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

St Andrew, East Lexham

East Lexham

East Lexham East Lexham East Lexham
East Lexham East Lexham East Lexham

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    St Andrew, East Lexham

I sit here on a gloomy, rain-swept day almost a hundred miles from East Lexham in the middle of the great Covid Pandemic of 2020, and it is not difficult to let my mind wander to that remote little church on its mound within a huddled farmyard, and wish I was there. Not now, of course, but on a bright day in May or June, the air full of birdsong and the trees heavy in the early summer heat. It seems a long time ago and very far away.

I imagine it now: you turn off of the busy Fakenham road and head down a narrow lane into this ancient setting, and there is the fat flint round tower above you with its late Saxon bell openings. Most East Anglian round towers are not Saxon, in fact in Norfolk they seem to have still been building them into the 14th Century, but this one probably is. The church beside it is small, neatly restored and rendered. The path up to the south porch is fenced off to allow sheep to graze the churchyard. The doorway is early 13th Century, and so I think are the south windows, embellishments to the early-Norman church. Nothing much more appears to have happened for at least another couple of centuries, and then they redid the chancel with an imposing east window.

You step into a simple village church with a memorable atmosphere of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, neatly cared for, narrow and dim without feeling gloomy. The Ahead of you is the striking war memorial, an iconic painting of St Michael defeating the dragon. There are just seven names, but even so this must have made a traumatic impact on such a small and remote parish.

St Michael on the War Memorial St Michael weighing souls against their sins (1920s)

The restoration here was very early, in the 1830s, a rustic setting for the additions of the following decades which left it as you see it today. One of these is a stall which appears to be made out of misericords, one with a fork-bearded head and the other an angel holding a crown. It isn't difficult to imagine that they might have come from Castle Acre priory church a couple of miles off. The exquisite little corner piscina set in the splay of the south side window of the chancel must be contemporary with the tracery of the east window, part of a 15th Century refurbishment that would have astounded the locals with its arrival in their rustic little church.

The 1860s brought Clayton & Bell's glass in the east window, and on my most recent visit to East Lexham I was pleased and surprised by a tall painting of the Nativity newly set in a blind window on the south side of the chancel. It is by the remarkable artist Richard Foster who was born here in East Lexham. Best known as a portrait painter, Foster has made the further beautifying of East Lexham church a project over a number of years, recording that he first measured the blank window for the painting back in 1972. It was completed in 2005 and installed in the church in 2013. Since my visit, Foster's St Andrew has been set in the image niche to the south of the east window, and another major painting of the Annunciation is also due to be installed.

Nativity an angel at the nativity

It is hard to find anyone who does not love round-towered churches, especially if they are in such an idyllic rural setting as this. There are a few urban round-towered churches about of course, including two in Norwich, but neither are parish churches any longer. Of those that are, Acle and Bungay Holy Trinity both suffer the heavy burden of generations of urbanites trying to make them look grander than their rural cousins, although both remain beautiful inside. Gunton, land-locked by inner-city Lowestoft, is another, although its interior is entirely 19th Century. But round-towered churches sit most comfortably in more distant landscapes. Not so very far from East Lexham is Stanford in the battle training area, remote, surrounded by silence, cut off from the world. Away to the south in Suffolk is Ramsholt on a bluff above the marshes and the sleek, winding River Deben, but perhaps they are best of all marooned in a farmyard like here, with sheep cropping among the gravestones and agricultural smells all around.

There is something wildly resilient about a church in a place like this, as if it is saying I have survived. I will not succumb easily. For whatever the 21st Century can throw at us, as organised Christianity moves away from the pastures of Anglicanism and its often wholly unsuitable buildings shiver on death row, churches like St Andrew shrug off despair. They seem to exist for something more than the here and now, and there will always be people who love them. If churchgoing becomes, as a recent article in the Daily Telegraph put it, an esoteric activity, then what is that to East Lexham church? Wholly organic, it has grown out of the earth it sits on in this outpost, and doesn't need to be useful.

Simon Knott, October 2020

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sanctuary looking west war memorial north chancel window
angel misericord old forkbeard
adoration of the magi presentation in the temple East Lexham


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