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St Mary, Feltwell
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St Mary seems tightly shoehorned into its long, narrow churchyard, an effect accentuated by the wide north aisle added by enthusiastic Victorians. The view from the south is almost urban in its appearance, without the luxury of a wide and ambling graveyard, and emphasises the sheer size of the building. But the grandest touch of all is south-west Norfolk's best tower. The sumptuous parapet and pinnacles date right from the eve of the Reformation, as probably does much of the nave, for a money-raising campain of 1494 was used for a massive reconstruction after a fire. The chancel is earlier, probably 14th Century, and overall the effect of aisles and clerestory beneath the great tower is a happy one.
The church is open every day, and you step inside to a wide, open interior, the smell of old wood and fresh-cut flowers,the sight of dust falling silently in summer sunlight. The benches to the west are almost entirely medieval, and if the fire mentioned in 1494 affected the nave then they are probably early 16th Century. The bench ends are mostly vandalised, but the best represent the Works of Mercy, including Feed the Hungry, Welcome the Stranger, Bury the Dead and Visit the Prisoner.
Beyond the rood screen, the chancel beckons, glowing and jewel-like. You step through to find East Anglia's largest expanse of 19th Century French cathedral glass, both here and in the 19th Century south aisle which extends up to the east wall of the chancel. It is by the Didron and Oudinot workshops of Paris, and was installed in several campaigns between 1859 and 1863. You wouldn't want every church to have had this visited upon them, but here it is magnificent. I like the Didron window telling the story of the Prodigal Son best.
The size of the chancel is accentuated by those great walls of glass, and the floral altar frontal complements them perfectly, although it must be said that the near-life size figures of the Holy Family stepping down the chancel steps are a little bizarre.
Stepping out of the chancel again, you see there is a two-light window beneath the tower by Didron depicting the story of Adam and Eve. This is interesting, because the rest of the glass in the nave is clear, but the French glass in the chancel begins at the opening of the New Testament and then heads east. Was there a plan to fill the nave windows with Cathedral glass as well, telling the story of the Old Testament? I'm glad they didn't, though it would have been interesting to see.
Simon Knott, August 2016
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