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

St Lawrence, Castle Rising

Castle Rising: full of confidence, Norman and Victorian

Read the captions by hovering over the images, and click on them to see them enlarged.
west front north doorway south porch Victorian above, Norman below massive

    St Lawrence, Castle Rising
tower, south side and transept   When I was a child we lived on a large council estate, a good sixty miles away from the sea. Sometimes we didn't see a beach from the end of one year to the next; but I had an aunt and uncle who were wealthier than the rest of the family. They had a car, for a start; and they also owned a caravan at Heacham. They were childless, and as I was their godson I was occasionally taken off to the Norfolk coast for the day.

We set off in the stillness of early morning, perhaps seven o'clock, because in those days before dual carriageways and bypasses even a sixty mile journey could be tortuous.

Once through the bottlenecks of Ely, Downham Market and Kings Lynn, we could relax, and I remember even now that, if we had made good time, we would stop at Castle Rising to explore the castle.

This was the late 1960s, and there was still a train service between Cambridge and Hunstanton. In summer, and especially at weekends, Hunstanton and Heacham would become Cambridgeshire-on-Sea, but you needed to go by car to stop off at Castle Rising. I must have been six or seven years old, and it was the first real castle I had ever seen. Even today, when I think of a castle, I think of Castle Rising.

I don't remember the church, but I have fond memories of the village, and so I was feeling particularly well-disposed towards it as we came into its winding streets. Castle Rising is attractive, partly because it is an old village that was once more important than it is today, but also because its modern features are carefully planned; this is one of the Sandringham estate villages. For many years it was the home of a branch of the Howard family, and they left their mark all over the place. Such old-fashioned patronage, and the almshouses and the cottages swept by falling leaves, were a breath of fresh air after a morning spent trawling the housing estates of Kings Lynn.

Although St Lawrence is plainly a cruciform Norman church, there is no disguising that it is extremely heavily restored. This is not unusual in the Sandringham area, and you might think that this is yet another church that has benefited from the genorosity of Edward VII. In fact, this is not the case at all; the restorations here were very much earlier, and both the early work of architects who would go on to be considered among the finest of the century. First came Anthony Salvin in the 1840s, and then George Street in the 1850s. Salvin would be back later in the century to completely rebuild neighbouring North Wooton, but here the two architects gave their own versions of Norman to complement the original, which had been built in the 1150s by William d'Albini, at the same time as his castle. Now, much of the 'Norman' detailing that you see, including the tower above the roofline, the main porch, and most of the doorways, is the work of Salvin and Street; but the glorious west front is largely d'Albini's, echoing in smaller, simpler form the west front of Acre priory some ten miles away.

Also surviving from the 12th century is Castle Rising's magnificent font. Rugged and brooding, it is so imposing that in a smaller church it might be quite overwhelming. It is square, and the western face has three madly grinning cats' heads. There are smaller heads projecting from the angles, but some of the sides appear to be either erased or unfinished.

font from the west face in the corner face in the corner

As with most cruciform churches, the crossing is a dramatic space. The journey from the font eastwards is one through time, from the Norman nave and the massive columns and capitals of the brick-lined Norman archway, through the transitional brick-lined eastern arch, into the wholly Early English chancel with its triple lancet windows, also pleasingly picked out in brick. Don't miss looking up beneath the tower, because the ribbed vaulting is exposed, and it is possible to see how the famous rainbow arch at Lindisfarne Priory was also once part of a vaulting like this.

The south transept rambles pleasingly through a series of spaces, presumably the work of Salvin, and the view westwards is dramatic, two blank arches flanking the vibrant west window with its depiction of the Angel appearing to the shepherds. There are Art Nouveau lampstands among the benches, as at North Wooton.

Scattered around are memorials to the Howards, and it must be said that they have done themselves proud, from the richly crocketted memorial on the north wall to the alcove to the south of the crossing, not to mention the enormous celtic cross in the churchyard which might at first be taken for a war memorial. Their money has left a church that is all of a piece, and yet it speaks of two great ages of change, the Norman and the Victorian, when our masters, at least, were full of confidence. Because of this, its monumental character may be a little out of keeping with the quiet spirituality of the modern Church of England; but its drama is a statement of solidity and permanence.

Simon Knott, November 2005


looking east looking west EE chancel under the crossing - rainbow arches
south transept Howard memorial west window: Angel appearing to the shepherds north door 
mighty capital to the west crossing arch high windows Howard memorial

that Howard in full

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