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

St Nicholas, Bracon Ash

Bracon Ash

Bracon Ash Bracon Ash Bracon Ash
ring the bell Berney mausoleum Bracon Ash

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    St Nicholas, Bracon Ash

The two lovely churches of Bracon Ash and Hethel sit barely a mile apart in the fields and woods of South Norfolk. Both churches are open all the time, or at least were in the days before the Covid Pandemic, so the lucky people around here can step into their numinous spaces whenever they want to, whenever they need to. I first came here on a bitter day in mid-winter, the bone-cold January of 2006, and I would not come back for ten years. By then it was in the warmth of one of Norfolk's sudden springs, the catkins bursting into life, the brooks gurgling, the trees coming into leaf like something almost being said...

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. From the north, the most striking feature is the 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. You step inside to an interior that is satisfying and harmonious, Early English and early Perpendicular coming together on a small scale. Although there was a considerable 19th century restoration it was rustic in character, retaining brick floors and with simple furnishings. Pale pastel walls add to the sense of an 18th Century space.

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 are enough to show you what was here once. That on the north side has been disrupted for the entrance to the Berney mausoleum, and even before the Berneys came along there was already a large 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.

And so, to the 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, October 2020

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Berney mausoleum full of light and air pulpit and blocked arcade
looking west chancel font
empty coffin shelves in the Berney mausoleum sealed coffin shelves in the Berney mausoleum buried at Brookwood
Brakenash skulls peeping through foliage above Berney arms Elizabeth Rutter

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