Blakeney Cley Salthouse Wiveton

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

St Nicholas, Blakeney

Blakeney: the navigation light at the east end.

Read the captions by hovering over the images, and click on them to see them enlarged.
A picture by Tom of St Nicholas in the late 1960s, his children in the foreground From the end of the avenue The great west tower The beacon tower
From the north-east Instruments of the passion on a buttress The seven light window From the south-east

    St Nicholas, Blakeney
The erotic Annunciation   I like Blakeney a lot - the village, for it is the most atmospheric of the villages that cluster around the Glaven, and the easiest in which to conjure up the busy port it was up into the 17th century. Till then, Dutch must have been heard in the streets as often as English was, as hard-nosed men of business paved the way out of the middle ages into protestantism and capitalism.

The church stands distant from all this, fully a hundred feet above the former port (I usually use metres on this site, but a hundred feet sounds more dramatic). Internally, it is, despite some enticing and delicious medieval details, very much now the legacy of 19th century Anglo-catholic sacramentalists, and despite not being an Anglo-catholic myself I always warm to this kind of church, especially in a rural setting.

Externally, their legacy is a reskinning of the building, the nave in flint and the chancel in cement, a not uncommon approach where the structure was basically sound, but the materials were succumbing to damp. The first reaction on seeing the building, of course, is that it has two towers, a 'proper' one at the west and a curious, spindly beacon rising to the south-east of the chancel. This has been adapted to hold a light, but probably that is what it was always for; a ship coming into the now-silted up harbour could use it to navigate. A reminder that our churches had many secular uses before they became 17th century preaching houses. Both towers have also been reskinned, and you can go up the big one on a Friday afternoon - unfortunately, we were here on a Saturday..

Blakeney's major rarity is an architectural detail. The east window has seven lights, one of only two such windows in England. This is a mark that here is something quite unusual - an almost complete 13th century chancel. Now, I may be an old curmudgeon, but I think it is a pity it was resurfaced so crudely. Other external features include a small window above the seven light window that lets into the area above the vaulting, and the monograms at the base of the tower, although these look suspiciously recent to me.

This is a very welcoming church, and one of your first observations on stepping inside is that tea and coffee are always available, not just on Historic Churches bike ride day, a mark of welcome to pilgrim and stranger, something from which many other churches could learn. However, to see this your eyes will need to accustom to the gloom, for although the nave should be full of light from its Perpendicular rebuilding of the 15th century, it is not, for the Victorians filled the south side in dark glass. Some of this is actually very good, including a wholly erotic Annunciation.

But the building pays a price. The woodwork is dour and austere, especially in the main body of the nave where the screen and benches are entirely Victorian. The window sills in the aisles are lowered to form seats, a common feature in churches around here, and one that has been used as evidence for the old saw that 'the weak can go to the wall', meaning that in the days when congregations stood, there was a place for those who could not. But this is not right; for when these windows were made, all churches were fully benched.

There are memorials to those lost to the sea, little anglo-catholic chapels to various Saints including Our Lady of nearby Walsingham, and all the signs of a busy parish life. Above all, the impression is of a grand town church, a bit self-important, but with echoes and resonances of the town over the centuries.

The rood loft is reconstructed, with a rood apparatus above the original rood beam. Beyond, the vaulted 13th century chancel is gorgeous, so wholly un-East Anglian in that it has survived pretty much intact. There is some splendid Norwich School glass of the orders of angels in the north aisle, detailed below. There should be nine, and of the six figures only five are angels. Interestingly, the figure on the extreme right is a crowned female Saint holding a scroll.

Angels I Angels II, III Angels IV, V Crowned female Saint
Glass; detail Glass: detail (note barleycorns of Norwich school) Fragment: the Resurrection fragment: angels

There are other smatterings of old glass, some misericords (where did they come from? Binham? Or here? Blakeney had, after all, a Carmelite Priory), a Flemish altar piece in the north aisle chapel, devotional statues (but the hideous one of St Elizabeth of Hungary is just crying out for a Californian antique shop to commission its theft, please) and the imagery of the instruments of the passion on the font all pull together to make a church that is fun to visit, full of interest, and devotional too. Without, I am afraid to say, moving me very much. See, I told you I was an old curmudgeon.

Simon Knott, October 2004

You can also read an introduction to the Ships of the North


Through the north door The great rood The 13th century chancel vaulting Mariners' memorial
Looking east Font from the north-west Font from the south-west Norwich school glass - part of the orders of angels
Instruments of Passion on the font stem Seven light window from inside Misericord: man and lion Misericord: most curious. A mythical beast?
North aisle chapel Through the Victorian screen Evidence of Anglo-catholic enthusiasm

an introduction to the Ships of the North

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