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

St Michael, Irstead

Irstead

St Michael fights a dragon (20th Century) 14th Century door

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    St Michael, Irstead

Irstead is a secretive place, at the end of narrow lanes which twist down from Barton Turf and Neatishead. The lanes peter out here beside the Broad, and the little church sits in a tight, neat graveyard above the road. Externally it does not look much, perhaps, but for many people this is the best small church in Norfolk. It is a church with a little of everything, full of idiosyncrasies and strange delights.

The church's patron saint finds his dragon a bit of a handful in a niche above the entrance to the south porch. A small south aisle sits snugly beside the narrow thatched nave, and it is as if this might be a rustic model of one of the larger churches hereabouts. The 14th Century south door with its iron handle and boss are among the oldest things here. Pevsner though them by the same craftsman as the ones at Tunstead.

You step through the doorway into an inevitably crowded nave with features of outstanding interest, perhaps the greatest of which is the font. The panel facing east depicts the head of Christ in Majesty, on a patterned background. Mortlock thought another panel showed the same subject, but surely it is the head of St John the Baptist, prepared on a platter for Salome. Both retain traces of original colour. On another panel, the hand of God offers a scroll, presumably of the Law, St John the Baptist is indicated again by an Agnus Dei, while another has very curious, dovelike shapes coming together to form something which may or may not be a green man. Lions and saints alternate around the stem, including a long-haired St Mary Magdalene.

font: agnus dei font: head of St John the Baptist font: head of Christ

Turning east from the font, the screen is also singular. Eleven Apostles and St John the Baptist are painted directly onto boards, three figures each to a set of four boards. There is no tracery around them, and if the frame in which they are set was a roodscreen at all originally is not completely certain. Indeed, the stalls beyond are directly built into them, and I wondered if the boards were actually the backs of the stalls. The tall figures stand bold and tall, making it all the more alarming that their faces are scratched out. From north to south across the church they are St James the Less, St Thomas, St James, St John, St Andrew, St Peter, St John the Baptist, St Bartholomew, St Matthew, St Jude, St Simon and St Philip. The final trio are difficult to photograph because of furniture in front of the screen.

rood screen: St James the Less, St Thomas, St James rood screen: St John, St Andrew, St Peter rood screen: St John the Baptist, St Bartholomew, St Matthew St Jude, St Simon, St Philip
iconoclasm: St James the Less iconoclasm: St John iconoclasm: St Bartholomew iconoclasm: St James

Survivals abound. On the north wall there are the remains of a St Christopher wall painting with scroll inscriptions as at Creeting St Peter in Suffolk. His figure is most imposing in this small space. Fragments of 15th Century Norwich school glass depicting angels survive in some upper lights of windows with a delicious early 20th Century floral border, and there are a couple of roundels of good European glass in the chancel, one depicting Christ at the Last Supper. There are curious little niches on the ends of some of the benches. Perhaps they once held images, although they are very shallow. But one of them is carved as if with the doors to the niche closed, and it is as if some 15th Century craftsman is enjoying a joke at our expense.

A memorial of 1811 to 18 year old Charles Hornor tells us that he was midshipman on board the Rose on his first voyage to the East Indies, and that he died off Madras. At the other end of that century, rector of this parish John Gunn died in the 89th year of his age... in the exercise of the duties of his office and in the study of the works of nature he employed the powers with which God had gifted him.

The east window remembers an earlier 19th Century clergyman, but an added inscription below tells us that it was restored in 2004. This reminded me that on my first visit to the church that year I had found the east window boarded up, and that this of course was the reason. It seemed a long time ago, and I had been back several times since, but Irstead is one of those churches which, once visited, is not easily forgotten. The setting above the wide River Ant, the seclusion of the churchyard, the treasure house within. One of Norfolk's most memorable places.

Simon Knott, December 2019

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looking east looking west
font font: St Mary Magdalene crucified (north doorway) St Christopher and war memorial south aisle
probably Mary at the Crucifixion (continental, 16th Century) Christ at the last supper (continental, 16th Century) angel (English, 15th Century), roses (16th Century?)
angel (English, 15th Century) and floral border angel (continental? 16th Century?) angel (English, 15th Century) and floral border
crucified midshipman on board the Rose on his first voyage to the East Indies, died off Madras in memory of Sir Peter Scott
he employed the powers with which God had gifted him Orate pro anima Edward - ?

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