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

St Andrew, Great Ryburgh

Great Ryburgh: welcome to the pleasure dome

Read the captions by hovering over the images, and click on them to see them enlarged.
south transept north side of the tower south transept from the east carstone banding in the tower

    St Andrew, Great Ryburgh
tower   Welcome to the pleasure dome. I usually describe the surroundings of a church first, but anyone who has been to St Andrew will remember it mostly for containing one of the largest displays of Anglo-catholic art in Norfolk. Great Ryburgh is a parish where the ritualist passion was strong, but the tide has since receded. So, although most of the statues and the candles and the incense have gone, what remains is the superb fabric of a shrine church, including the work of two of the major English church artists of the turn of the 20th century, William Wailes and Ninian Comper.

All this awaits you as you approach the village, preferably from the hills to the east. You cross the young river Wensum, and in doing so cross from Pevsner Volume I into Pevsner Volume II, so remember to take both if you are out this way - Little Ryburgh and Great Ryburgh are in different volumes.

St Andrew is a rare beast - a cruciform round tower church. The tower has layers of carstone decoration, usually taken as a sign that it is Saxon work, so there was probably a church here by the early part of the 11th century. The octagonal bell stage is plainer and, dare I say it, more pleasing than some of the flushworked confections you see, and is thus probably older than many, probably dating from the early 14th century. Perhaps then, this tower was a model for others.

The curiosity of the body of the church is that the windows suggest it was being built right at the end of the Decorated period, and the start of Perpendicular. What this means, if it is true, is that we have a community here with the confidence, or the yearning, to build a substantial church within twenty or thirty years of the outbreak of the Black Death that wiped out half of Norfolk's population, and during the recurring outbreaks that carried off most of the children. Even if it is on nothing like the scale of Cawston or Salle, it is an early date for such a complete rebuilding. Had an earlier church been destroyed in some way? Or had rebuilding commenced before the pestilence, only to be abandoned and resumed later?

You enter a church that is alive with colour. The windows were an early part of the restoration scheme, and are all the work of William Wailes from the mid 1860s onwards. In the nave, there is one large window for each of the Evangelists, depicting scenes from the Gospels. Their restraint, a combination of symmetrical patterns, symbols and small scenes, is superb - this is some of the best late 19th century glass in Norfolk.

Christ about to be baptised by John St John the Evangelist St Luke the raising of Lazarus
the Visitation suffer the children to come unto me Adoration of the Magi the St Mark window
the Good Samaritan the Annunciation Christ in the garden of Gethsemane suffer the children to come unto me
the martyrdom of St Andrew Christ with Martha and Mary, and the Raising of their brother Lazarus the disciples asleep
angel playing a violin Anglo-catholic twilight Good Samaritan (detail)

Above, at the west end, is a fine gallery where the organ sits. Underneath there is a magnificent Norman tower arch forming a backdrop to the sparsely decorated Victorian font and 20th century Perp font cover. The bowl has an inscription Except a man be born of water... A royal arms faces east. As you wander that way, the church opens out before you.

On the south side is a screen, painted white and lettered to tell you that it is the war memorial. The chapel it screens is beautiful, a simple, empty space that contains a tomb recess, an altar with a modern reredos in the style of a Flemish painting, and a statue of St Thomas. Turning back, you'll notice that the screen panels are painted with a sequence of Saints, very much in the 1920s Anglo-Catholic style. I wonder if it could be the work of Ernest Geldart? They depict, from left to right, St Remigius, St Cuthlac, St Etheldreda, St Andrew, St Thomas, St Withburga, St Walstan and St Felix. The image of St Walstan is especially striking - it shows him digging with a spade.

St Remigius and St Cuthlac St Etheldreda and St Andrew St Thomas and St Withburga St Walstan and St Felix St Walstan having a dig

The north transept opposite contains a screened vestry, with a listed provenance of the Church of England inscribed on it which is again typical of the period. The chancel arch is spanned by a great rood, which curiously has a small shield in the middle refering to the Malay states. I assume it is a memorial to someone who died in the Far East in the Second World War, but it looks older and so may originally have come from elsewhere.

The chancel is, again, beautifully neat and cleared of clutter, which is just as well because it is the star of the show here. Apart from the large tomb against the north wall, which appears to be a composite of parts of two, possibly three, tombs of the 16th and 17th century, almost everything you see here is the work of Ninian Comper. His is the scheme for the ceiling with its painted angels, but best of all is one of the loveliest early twentieth century art objects in Norfolk, Comper's alabaster reredos of 1912. The figures are stunning, at once human and unworldly, crisp and alive. The central crucifixion with the Blessed Virgin and St John is flanked by St George dispatching a dragon, St Swithin with his swan, St Helen with the true cross, and St Edmund with a broodily prowling wolf. The grain on the cross is exactly the same as that on Comper's contemporary window at Ufford in Suffolk.

Comper's reredos St George and St Swithin St Helen and St Edmund Comper's Christ - compare with Ufford
Blessed Virgin crucifixion

Elsewhere, there are modern devotional statues of St Joseph, St Swithin and a beautiful Our Lady of Walsingham in a dressed niche, which may lead you to think that this is still a spiky Anglo-catholic hotspot. This is not the case, I am afraid. A good friend of the site who would prefer to remain nameless, because he has a great affection for this church, turned up for a service one day in June expecting lots of bells and smells, genuflection and elevation and the like.

He continues: I got there at 10.20, in plenty of time. I sat in the car for about twenty minutes while a small number of bell ringers turned up - there are six bells. At 10.40 I decided I would go in. I sat in the last but one row from the back. After fifteen minutes, other than the two ladies already in the church no one turned up. At 11 the bellringing stopped and by then there were 6 ladies in the church. All but one sat in the row behind me! The Rector turned up only needing to put on a chasuble. At about 11.04 he wandered down the aisle. He initially announced that there wasn't going to be an organist so we were going to only sing three hymns unaccompanied. He gave us the tune and we went through the motions of singing! And so it went on; no servers, no bells or smells. I would guess that all the glories of the Comper era have long since gone and they are very much into "Common Worship" now.

Well, sic transit gloria mundi. But someone here still has a sense of humour. Tucked in behind one of the Saint statues is a thermometer, a sort of holy weather station. It is St Swithin - what an appropriate Saint!


Simon Knott, July 2006

looking east chancel rood north transept
looking west screen into south transept odd, composite memorial St Swithin weather station Our Lady of Walsingham St Joseph
detail on south transept screen war memorial screen chancel roof Comper angel
gargoyle at the top of the tower Except a man be born of water reredos, north transept   
Our Lady of Walsingham in the south transept font and font cover St Thomas door head stop
modern reredos in Flemish style - detail altar and reredos, south transept modern reredos in Flemish style - detail

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