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

St Mary, Middleton


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    St Mary, Middleton
Christ in the carpenter's workshop (Powell & Sons, 1930s)   A big, rugged church, entirely in the East Anglian style, although the carstone it is built from may be unfamiliar to those who don't know west Norfolk. Mortlock says that it has the imperishable look of something that will not be moved, and that is about right, not even by the busy traffic on the A47 which forms the main road through the village. I had been told that I wouldn't find Middleton church very interesting, but that was not the case at all, and even more than this I was delighted to find it open in an area where churches tend to be locked with a keyholder notice at best. I am assured that Middleton church is open every day.

This was a busy place in the late medieval period, with plenty of money, probably as a consequence of its place on the only road between Norfolk and the Midlands. Churches around here did not tend to experience major rebuilds, but this one did, and everything we see, pretty much, is 15th Century or 19th Century restoration. Only the chancel is earlier, a happy accident with the Early English tracery providing a sense of mystery after the clear, rational Perpendicular of the nave and aisles. Actually, the chancel windows only date from the 1862 restoration, but they replicate what was there before and it is pleasing that the chancel wasn't wiped out and replaced by something grand and triumphalist.

I came here on an overcast morning of drizzle, and this didn't help the interior much. It was a bit like stepping into a fairly gloomy barn, the only spots of colour being a couple of windows which I will come back to in a moment, and the view east to the chancel. However, wandering down the nave a bit, the overwhelming impression is one of height, and the reason for this is obvious when you face west and see that narrow and enormous tower arch shooting up to heaven. Those Perpendicular masons knew what they were doing. In the other direction, the chancel arch is equally enormous, the chancel appearing almost as a small afterthought beyond.

Most of the nave windows are clear, but two have excellent windows of the 1930s by the Powell & Sons workshop. One depicts the Adoration of the Magi and the other the Finding of the Young Christ in the Temple. They are in that early-16th Century style unfamiliar in English churches but seen at its best in Kings College Chapel in Cambridge - busy scenes, everybody doing something and giving a sense of bustle. It would be interesting to know who the artist was.

Adoration of the Magi (Powell & Sons, 1930s) Magus with an incense boat and servants (detail of the Adoration of the Magi, Powell & Sons, 1930s) Holy Family  (detail of the Adoration of the Magi, Powell & Sons, 1930s)
The Finding in the Temple (Powell & Sons, 1930s) The young Christ Preaching in the Temple (Powell & Sons, 1930s) Mary and Joseph find Jesus preaching in the Temple (Powell & Sons, 1930s)
The young Christ preaches in the Temple (detail, Powell & Sons, 1930s) Mary and Joseph find the young Christ in the Temple (detail, Powell & Sons, 1930s)
Flight into Egypt (Powell & Sons, 1930s) Three Magi follow the Star to Bethlehem (Powell & Sons, 1930s)
Christ in the carpenter's workshop (Powell & Sons, 1930s) Presentation in the Temple (Powell & Sons, 1930s)
angels holding an incense boat and a crown angels holding a myrrh pot and a star Four Latin Doctors: St Jerome, St Ambrose, St Gregory and St Augustine (Powell & Sons, 1930s)

At first sight the two windows seem oddly placed, one in the north aisle and the other in the south but not facing each other. But if you count the clear windows, you can tell that they were probably originally intended as part of a sequence which would have started with the Annunciation in the north-west corner and may have finished with the Baptism of Christ at the east end of the south aisle. A grand scheme it would have been, but the fact that the two existing windows are almost contemporary with each other suggests a change of plan. It is tempting to imagine a Trollopeian controversy, but most likely it was that the Thirties depression and then the Second World War intervened.

St Mary is the only church in East Anglia with furnishings by Robert Thompson, the Yorkshire-based 'mouseman'. You'll find his signature mouse carved on the base of the lectern, and the communion rails and prayer desk are also his. Their clean Arts and Crafts lines may lull you into a false sense of simplicity, for as you step into the chancel you'll be struck by the riot of gold of the organ. In itself not terribly exciting, but the screen that hides the blower is made up of part of one side of the old rood screen, and still retains its Saints, albeit garishly repainted. They are St Jude, St James, St Philip and St Thomas. The chancel arch would have been wide enough for twelve Apostles, six each side. It may be that these panels did not come from this church originally, but if they did, I wonder what happened to the rest?

Outside in the churchyard, to the south of the chancel, a headstone depicts the story of Abraham and Isaac, Isaac bound on an altar and his father lifting the knife to kill him, the angel intervening and offering Abraham a ram caught in a thicket to sacrifice instead of his son. This is not a common subject - off the top of my head I have seen it elsewhere on headstones at Soham and St Ives, both in Cambridgeshire - but what makes this one particularly unusual is that there are two figures in 19th Century dress in the bottom corner, one walking with a stick behind a donkey and the other sitting above him on a hillock, apparently reading a book. They appear quite unconcerned by the angel appearing in a cloud above their heads.

Middleton is one of the few place names to appear in Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex. Perhaps not surprising, as it is one of the most common placenames in England.

  Presentation in the Temple (Powell & Sons, 1930s)

Simon Knott, July 2016

looking east looking west organ
Annunciation (Ward & Hughes, 1860s) Annunciation (Ward & Hughes, 1860s) Presentation in the Temple (Ward & Hughes, 1850s)
St Jude, St James, St Philip, St Thomas St Mary's Middleton Mothers Union carved mouse on the lectern

Abraham and Isaac (mid-19th Century) two workers with a donkey on a headstone relief of Abraham and Isaac

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