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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 in winter East Lexham

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St Andrew, East Lexham

The Lexham Hall estate spreads to the east of the large village of Litcham, its woodlands brooding over the narrow lanes that twist and turn along long-forgotten boundaries. Beyond the Hall the landscape is intensely agricultural, the lanes deepening between banks. Near a bridge over the infant River Nar you catch a first glimpse of the primitive round tower of this church across the fields, and perhaps experience a frisson of recognition if you know John Piper's 1960s photograph from the cover of the Shell Guide to Norfolk, for little has changed. You turn off into a farmyard, and there on its low rise above the barns sits one of the loveliest little churches in Norfolk.

The great majority of East Anglian round towers are not Saxon, and in fact in Norfolk they seem to have still been building them into the 14th Century, but the bell opening here suggest that this one is perhaps as early as the mid-11th Century. The tower is rendered, the church beside it small and neatly restored. 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 an early-Norman church. The imposing east window probably came on the eve of the Reformation.

You step into a simple village church with a memorably rustic atmosphere of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. The nave and chancel are continuous under a single roof. There was a restoration in the 1830s, and then the major work came in the 1870s. The interior is neatly cared for, narrow and dim without feeling gloomy. First sight on entry is of a striking WWI memorial, a painting of St Michael defeating the dragon. It looks as if it may have been the work of Powell & Sons, although I am not aware of any other painted wooden war memorials by the workshop. There are just seven names, but even so this must have made a traumatic impact on such a small and remote parish.

The other painted wooden work in the church is equally striking and in its way more remarkable. It is by the artist Richard Foster. In a blank window on the south side of the chancel is a tall depiction of the Nativity, an angel hovering over the stable, and in an image niche to the south of the east window St Andrew as a fisherman stands gazing up at the glass. Most memorable of all, perhaps, a long reredos depicts several people in modern dress rising from their graves on the Day of Judgement in a painting entitled The Second Coming.

reredos: 'The Second Coming' by Richard Foster

an angel at the nativity Nativity by Richard Foster niche figure by Richard Foster

Richard Foster was born here in East Lexham, and although he is now based in London where he is a portrait and landscape painter of some considerable reputation, he has made the further beautifying of East Lexham church a project over a number of years. He has said that he first measured the blank window for the Nativity painting back in 1972, but it was not completed until 2005 and then installed in the church in 2013. The churchyard in the reredos scene is that at Little Ryburgh, not far from here. The Clayton & Bell glass in the east window is by no means the workshop's worst, but how exciting it would be if it could be replaced by something equally thrilling.

An oddity in the sanctuary is a chair that appears to be made out of old misericord seats. 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.

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, but round-towered churches sit most comfortably in more distant landscapes. East Anglia has about 160 of them, and East Lexham is among the most memorable, along with the likes of Hales in far off south-east Norfolk and Ramsholt above the Deben in the Suffolk marshes. But perhaps they are best of all marooned in a farmyard as here, with sheep cropping among the headstones 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 the Church of England's often wholly unsuitable buildings shiver on death row, churches like St Andrew shrug off despair. Wholly organic, as if it has grown out of the earth on which it sits in this outpost, it seems to exist for something more than the here and now, and there will always be people who love it.

Simon Knott, January 2022

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chancel altar and reredos looking west
north chancel window war memorial St Michael on the War Memorial piscina
old forkbeard angel misericord presentation in the temple adoration of the magi
Frederick Keppel of Lexham Hall, 1830 St Michael weighing souls against their sins (1920s)
reredos: 'The Second Coming' by Richard Foster


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