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

St Lawrence, Beeston St Lawrence

Beeston St Lawrence

Beeston St Lawrence view from the porch

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    St Lawrence, Beeston St Lawrence

This round tower, with its distinctive carstone detailing, will be a familiar sight to many. It sits hard against the main Norwich to Stalham road, and the lack of a place to park is just one reason why it has now fallen pretty much entirely into disuse. Another is the lack of any parishioners, and a third may just be the loss of the patronage that sustained it through the thin years between the Reformation and the Victorian revival.

Externally, St Lawrence is a typical Norfolk village church, heightened, lengthened and elaborated as the long years went by. Although not formally declared redundant, it is no longer used for services, so it was with some surprise that I discovered the door was not locked - in fact, St Lawrence is open 24 hours a day. As we shall see, this may very well turn out to be its salvation.

You step inside to something of a surprise. In the 18th century, the Preston family of Beeston Hall took it upon themselves to turn this church into their mausoleum, and continued to be buried and remembered here in to the 21st Century. This is the kind of thing that was common where a church had strong ties with the Hall, especially in a tiny village, which Beeston has always been. However, the Prestons were actually quite restrained about their monuments. Instead, they spent their money on refurbishing the interior in the Gothick style of the day, and it is a bit like entering the inside of a long, low wedding cake.

The nave roof is vaulted with what looks like icing, so delicate you almost feel the urge to snap bits off and suck them.The Preston memorials and hatchments are spread about the white walls, and when I first came here in 2004 it struck me that this still might just be any Norfolk village church, if it wasn't for the pile of mouldering service books, the bat and bird droppings, the layer of dust on everything.

I found the original church sign, now propped up beneath the tower. There was a great sadness in the air, as if the Preston dead were all that was left it now. I couldn't help thinking that it would have needed a miracle for St Lawrence to survive. And yet...

I said in 2004 that this church's open door might well be its salvation. This is because St Lawrence had become a place of pilgrimage. The visitors book showed a constant succession of strangers seeking sanctuary, and many had been moved to write at great length, some in hours of darkness by torch light. This is, of course, how the shrines of the past came about, ordinary people finding them and spreading the word before the Church ever recognised them as special places. Sometimes it was the particular character of a place that drew people to it, or something that had happened there, even a miracle.

Perhaps that's what happened here. Perhaps St Lawrence attracted those simply seeking spiritual refreshment and peace. It might even have become more important for that than for its occasional Sunday services. This was all in my mind on a summer day in 2004. Perhaps the Church of England will recognise it as the special place it is, I wrote, for St Lawrence is a strong, handsome building, worth keeping if we can, I think. All it needed is a miracle.

And was it a miracle? I came back after 15 years to find the door still open, and stepped inside to find the church pleasingly cared for, the damage made good, the space seemly and fitting for Anglican worship. A quiet backwater, not somewhere you'd come for religious reasons I think, unless the hunger for a quiet, well-kept touchstone to the long Norfolk generations can be considered a spiritual quest.

The sun shone, the birds sang, the air exhaled an almost audible sigh of relief. And the Prestons slept on.

Simon Knott, December 2019

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looking east font Queen Ann's Bounty
Hesther Preston, 1774 Alice Preston, 1743 Thomas Preston, 1825 Thomazine Preston, 1658
Isaac Preston, 1708 Ronald Preston, 1999 James Preston, 1753
Jacob Preston, 1918 and Thomas Preston, 1917

 

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