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

St Faith, Little Witchingham

Little Witchingham

Little Witchingham bricked up Little Witchingham

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    St Faith, Little Witchingham

It is always with a sense of anticipation that I come back to Little Witchingham, for it is a magical place, lost among narrow high-hedged lanes so that for a while I wondered if I had forgotten the way as I cycled from Alderford. But at last there was the little church suddenly at a lonely corner, high above the lane, sitting on a perfect cushion of early summer Alexanders and Mary's Lace, the headstones sinking beneath the haze of the cream and white flowers and the busy bees. The lane has cut down over the centuries, and so you climb up towards the little church which is set like a jewel at the heart of its tight churchyard.

The church unfolds from west to east in roughly the order it was built, over the period of about the first half of the 14th Century. There is a small aisle on the south side of the nave, but the north side of the nave has no windows at all. Were any ever planned? This is a puzzle which will not be entirely answered by what we find inside. The tracery of the east window of the chancel is later, presumably 15th Century, and seems very grand for this place. At some time the south aisle seems to have been shortened at the east end, so could this have been at the same time and the result of the rebuilding of the chancel? The exterior east wall of the chancel has had a shaft with a depiction of the crucifixion set in it, presumably from a medieval preaching cross.

The church is now in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust, and it is open every day. You step into an interior which is almost entirely bare. The floor is tiled, the windows that do exist are all filled with clear glass, and this is a perfect setting for the walls which we will come to in a moment. The guidebook tells us that the 19th Century font came from nearby Whitwell, although the stem of Little Witchingham's own original font is still set within the south arcade. The altar came here from West Runton, but the medieval altar slab on it was from this church originally, although it spent some years in the shrine church at Little Walsingham.

What happened here? This has always been a tiny parish. The church shared a minister with Great Witchingham after the Reformation, and it is likely that Little Witchingham's church was not bothered with much except for the baptisms, marriages and funerals of the parishioners which legally had to be carried out here. Even during the 19th Century, that sleeves-rolled-up age of resurgent Anglicanism, this church appears to have been little used. The parish did not make a return for the 1851 Census of Religious Worship, and most likely did not have a service that day, forcing the officers to make an enquiry of William Howard, minister of the two Witchinghams, asking that the Registrar will have the kindness to state whether the parish of Little Witchingham contains a separate church or not and if it does to estimate as correctly as he can the number of free and other sittings provided therein and also the general congregation attending it. Howard responded eventually to report that there was indeed a separate small church in which there are 5 pews or inclosed seats appropriated to farmhouses (which is to say that they were paid for and reserved) and 6 open or free seats accommodating from 24 to 30 persons, the general congregation does not average above 12 or 15 persons except in the summer months. It isn't clear if Howard provided this information from his own experience or if he had asked the churchwarden. Perhaps he was a recently installed incumbent, for at Great Witchingham church he reported that he had no means of knowing the average attendance, and that he felt in any case that the attendance on census day to be worth little, for I know that efforts were made to get a peculiarly full house on that day for the purpose of the return - an undesirable feeling was so called into play.

It is unlikely that Howard's successors paid too much attention to their remote outstation, and by the start of the 20th Century it had been more or less completely abandoned. It sat here slowly melting back to nature over the long decades, through two world wars and into the modern age, too far off the beaten track for more than a handful of locals and antiquarians to even know of its existence. But a great treasure here lay waiting.

One fine summer's day in 1967, the enthusiastic art historian Eve Baker visited. She found the church ruinous, roofless, and full of elder trees and ivy. The story goes that she climbed in through one of the empty windows, began stripping away ivy and found that the whitewash came off with it, revealing marvellous things. Thanks to the Norfolk Churches Trust a plan of repairs was put in place, and one of England's most exciting schemes of wall paintings was properly excavated in the early 1970s.

Christ is mocked and beaten, Christ brought before the Jewish High Council, Christ before Pilate (fragment) Christ nailed to the cross Mary Magdalene meets the Risen Christ in the garden, Thomas touches the wound of Christ

On the north wall, the top row depicts the apostles around the risen Christ, although hardly anything is now discernible other than the cross and lower body of St Andrew. The sequence below is clearer and of greater interest. It shows the Passion of Christ. The first panel, which is now lost, was probably the betrayal of Christ. The first panel here shows the flagellation. Christ is the central figure, the two whipping guards either side, one with his foot raised in a wicked manner. Beside it are the remains of Christ brought before the high priest, as at Grundisburgh in Suffolk. Also fragmentary is the next panel, Christ before Pilate.

The next panel is at first sight the crucifixion, but if you look closely you will see that it is in fact the deposition - Christ being taken down from the cross. A haunting fragment beside shows Joseph of Arimathea tenderly laying the corpse in its tomb. The resurrection is clearer, with the tomb lid upturned and Christ blessing with his hands. The next panel is lost, but then comes the sequence of the three clearest. Firstly, the Harrowing of Hell, with Adam and the other pre-Christian dead being led out of the mouth of Hell. In the next, the Risen Christ motions to Mary Magdalene that she must not touch him, the noli me tangere of her visit to the garden. Then, most striking of all, Thomas being encouraged to touch the wounds in the Risen Christ's side. Finally, Christ ascends, watched from below by his disciples. This image is very similar to the roof boss at Salle of the same subject. At the west end there were more paintings, including, apparently, the Three Living and the Three Dead, but these are now almost entirely lost.

The precise dating of wall paintings like this can only be to a range of years, but given that they are from the middle years of the 14th Century an interesting question arises. Are they from before the pestilence of 1348-49 which came to be known as the Black Death, and which carried off perhaps half the population of East Anglia, or afterwards? If they came after, they may explain why the recently constructed north wall of the nave has no windows, for if it had to be completed without them it is possible there was not the means to do so. A series of wall paintings would perhaps be an obvious solution for such a large blank space. However, there are no paintings on the south wall above the arcade of the nave, but Eve Baker thought that the surface had been prepared for painting, suggesting that something intervened to stop it being painted. This was perhaps the Black Death, so this may be a clue that the other paintings pre-dated it (which, of course, leaves the problem of the windowless north wall hanging in the air).

In the south aisle are some paintings that have not been fully identified, but one appears to show a ram caught in a thicket, and another a king and what may be a priest side by side, so they may well be images from the Old Testament. Opposite them on the arcade are large roundels of the evangelistic symbols. St Matthew and St Mark are fully visible, St Luke to the west has been damaged, and St John in the east has most oddly been partly obscured by the rebuilding of the east wall of the aisle.

The roof above is simple, whitewashed, rustic. This remote building is so far from civilisation that you might think that it is still little-known, but the visitors book is full of entries, hundreds every year, all making a pilgrimage of sorts. I wonder what the Reverend Howard and the census takers would have made of that.

Simon Knott, June 2021

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looking east looking east looking west
north doorway and nave wall Thomas Outlaw two figures, one a king with a sceptre


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