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St Edmund, Fritton
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There is a little trapdoor on the south side of the chancel, the purpose of which is not immediately clear. Inevitably in this traditionally lawless area not far from the sea, it has become known as the Smugglers' Loft. The churches of this area are all in the Norwich Diocese, even the Suffolk ones, and while the churches near to Yarmouth and Lowestoft have a reputation for being kept locked, Fritton St Edmund is, thankfully, open everyday, and you step into a pleasantly Victorianised rustic interior. The view to the east is unusual, with the little, low chancel hemmed in up one corner behind a screen which doesn't really seem to fit, and the royal arms high above on top of the eastern wall of the 14th Century rebuilt nave. When the nave was widened, the original north wall was retained and the other wall rebuilt about three metres further south, thus the curious juxtaposition between nave and chancel. In the splay of a window on this south side the rebuilders painted an image of a Saint, possibly St John the Baptist holding an agnus dei, while on the north wall opposite the south doorway is a massive St Christopher of about the same date. Otherwise, the nave is rather austere, the recut square font at the west end lending a note of gravitas.
This plainness and simplicity offset the fabulous jewel-like interior of the chancel, which you step down into as if into a quite different church. It is a remarkable survival. The tunnel-vaulting is an extraordinary thing to find. The trapdoor outside lets into the space above it, but more interestingly vaulting of this kind is often associated with there having been a tower above. Not only the vaulting of the apse has survived, but in 1967 a sequence of wall-paintings depicting the martyrdom of St Edmund were uncovered in the eastern end of the apse. It is one of the most complete sequences of the subject in England. The Saint himself appears crowned and shot through with arrows in the central panel, and other panels depict Danish bowmen, possibly St Peter and a donor. There is a little panel of Victorian glass depicting St Edmund at the centre, a happy accident because they could not have known about the wall paintings.
The chancel windows are furnished with some excellent early 20th century glass depicting a sequence of East Anglian Saints. They include St Walstan, St Olaf, St William of Norwich, St Felix, Fursey, St Wendreda, St Etheldreda and the more international seafaring Saint, St Nicholas. It is a perfect setting for them.
The screen has obviously been restored, perhaps more than once, but it almost certainly dates from the time that the nave was widened. There is said to be another which is almost identical, only better, in the now-closed church at Belton a few miles off, where it awaits an uncertain fate. No such fears here; I compared St Edmund with the churches of Hales and Heckingham near the start of this piece, but it is worth adding that this is the only one of those three apsed Norman churches which has not been declared redundant, and is still home to an Anglican faith community.
Simon Knott, July 2008
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