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

St Edmund, Emneth


Emneth (photograph taken in 2005) Emneth south aisle east windows (photograph taken in 2005)

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  St Edmund, Emneth

As you head westwards towards the edge of Norfolk you enter what is perhaps the strangest part of this big county. The dykes, drifts and flatlands seem to have spilled over the border from Cambridgeshire a couple of miles off. This is Norfolk's small part of the Fen Country. There is barely a tree in sight, nothing but long straight roads that occasionally and abruptly veer off to cross a ditch or a dyke. Occasional houses are austere, understated, their little gardens shocks of green, jarring in the vastness. Everything is visible here. There is no play of light, no subtlety of colour. No dark secret could be contained for ever by this land. I thought of what Seamus Heaney wrote about the old man-killing parishes of Jutland, although in truth this was a landscape I recognised, for it is so like the Isle of Ely where I was born.

You have left the Diocese of Norwich far behind, and have entered the Diocese of Ely. The lane joins a wider road through Emneth Hungate, where the recluse Tony Martin shot a burglar dead in 1999, and then before you leave Norfolk altogether you enter the surprise of of semis, bungalows and older houses. This is Emneth, a Norfolk suburb of the Cambridgeshire town of Wisbech. The old course of the River Nene, which forms the border between Norfolk and Cambridgeshire here, runs half a mile to the west. The road is busy, for it connects Wisbech to Ely. At its widest point it curves to reveal the large church and wide churchyard of the parish church of Emneth. The village name appears to mean the hythe or landing place of a man called Eana, and the -eth placename ending occurs a number of times over the border in Cambridgeshire.

From either side this looks a typical late medieval East Anglian church, with aisles and a clerestory with enormous windows. But when you see it from the east you are reminded that this is an area of England with many Early English survivals. The three lancets of the east window soar to the rooftops. The 15th Century aisles go right up to the east wall of the chancel, but in fact there were chancel chapels here before, and inside the church there will be evidence that they date from the early 13th Century. The northern chapel is now a two-storey vestry, and Pevsner says that the ground floor has a tunnel-vaulted ceiling. The tower is big, a solid reminder of late medieval prosperity. A little pointed turret on top is a quiet echo of the spires and steeples often found in this area of Norfolk and Cambridgeshire.

You step through the south porch into a vast upturned ship of a church, for this is every bit one of the great Marshland churches. White light from the clear glass in the large clerestory windows plays shadows and spills across the nave floor below. The arcades stretch eastwards like a forest grove. There is a good traceried font of the late 15th Century, and the bones of a screen that are contemporary with it have some original paint and are elaborated with a new dado and coving. But the great surprise that St Edmund has to offer is immediately apparent as you step through the elegant doorway of the roodscreen into the chancel. This is the pair of arcades dividing the chancel from its north and south aisle chapels, gorgeous chunky round arches set on elegant capitals. Pevsner took the motif of waterleaf mouldings on one as a guide to the date, which he puts at about 1210. The south chapel is divided into two by a wrought iron screen with a gate in it, which you can step through into the mausoleum of the Hewer family. There are two tombs, one from the 1580s and the other from some 30 years later. They are for two Sir Thomas Hewers, father and son, and their wives.

Hewer mausoleum, 1631 asleep Hewer mausoleum, 1631

The oldest is against the south wall, set below the window splay. It is relatively simple, with original paintwork and inscriptions, but no figures. The one opposite is quite something else again. This is to the younger Sir Thomas,with him and his wife lying in clothes that are still late Elizabethan despite the date, under a canopy supported by marble pillars. Most memorable is the recumbent figure of their infant son, his head resting on a cushion that partly conceals a skull. The whole piece is the work of Nicholas Stone, and Pevsner tells us that he was paid 95 for it.

The 15th century nave roof has angels on the beams and in the wall posts. It is probably by the same hands as those at Outwell and Upwell. Of course, we are very close to March in Cambridgeshire, which has what is England's finest angel hammerbeam roof, and so you get the feeling there was a bit of competition around here. The the figures have mellowed to a lovely silvery-grey colour. The clerestory lights it up nicely. The glass in the north aisle and on the south side of the chancel is by Clayton & Bell, but perhaps the best is in the east and west windows, 1860s work by William Wailes. The French Cathedral style of that in the east window suits this big church, depicting scenes in the life of Christ. That in the west window depicts the Adoration of the Shepherds, the Adoration of the Magi, the Presentation in the Temple and the Finding in the Temple. The view west in the nave, with the modern gallery within the tower fronting the glass, is lovely.

There are a few surviving 15th Century figures in glass. A king holds a sword and sceptre, facing across to the Blessed Virgin at the Annunciation. Under his feet are barleycorns, signature of the Norwich school. The most complete figure is that of St Sitha with her bunch of keys. There are also angel musicians and another who may have come from an Orders of Angels sequence.

St Sitha, 15th Century, restored (photograph taken in 2005) angel with a lute seated on a cloud, 15th Century, restored (photograph taken in 2005) Blessed Virgin at the Annunciation, king with a sword and sceptre, 15th Century, restored (photograph taken in 2005) angel with a harp seated on a cloud, 15th Century, restored (photograph taken in 2005) angel with a sceptre, 15th Century, restored (photograph taken in 2005)

A single lozenge of modern glass in the south aisle may surprise you, for it depicts Thomas the Tank Engine. The vicar of Emneth from 1953 to 1965 was the Reverend Wilbur Vere Awdry, author of the Thomas the Tank Engine books. Awdry got some of his inspiration locally, for nearby March was an important railway town, Wisbech had three railway stations, and the Wisbech and Upwell Tramway which trundled along Emneth high street would also appear in the books. The first of the series came in 1946, and Awdry was already famous by the time he arrived in Emneth. Most of his clerical career was spent within the Diocese of Ely. His previous incumbencies had been at Elsworth and Bourn in Cambridgeshire, but Emneth would be his last. He took early retirement on the grounds of ill health in 1965, but he continued to write and would live until 1997. A blue plaque on the side of the Old Vicarage also remembers him.

Simon Knott, December 2022

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nave roof (photograph taken in 2005) Emneth Emneth
font (photograph taken in 2005) tower window and salleys angel holding a tabernacle (photograph taken in 2005)
Marshland St James Thomas the Tank Engine Emneth M U


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