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

St Mary, Forncett St Mary

Forncett St Mary

Forncett St Mary Forncett St Mary

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  St Mary, Forncett St Mary

The Forncetts are a pair of adjoining villages not so very far from Long Stratton, merging seamlessly into each other along a long country road. Forncett St Peter is the larger of the two, Forncett St Mary straggling north from it. Both have medieval parish churches, and the tall round towered church of Forncett St Peter is memorable, an imposing sight across its wide churchyard. The church of Forncett St Mary however sits hidden about a mile to the north, set back from the lane along a short track in a smaller but a neat and open space. The church was largely rebuilt as was usual in the late 14th and 15th Centuries, and In 1432 John Newman's will left the residue of goods to construction of the tower, although as Pevsner points out the lower part is probably of the 13th Century. There are no aisles, no clerestories, and only a north porch adds a moment of quiet ostentation. It is in its way a typical small south Norfolk church, much more so than it's non-identical twin up the road, yet over the last half a century it has undertaken a remarkable journey, for this church is an admirable illustration of what a tiny parish can achieve when it sets its mind to it.

The church is open every day. You step through the north porch into a strikingly narrow nave which looks east to a cheerful four light 19th Century window with starbursts in its upper tracery. There is no coloured glass here, and the white light that fills the church falls on an interior which is almost entirely contemporary. Everything appears to have been done with a mind to care and quality, and yet there is almost nothing here among the furnishings that is older than about twenty years. The chancel arch is held up by splendid 19th Century angels, and they are a reminder that the majority of medieval churches had decayed into a poor condition, but that the Victorian revival in the Church of England saw thousands of often richly-bankrolled restorations. That at Forncett St Mary took place in 1869, and it involved a crisping up of the exterior and a refurnishing of the interior. There was a staggering increase in congregation numbers in Anglican churches over the second half of the 19th Century, but a hundred years later this had fallen away again, and in the 1970s there began a new wave of closures. The Forncetts were a joint parish, and a decision was made to keep in use just one of the two churches. In an understandable but perhaps misguided act of optimism they decided to keep the larger one, St Peter.

And so, it seems, St Mary was quietly abandoned. There seems never to have been a formal process of redundancy. It is as if the small congregation simply turned out the lights and locked the door behind them as they left their final evensong, to decamp up the road to St Peter. The track from the lane soon became overgrown. The churchyard quietly went back to nature. Occasionally vandals broke in, smashing windows and lighting fires. The roof of the porch either collapsed or was taken away for reuse elsewhere. And a deep silence settled over the decades. When I first came here in 2006 it was difficult to even locate the site of the church. With the help of an Ordnance Survey map I found the overgrown path behind the parish war memorial and beat my way through the cow parsley and brambles into the churchyard. Before me was a haunting sight. The south side of the church was completely overgrown with nettles and brambles, and on that early June day it was quite inaccessible. On the north side, I managed to forge my way to the far end and turn back west to take the first of the photographs below. The porch was a poignant sight, roofless and overgrown. it looked as if it might have been a ruin for centuries, but in living memory local people had come to church here. In this building they were baptised, married and sent on their way to the grave.

St Mary in 2006 south porch chancel arch and former organ south side of the nave
south side first sight from the path blocked window

Poking around in 2006 I had found a loose board over one of the north nave windows. Peering inside however, I found that it was a surprisingly neat and tidy near-empty shell, when I had expected vandalism and decay. In fact, the process of rescuing St Mary was already underway, and the interior had recently been cleared of dirt and broken furnishings. Because the church had never formally been declared redundant it was still the responsibility of the parish, and throughout the 1980s and 1990s there were ideas put forward for a new use for the building. One suggestion was that it might be turned into a holiday home as at Rishangles in Suffolk. Other ideas included community use and a recording studio, but all these ideas foundered on the legal difficulties of transferring ownership. This, of course, added to the spiral of neglect, but at least showed an interest in ensuring the building's survival.

In fact, the catalyst for a revival of the fortunes of St Mary had already occured when I first visited. Ironically, the instigator of the process which would lead to its rescue was an outsider, from Gloucestershire, and his concern was not the church itself but the overgrown churchyard. He was a family history researcher, who did not know what had happened here until he actually arrived to look for family graves. By one of those strokes of good fortune which often occur in stories like this, his attempts to get something done about the churchyard coincided with the arrival in the village of another incomer, who moved into the cottage next door to the church. Between them they galvanised locals into recovering the building and churchyard, and today it has been restored to something like its former glory. More impressively perhaps, it has been restored to use as a working church for the parish as well as being used for exhibitions, concerts and other events.

There are older survivals, although it isn't clear if they came from this church originally. One of them is a curious castellated font set on a modern marble stem and pedestal. A splendid 19th Century lectern sits within the chancel arch. The remains of the church's organ cases in the chancel have been repaired, although it is a small electronic keyboard that sits below them now. The sanctuary has been refurnished with a new altar and rails since I last visited in 2011. Also new in the corner of the sanctuary is a large sculpture of the head of the parish's most famous former rector, John William Colenso. A widely published mathematician and Biblical scholar, Colenso left Forncett St Mary in 1853 to become the first Bishop of Natal in South Africa. He became notorious in Anglican circles for his liberal, even radical, theology which seems to have set him somewhat at odds with the rest of the Established Church. I wonder what he would make of having his likeness on display here today.

Simon Knott, May 2023

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looking east chancel
font former organ case lectern
angels light Untitled


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