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


St Mary, Houghton-on-the-Hill


Read the captions by hovering over the images, and click on them to see them enlarged.

from the north-east south side blocked north door and window from the north-east
in the garden east end sign of the cross west end

    St Mary, Houghton-on-the-Hill
filled in arch   I first visited this church about ten years ago, in the company of a group of church enthusiasts. I hadn't even thought then of embarking on the task of visiting every Norfolk church, let alone of creating this site to document that journey. Perhaps this was where the first germ of the idea came to me. At the time, St Mary was just about the the most famous church in Norfolk, appearing in the national press and on television. Since then, it has settled into a somewhat quieter retirement, but it is still difficult to be alone here.

When Arthur Mee came this way in the late 1930s, St Mary was a small, almost derelict church on a bald hill above the road between South and North Pickenham. It had suffered damage in the First World War when a returning Zeppelin dumped its bombs into the churchyard. Mee found the chancel ruinous, and the top of the tower open to the sky. There was a cottage beside it, and a farmhouse across a field. The last baptism had been in 1933, the last wedding eight years earlier.

Within ten years, the cottage and farmhouse had both gone, as the whole of England came under intense cultivation, and St Mary found itself a parish with no inhabitants at all. With no proper road leading to the hamlet, and in an area severely curtailed by the presence of American Air Forces, it was abandoned. After the war, thickets of trees and brambles reclaimed the hillside, and this was just another lost Norfolk church, one of several.

The story goes that in the hot summer of 1992, members of North Pickenham WI were on a ramble in these hills when they stopped for a rest on the edge of the former churchyard of St Mary's. One of the number, a woman called Gloria Davey, was intrigued by headstones among the thickets, and cleared a path through the churchyard towards the church. There, she found St Mary a ruin, all the roofs now gone, and the entire shell encased in ivy. She climbed in, and was horrified to discover what she called 'signs of Satanic worship'. When she got home, she told her husband, North Pickenham churchwarden Bob Davey. The next day, he went and took a look, and decided to organise a series of watches to deter night time visitors. More significantly, he contacted Norfolk County Council and ensured that St Mary was added to the 'Buildings at Risk' register, an important step to setting in motion a process of repair, and attracting funding. The county, we may assume, were relieved to find a local with so much interest and energy, and were happy to agree.

Over the next ten years, Bob Davey spent every waking moment bringing St Mary back from the dead. He cleared the churchyard, made the floors safe and cleared all the rubble from the site. Norfolk Archeological Service became interested, and when an architect came to look he felt it would be possible to rebuild a roof on the old timbers rather than building an entirely new one. By now, Bob had already organised open-air services in the empty shell, but the addition of a roof meant it was worth doing something about the walls.

This was when something extraordinary happened. Under the crumbly Victorian plaster were found painted texts from Elizabethan times - and under those, a vast array of wall paintings from the 12th, 13th and 14th Centuries. And under them, amazing things, for here, on this quiet little hilltop, is one of the best sequences of late Saxon wall-paintings in western Europe. Immediately, the big guns came in - the Courtauld Institute, English Heritage, other national heritage and archaeological organisations, and, most important of all, funding bodies. The most significant painting is that over the chancel arch, which depicts the Trinity as part of a last judgement. It is believed to be the earliest representation of the Trinity in this form. Incredibly, pigments used include cinnabar, perhaps the most expensive of all at the time. How on earth did it end up being used here? All around are arrays of apostles and angels, a glorious Holy Mother of God, and the saints of heaven in all their glory. For a moment, modern nations fall away, and we are anywhere in Europe or north Africa at the dawn of the second millennium.

prophet and Christ prophet with a scroll
The creation of Eve mandala angel sounds the last trump and the dead rise from their graves (11th Century)
two prophets east wall of nave the dead rise from their graves

The church is, inevitably, now very crisp and restored in appearance. You enter from the west, beneath the tower. You step through the tower arch into the enchanting interior. Through the chancel arch, a tiny truncated apse just has room for its altar. Work still continues apace, both on interpreting and preserving the wall paintings, and on gradually replacing the windows, which were repaired urgently and temporarily early on. Bob Davey traced the former font to a garden in a nearby village, and brought it back. It isn't particulary fine, but it is, at last, home. One of the two bells (the other is now at Swaffham) was also returned.

During the early part of the restoration there was another attack of vandalism when the ledger stone in the centre of the nave was broken open. This was repaired with cement, but perhaps needs to be left cracked and broken as a reminder to us all of how vulnerable these places can become if we neglect them.

St Mary is now probably the most looked-after church in Norfolk. Visitors come from all over the world, and it is used regularly for services by all denominations from traditionalist Catholic to Pentecostal, but for years it remained Bob Davey's baby. When I first met him soon after the start of the Millennium, he was regularly appearing on television programmes and being interviewed by newspapers and magazines. The Prince of Wales, who takes a great interest in medieval churches, came and took a look. Not long after, Bob Davey was awarded the MBE.

"I have a feeling this was meant to be", he told me in 2003, "St Mary's is now my life". He collected a huge fund of stories about the church and the former village, past and present, some more likelier than others.  For the rest of his life he still spent part of most days up here, showing visitors around with as much enthusiasm and interest as he had done the Prince of Wales. Bob died in 2021 at the age of 91, but the energy of his devotion lives on, and the church is still open from 2pm to 4pm each day, weekends only in winter.

  Christ with a scroll (11th Century)

Simon Knott, October 2013, updated December 2021

altar east wall of nave
looking east through the west door: Bob Davey and visitor south nave window chancel apse looking west

draped urn with cherubs father, grandfather, shipwright leaning together

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