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St Andrew, Gunton
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If you look at an Ordnance Survey map of north Norfolk, the Gunton Hall estate is a wide smudge of white between North Walsham and Cromer. Tracks lead through it, but none of them are public rights of way and some of them are blocked by locked gates within the park, as you may find to your disadvantage. There is no Gunton village, and signs warning that the estate is Strictly Private stand sentry at the various entrances to the estate. However, if you were to travel along the lane from Suffield past the herd in the deer park under the pleasingly overshadowing trees, you will eventually reach a grand gateway. This is Hanworth Lodge. Again, the signs are not encouraging, but if you enter through the arch and over a cattle grid you'll find yourself heading towards the Hall, trying not to be put off by a succession of yet more Strictly Private signs, for it is a struggle for the English conscience to disobey such things. Soon, the Hall comes into sight.
It is a grand 18th Century affair, one of several such near to the north Norfolk coast, and sits in the middle of a large wooded estate with that deer park, a fishing lake and coverts for pheasant shooting punctuating a landscape grazed by slowly wandering sheep. The Hall was erected in the 1740s for Sir William Harbord. The Harbord family provided several generations of liberal politicians, a dynasty which lasted into the 20th Century, and they had owned the estate since the 1670s. Before that it was in the possession of the Berney and Jermyn families, and there was an earlier house here of which no trace now remains. The architect for the rebuilding was Matthew Brettingham, who had also worked on the refurbishment of neighbouring Felbrigg Hall. Work continued under the Wyatts for Sir William's splendidly named son, Sir Harbord Harbord, the first Lord Suffield, who inherited the estate in 1770. The Wyatts probably used the plans of an even more famous architect, as we shall see.
By the 19th Century the estate had its own railway station just to the east on the Norwich to Sheringham line, which is still in use. The House and estate thrived through the Victorian period, until one night in 1882 when the Hall was entirely gutted by fire. It then lay derelict for almost a century, and then after the last Lord Suffield died in 1980 the shell was filled in with apartments. It is done really well, you would never know about the fire. If you head along the track that runs along the south frontage of the Hall you eventually reach a sign saying These gardens and grounds are strictly private, but then in small print it finally concedes underneath that the public may visit the church by the footpath only, and then you know your conscience has won. A track leads across a cattle grid through a jungle of cedars and rhododendrons into a small sunlit glade, and here, dappled by oaks, limes and those ubiquitous cedars is the west front of the church of St Andrew, a grand 18th Century Doric temple.
The architect was the great Robert Adam. It is his only church, and as far as I know his only work in Norfolk. He was commissioned by Sir William in 1767 to build this replacement for the derelict medieval church which had been demolished a few years earlier. It was built under the reign of Sir Harbord Harbord, the first Lord Suffield, and Adam also seems to have drawn up a set of plans for a modernisation of the exterior of the Hall. Nothing came of these, but it seems likely that the Wyatts had access to them for their refurbishment of the 1780s. The overall effect is of a Grecian temple more than anything you might expect to find in the East Anglian fields, as if it had been dropped here from outer space. You may not be a fan of this style of architecture, but St Andrew is so crisp, so light and intelligent, and also so pretty in its setting, that it is hard not love it. Fully a third of the structure is taken up by a wide open entrance portico behind columns, as if it was fronting Covent Garden market rather than being lost in a remote Norfolk wood. The walls are lined by blank niches paired with similarly arched clerestory windows above, four pairs on each side. There are more blank windows in the remarkably stark east end, perhaps because it faced away from the Hall. It is punctuated by a reset 17th Century memorial, presumably from the earlier church, and two late 20th Century headstones below it remember daughters of a later Lord Suffield.
Despite its relationship with the Hall this was a parish church until the 1970s, although in practice this meant the church for those living on the estate, since there is no village. After redundancy it was taken into the care of the Redundant Churches Fund, today the Churches Conservation Trust. You enter under the portico through the heavy doors into a circular lobby area, with a war memorial remembering the twelve estate workers who went off to fight in the First World War, including one who didn't come back. The doors beyond let into the church itself. A little font on a wooden stand in the late 18th Century style greets you as you step inside, the church beyond seeming smaller and simpler than the exterior might have suggested. It has the feel of a college chapel, or perhaps a minor City of London church, and indeed the benches faced inwards until a late 19th Century restoration. Now they face east towards the reredos, a painting of St Anne and St Elizabeth with the Blessed Virgin, the young St John the Baptist in the foreground pointing to the infant Christchild. Above, the plastered ceiling is like a wedding cake, a modern replacement for the one that collapsed in the 1970s. Turning back to the west, the organ gallery stands over the heavy casement of the doors with the Harbord family pews on either side. A simple memorial with a profile portrait remembers Cecilia Annetta Suffield, who died in 1911. There are hatchments and a royal arms for George I dated 1715 which presumably came from the earlier church, unless the Churches Conservation Trust have brought it here in more recent years.
Stepping back outside, the tall douglas fir to the west of the church has a small plaque recording that it was planted by HRH the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII, when he was staying at the Hall in 1870. How solid and permanent life must have seemed for the landed gentry then! A few years earlier, the return for Gunton at the time of the 1851 Census of Religious Worship recorded, perhaps uniquely in East Anglia outside of town parishes, that more people attended the afternoon sermon than were resident in the parish. Seventy-two people lived on the estate, but ninety-nine attended to hear the Reverend Charles Heath preach that afternoon. Presumably the excess number consisted of estate workers who lived in the nearby village of Suffield and who were expected to attend the estate church by Lord Suffield, although in fairness it's worth noting that Gunton church is closer to Suffield village than Suffield's own church is. After the 1882 fire the estate continued to be farmed and managed, the Harbords now away in London. The old order clung on through the changes the early 20th Century would bring, resisting being upturned by the world wars, and continues to be farmed and managed now. As you make your way back past the Strictly Private signs to Hanworth Lodge, you can't help feeling that the old order still isn't terribly far away.
Simon Knott, October 2022
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