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

St Mary, Cranwich

Magical: St Mary in its secret grove

Read the captions by hovering over the images, and click on them to see them enlarged.
Tower: sound hole Tudor window Moss-dank porch and roof

    St Mary, Cranwich
Mysterious and lovely   The day was coming to an end. During our journey across the county, the clouds had dissolved; the sun had been deceptive in its richness. But now, the light thinned, the colours becoming one, and it was early winter after all. Not far from the great darkening spread of the forest, we turned off of the road onto a long track which skirted the fields. There was a smell of earth from the ploughed furrows, and eventually the track narrowed, petering out. We stepped into the cold air, a blackbird piping in the copse as we stepped through it.

Across a wide clearing, hidden in its own grove of ancient trees, was the tiny round-towered church of St Mary, hunched behind its simple porch and under its thatched roof. It was stunning, a moment perfectly caught. No photograph could do it justice. There was no path, so we waded through the long grass and climbed over the low fence. It was a magical place.

The tower at Cranwich is one of the most ancient in all East Anglia, a thin Saxon tower with a ring of carstone and, higher up, a punctuation of extraordinary sound holes with knotted tracery. Two hundred years later, battlements and gargoyles were added, but then nothing else happened. Similarly, the nave is Norman, the chancel slightly newer. Several centuries later the late medieval period contributed windows, but after that the structure was complete, unaltered and barely repaired. Even the porch is thatched, and even the thatch seems ancient, moss-dank and dark from years of Norfolk winters.

I fully expected the church to be locked. We were a long way from the village, and it was late in the day, late in the year. I even wondered if the building was still in use. But I pushed at the round-headed door, and it opened.

Inside was dark, and it took a moment to adjust. The interior is very simple, a rustic 19th century makeover, the kind I always find slightly sad; as if the people it was designed for had slowly left, one by one, until only the building was left with its loss. The floors are brick, and damp has coated stone surfaces with green, as if the forest is reclaiming its own. The ceiling is plastered, with a simple wooden tympanum forming the chancel arch. The woodwork, dark with varnish, belies the silvery greyness all around; even the royal arms are monochrome.

  Ancient entrance

A ledger stone in front of the sanctuary is carved elaborately, but by a local hand. Beside it, missed by Pevsner, missed by Mortlock, consecration crosses betray a medieval stone altar mensa, reset in the floor. It must be the original one from this church during its Catholic days, for who would bother to bring one from elsewhere?

Tower: gargoyle and battlement   A little harmonium sits against the west wall of the nave. On its pedals it proclaims itself mouse proof. There would not be rich pickings for a mouse here today. The font is plain, the only monument is one to John Partridge, a former Rector, who after several years painful illness, which he bore with perfect resignation, he departed this life 17th May 1815, in the 47th year of his life. The interior he knew has gone, but he would recognise the perfect simplicity of this place today.

I wandered about the graveyard. I found a headstone facing west, towards the old rectory, remembering someone who died at the age of 106. As I looked at it, I heard a noise from near the entrance to the churchyard. I looked up, and there was a woman carrying a small camera. "Did you see it?" she asked breathlessly. "Did you see the sun on the tower?"

As it happened, on stepping out of the building I had noticed the last rays of sunlight slanting across the treetops on to the peak of the tower, and had taken the photograph of the gargoyle you can see on the left. We compared images on the backs of our cameras. She flicked through perhaps forty shots, all of the church, all taken within the last few days. She explained how she visited the church regularly to photograph it, but also to tug away the ivy that had encroached on the walls, the moss from the roofs, and to document the headstones before they were gone forever.

These were her words, and I assumed her to be a member of the congregation, perhaps even a churchwarden; but no. She lived not far off, and often came this way when out walking. She told us that the church had a congregation of about half a dozen, but they were all elderly people, none with the energy or inclination to clear the churchyard. Perhaps they had not even noticed that it was disappearing back into the forest. She had never even been to a service; it was quite likely that the people who 'owned' the church did not even know she existed. And yet here she was, nearly every day.

2009: Well, that was almost five years ago. Lots of people have contacted me to say how wonderful they thought the Good Samaritan of Cranwich was. Others have contacted me to ask exactly where Cranwich church is, so that they can go and visit it. The church remains for me a perfect example of all that a rural medieval church should be, an aesthetic pleasure, and one of my favourite little churches of all. I have revisited several times since 2004. And, since that time, things have happened. There has been a burgeoning of interest among the people of the parish. Cranwich church has received a grant from English Heritage to carry out necessary repairs, and the congregation has been galvanised into action. This really is a place where there is a sense of a living church: the heart of its faith community, yes, but also a prayerful space for anyone who visits it, be they local or not, and a touchstone down the long Cranwich generations.   The old rectory, beside the church

Simon Knott, December 2004, updated April 2009


Looking east Sanctuary Looking west
Green grows the font Ledger stone Piscina John Partridge, 1815
Monochrome Royal Arms Consecration cross from original mensa 'mouse proof' - the harmonium pedals

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