Hales Heckingham

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

St Margaret, Hales

Hales: one of England's finest small Norman churches

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The Norman apse The magnificent north doorway Blocked window on the south side The south doorway

    St Margaret, Hales
From the north-west   Comparing Suffolk and Norfolk, as I inevitably must, I am afraid that the southern county rarely comes off best, and descriptions of Norfolk churches lend themselves to superlatives. Take Norman remains, for example - Suffolk has some, if you look for them. It has some nice doorways, at Sapiston and Westhall for example, and a Victorian rebuilding of what may or may not have been a Norman apse at Wissington. But Norfolk has more than seventy fine Norman doorways, and the best are all within a few miles of each other to the east and south-east of Norwich. Best of all are Wroxham and Heckingham, but the most complete Norman church in the county, indeed in all East Anglia, is here at Hales, two miles south of Heckingham, and like that church in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust.

St Margaret is extraordinary because so much of its original Norman fabric survives. Indeed, apart from some 13th century windows punched into the apse (a rare example of transitional vandalism!) you wouldn't know anything had happened here since the 1100s. The blank arcading on the apse is superb, and once went all the way around it. Most famous of all, the north doorway, its six orders so similar to the five at Heckingham that they must be by the same mason.

I had read several accounts of visits to this church, but all appeared to have been made in summer. Today, in deepest winter, I found it a stark, rather bleak place, overwhelmed by the noise from the nearby Norwich to Beccles road. Perhaps summer foliage absorbs the sound. Some churches, of course, are at their best in the bleak mid-winter, nearby Heckingham for example. But I longed for summer sunshine on those honeyed walls. A good excuse to go back in the summer.

Looking east from the gallery Sanctuary of the apse Christchild and St Christopher - detail Consecration cross

Inside, the air was that of the previous day's sub-zero temperatures - it caught your breath as you went in. The interior has the prescribed simplicity of all CCT churches, a neatness and cleanness that is to be admired and imitated. Ahead is the great St Christopher, which is very faded, but the heads of the two figures are very characterful. 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.

Decorated image niche in north nave window splay St James the Great St James, detail Angel blowing last trump, north side Angel blowing last trump, south side

There is a good view of the interior from the gallery, and you can also go into the base of the tower itself. The splays of the round windows still have the impress of the basketwork of 900 years ago - an astounding thought. Also ancient is the wooden shelf inside the aumbry on the north chancel wall.

The font is relatively modern, only 500 years old! The snooty little lions reminded me of their cousins at Salthouse, although the smiles here are nowhere near as friendly. There is a famous 17th century font cover associated with it - it has the silhouette of the Rector of the day on its base. It is now in safe keeping at Booton, where I had seen it a few months previously, but had omitted to photograph it. A good excuse to go back there, too.

Simon Knott, December 2004


17th century reminder of mortality Aumbry with original shelf Looking west The relatively modern font! Superior little lion
Norman splay with basketwork impress North doorway detail Slate gravechest to north of church

Hales Heckingham

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