous creature at the feet of Powers (panel III), and the naked sinners cosying up to Angels (XI).

screen (north): St Apollonia, St Sitha, Powers, Virtues, Dominations, Seraphim (15th Century) screen (south): Cherubim, Principalities, Thrones, Archangels, Angels and St Barbara (15th Century)
Thrones (15th Century) Principalities (15th Century) Cherubim (15th Century) Powers (15th Century) Virtues (15th Century) iconoclasm: Dominations (15th Century) Angels (15th Century) iconoclasm: Seraphims (15th Century) St Barbara and her tower (15th Century) Powers (detail)  (15th Century) St Apollonia and St Sitha (15th Century) Angels (detail) (15th Century) Dominations and Seraphim (15th Century) Thrones and Archangels (15th Century) St Sitha's keys (15th Century) Angels and St Barbara (15th Century) Powers and Virtues (15th Century)

The south screen is curious. It features four kings, all easily recognisable - Henry VI (considered a Saint by many in the late Middle Ages, but the Reformation intervened before his canonisation) St Edmund, St Edward the Confessor, and St Olaf of Norway. The quality is nothing like that of the roodscreen, and I wondered if it had come from elsewhere originally.

Henry VI St Edmund St Edward the Confessor St Olave

The screens are worth every last drop of the sweat and tears you may have to shed to get inside, but there are a few other bits and pieces of interest here. A conglomeration of medieval glass includes a pane of angels peeling back the roof of the stable to see the Christchild, which is rather touching, and there is an unusual pillar piscina.The hanging chandeliers are a delight. I was also amused to find, beside the inside of the Priest door, a key in a red box. Obviously someone here has done a risk assessment. You might not be able to get into Barton Turf, but you can always get out.

So there we were. I had seen the wonderful screen, and Tom had got inside again, at last. As we were leaving, a young family was just arriving, and of course I was happy to leave the door open for them. The sun came out. We headed back to the biggest house in the western hemisphere to drop off the key, and then off into the wilds to remote Irstead. It was going to be a lovely day.

  lifting the roof

Simon Knott, September 2004, updated and some photographs added 2013

You can also read: an introduction to amazing screens


Looking east Barton Turf Smaller than its neighbours, but of outstanding quality
heads of Blessed Virgin and St Gregory angels removing the stable roof to see the infant Jesus  (15th century)
Screen: now and always. Looking east: a touch of the 18th century brass
Stained glass collected in the north aisle Anthony Norris, died 1786 Pillar piscina Font Even if you can't get in, you can get out...

an introduction to amazing screens

Barton Turf Catfield Irstead Ludham Ranworth Upton

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The Norfolk Churches Site: an occasional sideways glance at the churches of Norfolk