home I index I latest I glossary I introductions I e-mail I about this site

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

St Nicholas, Buckenham

Buckenham Buckenham

Buckenham south door tower door

Follow these journeys as they happen at Last Of England Twitter.


St Nicholas, Buckenham

This hauntingly lovely little church sits all on its own in the lonely, rolling fields above the River Yare, a good quarter of a mile from the nearest narrow lane. You have to walk across the fields from a row of cottages to reach it, and so tree-surrounded is the site that your first full view of the building is as you step across the ditch into the churchyard. Externally, the church is fairly typical of those around here, with the somewhat stark buttressed flint walls of its nave and chancel running together under the red pantiles of the roof, a surviving Norman doorway revealing its true origins. But the octagonal tower is one of only half a dozen in the whole of East Anglia, a passing fashion in the early years of the 14th Century.

St Nicholas is an object lesson in the importance of a church being taken into care as soon as it is clear that its parish community is no longer able to care for it. For, in this area of many small parishes and churches, Buckenham church fell into disuse in the 1970s, and in the years before it could formally be taken on by the then-Redundant Churches Fund, it was prey to terrible depredation and vandalism. Passing this way in the early 1980s, Mortlock observed that the interior was depressing... there is no glass in the east window, and much has gone elsewhere... filth overlays everything. Apart from a block of 19th century pews, only the font remains... The single bell in the tower was stolen in 1973. Cast in about 1290, it was the oldest bell in East Anglia, and it has almost certainly been melted down.

Today, the church is in the hands of the Churches Conservation Trust, and its ongoing story is a much happier one. But irreplaceable things were lost to us, for the interior of St Nicholas was the fruit of a most unusual time, the early decades of the 19th Century. This was a time when there was a new enthusiasm for Gothic, or more precisely Gothick, but without the shared understanding of the correct Gothic forms that would be agreed by the coming Ecclesiological movement. This means that this church was a rare beast, a Georgian vision of the Middle Ages, probably by a local architect, perhaps even the rector himself.

The church is always open and you step into a space which feels unfamiliar at first. Pastel green walls and brick floors lend an organic feel, but your eyes are drawn to the surprise of the infilled tower arch, looking like the sugar icing of a wedding cake. Here, the Georgians used the tracery pattern of a window to create a kind of stone screen. For good measure, the arch is picked out in a darker green. The date above reads 1841, but this probably refers to the completion of the interior, while the 1845 on the porch outside most likely marked the completion of the restoration. The ghost of a royal arms is set above the tower arch, long since stolen. A small room no doubt intended as a vestry leads off through the former north doorway. The roof above the nave is panelled with square decorative designs.

Although the historical importance of St Nicholas is undoubtedly its Georgian makeover - and, of course, the fact that it has survived at all to remind us of our folly - there is also one great medieval survival. This is an exceptionally fine font, one of several in this part of Norfolk which depicts saints standing around the shaft and seated on the panels. There is another nearby at Hemblington which has been carefully restored and repainted. Figures seated around the bowl, holding their symbols, include St Simon with an erect fish, St Bartholomew with a flencing knife, St Peter with a very long key which looks as if it might be used for locking a church, St Leonard with his manacles, St James with his pilgrim staff, and the dedicatee of the church, St Nicholas. Those standing around the shaft include St John, St Etheldreda and St Helen.

St Nicholas St Simon St Leonard
St John St Helen St Etheldreda

The font contrasts curiously with the gothick tower arch, as you would expect. Looking east, the most significant loss of this interior was probably the coloured glass, the work of the Norwich artist Samuel Yarrington in the 1820s. Yarrington's workshop provided imported continental glass as well as designing and making glass of their own. Their business was with country houses and public buildings, but increasingly with churches. A number of East Anglian churches have glass by Yarrington, but this must have been one of his biggest schemes. Glass of this age is fascinating, because it comes from a completely different ecclesiological and artistic mindset to that of the more familiar church glass of later in the century. During the 1970s, Yarrington's glass here was systematically smashed by stones picked up in the churchyard, or bits of wood broken off of furniture inside. When the Redundant Churches Fund took possession, the remains were removed (this was when Mortlock saw the east window) and what could be repaired has been reset in the upper part, the glass below it left clear. This is a curious sight, but a constant reminder of what happens when a building like this is left to fend for itself.

A number of plaques and memorials survived the abandonment. Two are to members of the Beauchamp family, who died out in the Empire as the 19th Century began, one in Bangalore and the other in Dublin. The Reverend George Elwin, who was Rector of here and Hassingham for 44 years a century later, is also remembered. An early 18th Century wall-mounted memorial to Anne Newbury looks half a century older, but time does move slowly in these parts. Best of all is a sequence of ledger stones in the sanctuary to members of the Denny and Awcocke families, all of whom died between 1658 and 1660, presumably as a result of some pestilence. Each has a memorable design at the top with skulls and Latin mottos reading Tempas Fuget ('Time Flies'), Hodie Mihi, Cras Tibi ('Today Mine, Tomorrow Yours'), Sic Tu ('Thus You') and the curious Mors Licornibus Sceptra Aequat ('Death Makes the Unicorn and Sceptre Equal'). This appears to be a misinscription for Mors Ligonibus Sceptra Aequat ('Death Makes the Hoe and Sceptre Equal',) implying that poor men and rich men are equal after death.

As lonely and remote as this church seems now, it was certainly a busy place at the time of the 1851 Census of Religious Worship. Buckenham and Hassingham parishes were consolidated, and morning worship that day was held at Buckenham. Thomas Beauchamp, rector and officiating minister, recorded that thirty-five people attended the service along with the twenty scholars who had no choice but to be there. This makes a total of fifty-five at a time when the population of Buckenham parish was fifty-six, a remarkable proportion, especially in this strongly non-conformist area of the county. It makes you wonder who the odd one out was. The scholars, explained Beauchamp proudly, attended a Dame daily School for Girls and Boys, supported by the rector. It makes you wonder what he, or they, would make of the church if they could see it now.

Simon Knott, August 2022

Follow these journeys as they happen at Last Of England Twitter.

looking east chancel
tower arch and early 19th Century screen font vestry
cherubs (Samuel Yarrington, early 19th Century) nave roof
Tempas Fuget (Katherin Denny, 1658) Hodie Mihi, Cras Tibi (Ann Denny, 1660) Sic Tu (Katherin Denny, 1660) Mors Licornibus Sceptra Aequat (John Awcocke, 1658 or 1660)
coffin lid Mors Licornibus Sceptra Aequat (1658 or 1660) Anne widow of William Newbury Gentleman and Notary Public and sweet mother of William Newbury Clerk died September 25 1770
Rector of Buckenham and Hassingham, 1918 MDCCCXXIV


The Churches of East Anglia websites are non-profit-making, but if you enjoy using them and find them useful, a small contribution towards the cost of web space, train fares and the like would be most gratefully received. You can donate via Paypal.


home I index I latest I introductions I e-mail I about this site I glossary
Norwich I ruined churches I desktop backgrounds I round tower churches
links I small print I www.simonknott.co.uk I www.suffolkchurches.co.uk

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