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

St Mary, Hassingham

Hassingham:click to enlarge

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up the hill. Norman doorway Harriet and Ann 

    St Mary, Hassingham
sign   Norfolk can have few more beautiful and dramatic settings for a church than this little hilltop St Mary, sitting above the winding, deeply cut lanes where the land falls away to the river. This is not a landscape designed for cars, but what a joy it is to cycle or walk around this rolling, secretive area between Norwich and Reedham! The only crimp is that, for reasons best known to themselves, most of the churches of this area are kept locked, which is a terrible pity.

Hassingham is curious of aspect, because unusually for a humble round-towered church it has a large, tall chancel, which creates the effect that the building is climbing the hill. The age of the nave is given away by a fairly basic and yet beautiful Norman doorway, one of several around here which reveal a more homely approach to decoration than some of the more glamorous, grand Norman doorways on the other side of the river. The land falls dramatically away from the church on the southern side, and you can sense the marshes and the river beyond. All you hear is the wind in the trees, or the song of birds. It feels a very ancient place.

A plaque above the south doorway remembers the rebuilding of the body of the church in 1849. This is an early date for a 19th century restoration, and so you might expect a fairly rustic, low-brow interior, before the ecclesiologists and ritualists came along and explained what the Gothic Revival should be about.

In fact, this church is one of several which was destroyed by fire in the second half of the 20th century, and the inside today dates entirely from 1971. This kind of thing is not always done well, but at Hassingham the refurbishment is one of the most successful that I know. The walls are white, the floors are brick, and the furnishings so simple that they are barely there. It is a delightful interior; the clear glass of the nave fills the building with light, and then up in the chancel is a fine collection of old glass. That in the east window includes continental roundels of the 17th century, while in the side windows are restored fragments of 15th century Norwich School angel musicians. It is a place to lift the heart, and how wonderful it would be if it was open to pilgrims and strangers wandering these lonely lanes!

Extraordinary as it may seem, this tiny and remote parish was the setting for a curious event which opened a major chapter in the history of the English Church. In the autumn of 1798, inspired by the proto-anarchist writings of William Godwin, a 29 year old woman, Catherine Welby, set up a community in the village here with her younger brother Adlard. They planned to put into practice the social ideals of 'pantisocracy'. This movement believed that, within small groups withdrawn from the world, a new social order might arise.

Catherine was a strong-minded, independent woman, open to the beauty of the world and rigorous in her investigation of it. Rosemary Hill, the biographer, noted her capacity for 'passionate, even hysterical tirades'. While living at Hassingham, Catherine travelled to Yarmouth and saw the sea for the first time. The community lasted a year, and during this time, Catherine seem to have undergone some kind of religious conversion. She took her radical, uncompromising, mystical Christianity back to London, where in 1802 she married a flamboyant French Catholic emigré. Their first son would be Auguste Welby Pugin, the most influential of all 19th century architects and designers; but, more than this, the man who articulated and promoted the theological reasoning behind the Gothic Revival. England, and its churches, would never be the same again.


Simon Knott, December 2007

looking east chancel
Virgin and child with St Anne cross St Mary Magdalene
angel musicians angel musicians angel musicians
1849 font window 1971 

keep thy foot

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