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

St Nicholas, Bracon Ash

Bracon Ash: pleasant and unassuming

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from the north: the Berney mausoleum 13th century chancel south aisle the sun goes down behind St Nicholas

    St Nicholas, Bracon Ash
13th century detail in the chancel   The damp and cold of late November clung to us as we slid through the narrow lanes to the south-west of Norwich. Thanks to planning policies, the villages out here seem remote, less than ten miles from the city hall. The weather was not being kind, but we were doing our best to dodge the sudden showers, the rain on the edge of becoming sleet. When the sun came out it was low and white, as cold as the clouds.

Bracon Ash, like its neighbour Hethel, is a scattering of houses through a wide parish rather than a real village centre, and the unassuming church of St Nicholas sits on the winding road backed by fields and copses.

There is no tower, and probably never was. Until about a century ago there was a bellcote, but since this fell the bell has been rung in a frame to the south of the nave; this has recently been renewed. From the north, the most striking feature is the wholly classical 18th century Berney mausoleum built against the wall of the chancel. This has a large portico that mimics an entrance, with a porthole-like round window. This in turn is echoed by blind windows to east and west. The actual entrance to the mausoleum is inside, as we shall see.

On the south side is an elegant aisle with its own pitched roof. This is something of a curiosity, because the windows appear to predate the arcade; but Pevsner suggests that a bequest of the 1370s may account for both, the first late in style and the second early.

tomb chest frame in the Oxborough style   You step inside to an interior that is satisfying and harmonious, an essay in Early English and early Perpendicular on a small scale. Pale pastel walls add to the soothing atmosphere. Although there was a considerable 19th century restoration, it was rustic in character, retaining brick floors and with simple furnishings.

Complete Early English work is rare in Norfolk; the chancel here is not wholly complete, but the arching and hood moulding along the north and south walls is superb. That on the north side has been disrupted, of course; and even before the Berneys came along with their mausoleum there was a massive early 16th century mausoleum, and although only the frame of this survives it is so like the Bedingfield monument at Oxborough it is probably by the same hand. Richly detailed, it is an example of what would have happened to English church architecture after Perpendicular, if the Reformation had not come along.

St Nicholas has a fair number of hatchments for such a small church, and the George III royal arms are still set above the chancel arch in a pedimented frame, which is a curiosity.

Berney mausoleum: the most recent inhabitant Berney Mausoleum: all full on the east 

And so, to the Berney mausoleum. This is fascinating, if rather macabre. Unlike the kind of 'mausoleum' you so often find in a parish church, its walls lined with grand monuments to the dead and with a family pew for the living, this is the real thing. On either side of a central corridor there are lines of coffin holes. Those to the east are now all full, with many remaining on the west side. As each hole was filled it was sealed with an inscribed slate slab, but there is no intention of disguising what is actually going on. It is worth coming to see.

Simon Knott, January 2006


looking east rood stair and chancel arch sanctuary font looking south-west into the aisle 
hatchments, east face of chancel arch St Nicholas looking west from the chancel harmonious George III royal arms
 north side of chancel piscina

bell turret

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