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

St Margaret, Hales


Hales Hales
south doorway north doorway

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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. Here where the small parishes founded by Saxon settlers cluster, the Normans rebuilt their churches in flint and stone and then the later medieval period brought little wealth to replace them. One of the most complete Norman churches in the county is here at Hales, away from its village down an obscure little lane but unfortunately not very far from the busy Norwich to Beccles road. Pevsner thought it a perfect Norman country church. There is another lovely little church at neighbouring Heckingham, and both churches are now redundant and in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust.

You approach the church from the north, but the most memorable view is from the south-east where the splendid blank arcading of the buttressed apse folds back under the thatched roofs. Norman apses are unusual in East Anglia, and the 13th Century windows which punctuate it might even seem an act of vandalism if they weren't also lovely. The flank of the south wall leads the eye to an opulent south doorway. There is an even grander doorway on the north side, suggesting that this has always been the main entrance, and its six orders are so similar to the five at Heckingham that they are likely to be by the same mason. As John Vigar points out, the levels discernible in the round tower show the progress of each year's campaign to complete it. The light touch 1890s restoration here was perhaps surprisingly carried out by diocesan surveyor Herbert Green, whose work elsewhere can be clumsy because of his preference for neo-Norman. But perhaps the real Norman work here was sufficient for Green's pleasure.

As with most churches you need to visit in different seasons to experience the building's many moods. These walls long to be honeyed by summer sunshine, and in truth this can be a 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 high walls which head eastwards towards the apse are whitewashed, giving as much light in winter as the pale glow from the windows. Modern chairs prevent this narrow space from feeling cluttered. 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, that to the north appearing older than the one to the south. A little image niche is painted above with a fictive canopy.

pilgrim? St James? face image niche
chancel arch angel (north side) apse chancel arch angel (south side)

Presumably there was once a Norman font here, but the one that stands here now is of the 15th Century 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. It has been enthusiastically recut, and the buttresses between the lions were presumably once woodwoses too damaged by 16th Century iconoclasts to be saved.

In the early 18th Century the rector Peter Lawes buried his daughter in the centre of the nave under a small ledger stone. Memento Mori, begins the inscription above a deliciously fierce skull garlanded by laurels, and continues here lyeth the body of Mary Lawes the youngest daughter of Peter Lawes (ley impropriator and minister of this parish) and Elizabeth his wife who departed this life July 31th & was buried August 2nd 1710 aged 6 years (illegible) months 2 weeks & 3 dayes. Her time was short, the longer was her rest, God calls them soonest whom he loveth best. Incidentally, this rhyming epitaph at the end is identical to one at neighbouring Heckingham of half a century earlier. Lawes himself lies under an impressive ledger stone in the chancel with Elizabeth who died after him, his inscription in Latin, hers in English.

When the church was rescued by the then Redundant Churches Fund in the 1970s it seems to have been in a pretty parlous state, and this is probably when the east end was restructured, further east than the original santuary if the doorless aumbry in the north wall which now sits west of the altar rails is anything to go by. A red brick altar was built within a setting of white brick and red tiles. We probably wouldn't do this now, but it is a pleasingly simple result. To go back in time to the church when it was first built, 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 we contained the walls of round towers as we built them almost a thousand years ago, a remarkable thought.

Simon Knott, October 2021

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looking east sanctuary (1970s) looking west
font (15th Century, recut and reset) Her time was short, the longer was her rest, God calls them soonest whom he loveth best (1710) sanctuary looking east looking east
Hales lions memento mori (1710) wheel


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