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

St Peter, Crostwick


Crostwick blocked Norfolk snowdrops

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    St Peter, Crostwick

How things can change in ten years! For this is a story about what seemed to me to be decline and loss, a pivotal moment in the safeguarding of a part of Norfolk's priceless history. Crostwick is a tiny village, just a pub, a big house and a few cottages on the busy Norwich to North Walsham road. And this has always been a small, poor parish, its soil sandy and of little use for agriculture. Even in the middle of the 19th Century, when the population of rural Norfolk reached its post-medieval peak, there were barely 150 people here, and there must be many fewer today.

I first visited this church 10 years ago in February 2009. I picked up the key from a cottage near the pub, and cycled on up the main road towards where I knew the church to be. I had been through Crostwick so many times, but it had never occured to me before that there might be a church here. It isn't signposted from the main road, and I relied on the Ordnance Survey map to direct me along a muddy track which went into the woods. Even here, I almost came unstuck, for the track splits, and I ended up heading into the local Scout HQ. I should have taken the left fork, because after a few hundred metres this leads through the trees to a hidden gem, St Peter, with the rolling fields stretched out beyond.

I stepped from the wooded path into the enclosed churchyard, its hummocky graves contributing to an air of sadness and loss that was not easily dispelled by the sound of children's voices, surreal from the gardens of the houses by the road. A small churchyard, and this is a small church, not surprisingly, but its most striking feature is the magnificence of the top of the tower. The tracery is pierced rather than picked out in flushwork, as if this was some great city church rather than a shy local one hidden away in the woods. The rest of the building is perhaps more reassuringly familiar, a slightly ramshackle, rough and ready structure with plenty of red brick among the flint. The result is pleasing. A striking feature is the open roodloft stairway on the south side, like looking into the bones of a large animal. Further west, the red brick south doorway has itself been bricked up.

I wandered around the tower and back to the north side. I had already been told what to expect. A few weeks previously, someone had driven up with a van, taken up the tiles in the north porch, and driven away with them. I am afraid that the sheer arrogance and selfishness of people who could do such a thing is completely beyond my understanding. I haven't come across many incidents of deliberate damage during my visits to 2,000-odd East Anglian churches, but the stealing of building materials from a church to sell them for a profit seems to me one of the worst forms of vandalism, not least for the vulnerability which it leaves behind. I suppose that, if I tried hard, I could just about make a case for understanding bored teenagers carving their initials into doors, or militant atheists throwing stones through windows, or even the violent schizophrenic who put out all of the stained glass windows in one of Suffolk's churches about twenty years ago. But the theft of slabs, and lead, and copper and the like, these irrevocable attacks on our priceless heritage by thugs who want nothing more than a few fivers in their back pockets, should be a cause for great shame. I was only grateful that the kind people of Crostwick still allowed the key to the inner door to be given out.

I stepped into a church which is all of its 19th Century restoration, but with an endearing rustic feel which tells us more about Crostwick than it does about the Victorians. There is one significant medieval survival, a St Christopher wall painting on the south side of the nave facing the north doorway. The 19th Century font is a good one, with seated Saints in each panel and standing ones in the shaft, much in the style of some of the15th century fonts to the south-east of here in the Yare Valley. My favourite feature, which I have not come across elsewhere, is the figure of St John, seated with his poisoned chalice. But the serpent here is a long snake rather than a serpent, and unwinds itself into his lap.

font St John (with long serpent!) St Andrew
Christ in judgement (19th Century) font (19th Century) St Peter (19th Century)

I looked up at a roof which was pleasingly rural in character. Was it 17th Century, or a Victorian copy? Under the tower, an angel who had once sat at the top gazed sadly out from behind a lawn mower. The screen is a good reproduction of the early style of some Norfolk screens, featuring the double wheel above the entrance. You can see medieval versions of the same thing at several churches, including Merton. Up in the chancel, the 19th Century glass is very good. That on the south side bears the signature of William Wailes and the date 1853, while the adjacent panel has the signature of the restorers, the King workshop, and the date 1989.

Up on the wall nearby is remembered Eliza Willett, relict of Joshua Kirby Trimmer, eldest son of the authoress. This is a roundabout way of saying that Eliza was the widowed daughter-in-law of Sarah Trimmer. Mrs Trimmer is not well-known today, but her influence lives on, for of not many people can it be said that they created a genre. Born in Ipswich, she was an 18th Century writer and a collector of children's literature. She published a periodical, The Guardian of Education, which was the first to review children's literature in a serious way. She defined the parameters of what children's literature might include, and compiled the first history of the subject, thus establishing the canon, and recording its early landmarks. Sarah Trimmer's work has been built on considerably since, but it formed the basis for what we still understand children's literature to be today.

Ten years passed. Ten summers and winters, and Crostwick church sat huddled in the woods, and then we came back. It was April, and the trees were coming into leaf like something almost being said, the path through the woods already beginning to feel overgrown after the mild, wet winter. The air of sadness that I had felt coming this way ten years ago was alleviated somewhat by the sunshine filtering through the branches. The porch, though repaired, was full of dry leaves. We let ourselves into the church into a scene of dirt and decay. The first sight, absurd on top of the font, was the Christmas tree, still in place at the end of the April. Bunches of spruce tied to the ends of the benches were also covered in dust, making it clear that the church had not been used since last Christmas. But was it last Christmas, or an earlier one? For the most striking thing about the interior was the mess caused by the jackdaws' nests built in the eaves on the south side of the nave. Branches and bird droppings littered the benches, and as if to make the point a lone jackdaw flew glumly from one end of the church to the other all the time we were inside.

It would, of course, not be a difficult matter to set all this right if there was a will to do so. But it was not hard in all this to see a metaphor. For so many of our rural medieval churches rely not on large congregations for their survival, something they will never see again, but on the stalwart work of two or three enthusiastic parishioners whose sleeves seem to be permanently rolled up in the war on decline and loss. They are usually old, and there are not often very many of them. They will not be with us forever, and unless other people step up in their place their efforts will have been in vain. Does this matter? Do our medieval parish churches exist only for the benefit of their congregations, or is their existence a matter of concern for all of us? Crostwick church seemed to me to be a lesson for the future, a place where all roads end if we are not careful, and let them.

Simon Knott, August 2019

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looking east sanctuary looking west
Baptism of Christ (William Wailes, 1853) St Peter (William Wailes, 1853) Christ the Good Shepherd (William Wailes, 1853) St John (William Wailes, 1853) Last Supper (William Wailes, 1853)
eldest son of the authoress piscina Baptism of Christ and Last Supper (William Wailes, 1853) Christ the Good Shepherd flanked by St Peter and St John (William Wailes, 1853) St Christopher (15th Century)
tower arch corbel lion pelican in her piety (19th Century) & Patience


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