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

All Saints, Crostwight

Crostwight

Crostwight south porch (early C16) field
gable face gable face gable face

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    All Saints, Crostwight

I spent many happy days in the summer of 2019 cycling around the churches between Norwich and Cromer, and of all that part of the county I think it is the area to the east of North Walsham that I like best. I was visiting churches, but chasing memories too, and when I came to Crostwight my mind was cast back fourteen years to the time of my first visit with the late Tom Muckley.

It was one of those balmy spring days in early April, 2005. It was getting on towards late afternoon, and Tom and I were nearing the end of a successful day's church exploring. Virtually every church in this area was open every day, and those which aren't were willingly opened by their caring churchwardens.Indeed, in years to come I would find that even these churches were now open. There is a real impression in this part of Norfolk of churches held by the communities to be more than mere worship spaces, but sacramental structures, folk museums and touchstones down the long generations. I like them all a lot.

We had visited everywhere we'd planned, but there was still an hour or so of daylight left. Suddenly, off in the fields to the left, I saw a long, low structure with a truncated roof. I looked on the map to see that it was the parish church of Crostwight, although there appeared to be no village, hardly any houses even. From the map I could see that there was an old rectory about a quarter a mile from the church, beside the lane, but even in early Spring it was so tree-surrounded as to be barely visible until we actually reached it.

"Five pounds says it's locked", warned Tom, risking his exhaust by driving up to the graveyard along an old track. And he was right, but the key was back at the old rectory, where the keyholder was very friendly and welcoming. We unlocked the door, and stepped inside. An ancient space. A wide nave, pale, rustic, full of creamy light. A medieval screen, golden in the afternoon shadows. And then, treasure. This is the best kind of discovery - late in the day, unexpected, unsought. For All Saints has one of the most extensive schemes of late medieval wall-paintings in East Anglia.

From time to time I called in when I was cycling in the area, but when I tipped up on a hazy summer day in 2013, bumping my bike along the track, I found two very loud and energetic characters in possession. They were moving furniture, hunting for inscriptions, graffiti and the like. They made it quite clear by their expressions and shortness with me that they really didn't want me there, so I wandered around for a bit until I felt I had irritated them enough by my presence, and then I headed on. Perhaps the experience had left a nasty taste in my mouth, because I didn't come back for six years.

And when I did it was on one of those warm, hazy mornings that seemed to fill the early summer of 2019, so different to the heavy oppressive heat of the previous year. This was my first church of the day, cycling out from North Walsham station and reaching here about half past eight in the morning. The church was still locked, though this time the keyholder asked me to leave the church open, so perhaps I was just too early. I came back past the low, stumpy tower which was taken down as unsafe in 1910 as part of a general restoration, the bells rehung lower, looking up at the curious little heads I'd remembered on the sides of the gables, and stepped inside.

The first impression is of cool, damp stone and wood, an organic place. But I was already looking across the church to see again the wall paintings stretching along the north side of the nave. The sequence probably dates from the later part of the 14th century, perhaps the early 15th. The scheme is essentially doctrinal in nature, part of the enforcement of Catholic orthodoxy at that time in the face of local superstitions, perhaps as a response to the effects of the Black Death.

The Passion sequence of wall-paintings is the most remarkable. It runs at three levels on the north wall of the nave between the two windows. The arrangement is rather complex, and several of the panels are hard to decipher. The sequence starts in the middle level, works towards the centre, goes up to the top level and then the bottom level. In order, they are:

Christ's entry into Jerusalem Christ washes the feet of the Disciples St John beside Christ at the Last Supper

1: The entrance of Christ into Jerusalem.
2: Christ washes the feet of his disciples.
3: The Last Supper - Christ in the centre, John on the left

Christ praying and the disciples sleeping in the garden at Gethsemane Christ brought before Pilate Christ before Herod

4: Christ prays in the Garden of Gethsemane.
5: Christ is arraigned before Pilate.
6: Christ before Herod.

The Crown of Thorns placed on Christ's head Christ's body is pierced at the Crucifixion Disciples at the Ascension of Christ

7: The crown of thorns is placed on Christ's head.
8: The Crucifixion. Christ is crucified, a thief on each side of him.
Below, Mary weeps, Longinus pierces his side, another soldier offers him vinegar on a reed.

9: The Ascension of Christ.

A blank area of wall between subjects 9 and 10 must once have depicted the Resurrection, but this is now completely lost. A further blank piece of wall to the east of the Ascension image suggests a space for one more panel, which may have been Christ sitting at the right hand of the Father, or possibly the day of Pentecost.

There are more wall-paintings to the west of the window. These are also fascinating. At the extreme west is a depiction of the Seven Deadly Sins - a tree grows out of the jaws of hell (represented by the mouth of a giant fish) and the sins grow on it as fruit. The jaws are full of sinners, being pushed down into hell by a devil. To the right of this is a very curious painting. It appears to show two women being welcomed by an angel at the gates of Heaven, with what may be a devil low down looking on. Pevsner thought it was a warning against gossip as at
Seething, but I don't think this can be right. Anne Marshall suggested that it is similar to a painting at Swanbourne in Buckinghamshire, which depicts the allegory of the penitent and unpenitent souls. Immediately to the right of this is a much more familiar image, St Christopher. Finally, an unidentified Saint, a scroll above his head.

Seven Deadly Sins on a tree growing out of the mouth of Hell The Penitent and Unpenitent sinners? St Christopher and the Christ child

The screen is nicely-proportioned and a gorgeous chestnut brown, but close examination suggests that it has been substantially restored . The carving in the spandrels in particular, while fascinating, depicting dragons, wild men, flying hearts and the like, does appear to be modern, at best recut. And, curiously, while the chancel arch itself retains extensive painted decoration, there is none on the screen at all. Is it possible that the screen was brought here from elsewhere as part of one of the 19th or early 20th Century restorations?

A number of memorials of interest survive. A brass to Henry Lessingham, rector of Banningham who died in 1497 asks us in Latin to pray for his soul. We are told that 18 year old James Shepheard resign'd his breath to the will of heaven in 1810, and equally memorable is the inscription on the ledger stone of his grandmother, Ann Shepheard who, dying in 1801 at the age of 65 assures us that How lov'd, how valu'd once avails thee not, To whom related, or by whom begot, A heap of Dust alone remains of thee, Tis all thou art - and all the Proud shall be.

As with many churches around here, All Saints has an octagonal Purbeck font reset on collonaded pillars. This one is in very poor condition, and must have spent a long period out of doors at some point. But its worn and fractured sides somehow add to the atmosphere of a simple, rural church in a tiny parish - barely 700 acres, and certainly no more than a hundred people. It sits a quarter of a mile from the nearest road and from the nearest house. There is no electricity. It has, in modern eyes, no real reason for existing any more. But it is well-kept, used regularly, and obviously much loved.

Hubert Arthur Francis was the only man from the parish to die in World War Two, aboard HMS Royal oak at Scapa Flow. Today, he has a memorial as grand as any you'd find for Lords of the Manor in other country churches. And beneath it, his photograph in a simple frame. Still remembered. That, for me, made it all the more special.

Simon Knott, December 2019

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looking east looking east font
chancel sanctuary looking west through the screen
resign'd his breath to the will of heaven, 1810 Anna Cannon hic jacet December 9 1604 Fifty Nine Years an Inhabitant of this Parish, 1841
a heap of dust alone remains of thee, 1801 bat-winged skeleton green man
Orate pro anima Henrici Lesyngham, 1497

hic jacet

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