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

St Mary, Great Massingham

Great Massingham: the enchantment of England

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15th century tower 13th century porch venerable south door

    St Mary, Great Massingham
owl   I had never visited Great Massingham before, and I didn't know what to expect. The very name suggests somewhere grand, a sense of permanence and belonging. And this was almost exactly right; the large village sprawls impressively around its several greens, each with a duck pond. St Mary is a big church, set beside the largest green, the village shop next door and 19th century cottages facing across the grass towards it.

The churchyard is screened by chestnut trees, and these lend their air of gravitas to the setting. In the village street, people were going about their business in a purposeful way. Great Massingham seemed the kind of village which would have a life of its own, with busy clubs and societies, an active sense of belonging and ownership. It was a place that could get along very nicely, thank you.

I thought of what the philosopher Roger Scruton had defined as the enchantment of England; a sense of place which has grown up from its roots, a spell cast on the land by the centuries of quiet lives lived in a village like this.

Three centuries have conspired to make the church what it is today. If the great west tower of St Mary recalls the glories of late medieval East Anglia, the extraordinary porch speaks of the creativity and imagination of two hundred years earlier, before the Black Death turned us all serious. In fact, it was dismantled and rebuilt by the Victorians, but it still bubbles with the enthusiasm of Early English becoming Decorated, and so does the chancel.

13th and 15th century glories adorn the exterior; but, like many churches in large East Anglian villages, St Mary underwent a huge restoration in the 19th century. As so often, this has resulted in an urban feeling, but St Mary escapes the dull anonymity of some by being so thoughtfully and immaculately cared for. Despite its size, it is a simple, prayerful space, a difficult effect to achieve when the Victorians have been about their business. This is helped by the beautifully arranged chancel, with its modern altar frontal and stunning reredos. The frontal depicts the Visitation, while the reredos shows the crucifixion with the Blessed Virgin and St John at the foot of the cross.

The interior of St Mary is not without its medieval survivals. Most significant perhaps is the sequence of Apostles in the upper lights of the south chancel windows. They include St Peter, St Philip, St James the Less, St Bartholomew, St Jude and St Matthew.

St Peter, St Philip, St James the Less, St Bartholomew St Peter, St Philip St James the Less, St Bartholomew
St Jude St Matthew

The font is a large, plain object, roughly contemporary with the porch, but nearby are several 15th century benches, in poor shape and sadly marginalised by the parvenu Victorian furnishings. However, they have some fascinating bench ends. The panels themselves are traceried as if in a cathedral, and along with a couple of beasts is a figure kneeling at a prayer desk. The face of the figure is a Victorian restoration, I think, and I'm guessing that originally it portrayed a person asleep. This is because I think it depicts sloth from the Seven Deadly Sins. If so, I wonder what happened to the other six?

We reached Great Massingham at about lunchtime, and thought it would be a good place to stop for a rest. We looked around for the pub; there is one marked on the Ordnance Survey map, but when we tracked it down it turned out to be a private house. If it hadn't been for the map, you'd never have known it had ever been anything other.

As I said, this is a big village, with several greens; surely there must be a pub beside one of them? We searched and searched, hoping against hope. But there was none. I was sure that Great Massingham must be one of the largest villages in East Anglia without a pub, and this was a real disappointment. For what use is a village without a pub? And so we headed on to Weasenham, which thankfully still has two.

Simon Knott, December 2006

Postscript, April 2007: Tim Burton writes: I've just read your account of Great Massingham having called in there myself on Saturday. You must have visited about a week before the reopening of the pub opposite the church following a five-year closure! The 'Dabbling Duck' is perhaps a little twee (regulation scrubbed pine floor, pale blue dado, easy chairs, books, etc) but it does good food and real ale and in summer you'll be able to sit out on the green opposite. It was heaving when we called in.


13th century doorway looking east looking west font 
Mary at the foot of the cross Sloth? north door and bier tracery
Christ in Majesty Visitation beautiful sanctuary mythical beast 

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