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

St Margaret, Hales

Hales

Hales back door wheel

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St Margaret, Hales

Norfolk is a county well-served with Norman survivals, many of which are within a few miles of each other to the east and south-east of Norwich where the small parishes founded by Saxon settlers cluster, and the later medieval period brought little wealth and so largely ignored the little churches. One of the most complete Norman churches in the county is here at Hales, away from its village but not far from the busy Norwich to Beccles road. Pevsner thought it a perfect Norman country church. It sits very close to another good Norman church at neighbouring Heckingham, and both churches are now redundant and in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust. But the church isn't just interesting, it is beautiful. The round tower looks all of its 15th Century refurbishment, but there is more to it than that as we shall see inside. It perks up beyond melting thatched roofs over nave and apse, looking all of their mid-12th Century origins. The outer wall of the apse is splendid with blank arcading. The 13th Century windows that punctuate it might even seem an act of vandalism if they weren't also so lovely. Best of all, the north doorway, its six orders so similar to the five at Heckingham that they are likely to be by the same mason.

These walls long to be honeyed by summer sunshine, and in truth this can be a rather bleak spot in winter, especially with the noise of the traffic on the road below. Nevertheless, stepping into the church is to step out of time. The first time I came here was in late December 2004, a day with the temperature hovering just above freezing and inside the church it was breathtakingly cold. The high walls which lead the eyes eastwards towards the apse are whitewashed, giving as much light in winter as the pale glow from the windows. Moden chairs prevent this narrow space from feeling cluttered. The late 19th Century restoration here was carried out by diocesan architect Herbert Green, a man not always known for his sensitivity, being a neo-Norman enthusiast. But he appears to have found enough of the original surviving here not to want to add any more of his own.

A number of wall paintings from several hundred years after the church was erected include a great St Christopher, albeit rather faded now, though the heads of the saint and the Christchild stand out well. The figure in the splay of a south wall window is probably St James with his staff. High above, two angels blowing trumpets are tucked into the eaves above where the rood loft once was.

Presumably there was once a Norman font here, but it was replaced in the late 15th Century with one in the typical East Anglian style of the time, angels with shields and roses alternating on the bowl and snooty little lions around the stem. Unusually, the late 17th Century font cover associated with it has a silhouette of the rector of the day on its base, an interesting memory of the past. But the church was already very old of course when these things were installed. To go back in time even further, it is possible to go beneath the charming 18th Century west gallery into the space below the tower. In the splays of the round windows you can still see the impress of basketwork, the usual way in which the late Saxons contained the walls of round towers as they were being built almost a thousand years ago, a remarkable thought.

Simon Knott, November 2020

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looking east sanctuary looking east
St James above the pulpit apse face
skull and crossed bones font Hales lions

   
               
                 

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