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

St Mary, Hellesdon, Norwich

Hellesdon St Mary

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Hellesdon St Mary Hellesdon St Mary Hellesdon St Mary 

    St Mary, Hellesdon, Norwich
Risen Christ at Hellesdon   The historic parish church of Hellesdon is away from the vast, familiar Hellesdon housing estate on the other side of the Drayton Road. It is in the settlement of Lower Hellesdon beyond the former Hellesdon Hospital, which preserves something of its former rural character despite its proximity to both the Hellesdon estate and modern Costessey. I first came here on a pleasant early summer day in 2010. I parked my bike in the porch and went for a tour of the outside of the building. Sam Mortlock describes St Mary as small but tall for its size, which is exactly right. The leaded spirelet sits above the western end of the nave, and the two-storey vaulted 14th Century porch seems even larger than it would against a squatter church. The chantry chapel built on in the 14th century to the north side of the elegant chancel is a curious structure which does not marry well with the rest of the building.

I went back into the porch, and tried the door. Locked. A sign on the notice board declared thou shalt not smoke in this place, it transgresseth ye law. Unfortunately, there wasn't a matching sign reading thou art thoroughly welcome to enter into this place or even one that said the key resteth across the road and thou mayest pick it up there at thy pleasure. This was a pity, and, although the humour of the sign did make me think that the natives might be friendly, the door remained resolutely locked. There was no suggestion that pilgrims and strangers might be able to take a look inside. There was an address for the Vicar, but he was back at Hellesdon St Paul a couple of miles off, and as I was on my bike with plans to visit Costessey's churches next, I resisted the temptation.

It would be a couple of years before I returned here, again in early summer. Again, there was no keyholder notice, and even the number and address for the Vicar in Hellesdon St Paul had gone. There were the names of two churchwardens on a notice, but not an address or phone number. No other notices at all with contacts on, not in the porch, not on the board by the gate. And then I spotted a leaflet lying on the bench for the Hellesdon knitting circle, or some such. I noticed that the surname of the person to contact was the same as that of one of the churchwardens - and there was a phone number. So I rang her up. As it turned out, she was just going out for the day, and couldn't come to let me in. "The church is open next Wednesday, though", she added hopefully.

The following week was the Norwich Diocese's Open Churches week, so I took it that Wednesday was their single contribution. "I won't be in Norwich next Wednesday, I'm afraid," I said. "I don't suppose that there is anyone else who might be able to let me in today?"

"Well, there's Brian, he used to be a churchwarden and he might still have a key." So she gave me Brian's number, and I rang it, and Brian couldn't have been nicer. "I'll be there in seven minutes" he said, with curious precision.

And he was. We stepped into a well-kept although inevitably somewhat austere interior, given the narrowness and height, and the rigor of the late 19th Century restoration. The east window is one of AL Wilkinson's less inspired efforts, a hasty replacement in 1947 of bomb damage. There is an image niche which looks rather out of place beside the chancel arch. It is weathered, and Brian told me that its dimensions exactly fit the space outside where the low side window is. There are two simple figure brasses, one remounted in the north aisle, and the modern fretwork relief of the church's patron on the organ screen is noteworthy. There is a memorial to one of the Bullard brewing family.

However, if you had any doubt that there was life in this church, you have only to step through the former north doorway into a superb new extension. Bravely, the former exterior wall and buttresses have been left unplastered, making a striking contrast with the new space. It is used by the church as well as by local community groups.

Outside, we wandered in the sunshine and found a couple of curiosities. One is a 1930s asymmetrical Art Deco headstone in marble featuring an elegant windmill. The other is a great oddity, an 1888 pressed galvanised iron gravemarker in a wrought iron frame. It is to Maria and Stephen Whitewood, and it is dated simply 1888. According to the register of Births, Marriages and Deaths, Maria Whitewood died in Norwich in 1888 at the age of 84. A Stephen Whitewood had died in Norwich at the age of 87 some 11 years earlier. They don't appear to be on the 1871 census. They were probably husband and wife, but if so then their marriage appears to have been before universal civil registration began.

Hellesdon is one of two places often referenced as the site of the martyrdom of St Edmund in the 9th Century. The other is Hoxne in Suffolk. The choice is according to the county to which you owe allegiance, of course. As an adopted son of Suffolk, I fear I cannot encourage you to take Hellesdon's claim seriously.

  thou shalt not

Simon Knott, May 2010, updated November 2012

looking east north aisle weathered image niche extension
risen Christ Blessed Virgin and child Blessed Virgin and child glum angel Mothers' Union
away the comforter will I go not away 1980s organ screen font
Harry Bullard Domesday Ypres salient
mourning art deco windmill Stephen and Maria Whitewood 

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