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

St Mary, Narford


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Narford Narford Narford Narford

    St Mary, Narford
Sir Andrew Fountaine 1753   The church of a village which has disappeared, begins Pevsner, but of course there are dozens of churches in a similar situation, many of them in Norfolk. There seems to have been no great disaster, no mass clearance by a landowner. Narford was big enough in the 14th Century to be granted the status of a market. But then the village quietly and simply got smaller, a process accelerated after the start of the 18th Century when the entire estate was purchased by the Fountaine family, for whom agriculture does not seem to have been a priority. By 1851, when the population of rural East Anglia was reaching a peak, there were barely a hundred inhabitants, and there are probably no more than twenty today.

When Munro Cautley visited in the 1930s, he found this little church in the park in a very neglected state. The church has had its ups and downs since, falling into disuse after a post-war restoration, but it is now in the care of the Norfolk Churches Trust, and as part of the combined parish of Narborough and Narford still holds regular services.

However, anyone visiting today will, I'm afraid, still feel it is a woefully neglected place. This is partly due to the series of lead thefts the building has suffered over the last couple of years. Anyone coming here can see very clearly the enormous damage that this current wave of thefts is doing to the heritage of England. Quite simply, one of the most significant manifestations of our way of life as a nation over the last thousand years is being very quickly destroyed. It is a disaster. Locking the churches will not help.

To get to Narford church you have to use the customary church way across private land. By law, there has to be reasonable access to a parish church even if it is not directly accessible by normal means. However, this is slightly complicated at Narford because the church was declared redundant. As recently as the first years of the 21st Century, a friend of mine had to be escorted to the church by the Rector of Narborough, because of the hostility of the landowners to visitors. When Pevsner's revising editor Bill Wilson came this way in the late 1980s, he was forbidden access to the church. But now some agreement has been reached, and you can walk, though not drive, to the church. It is not far, about a quarter of a mile. The church sits in an idyllic setting between the great ornamental lake and the even greater and more impressive pile of Narford Hall.

Narford Hall is famous for all sorts of reasons. When the Fountaine family bought the estate in the early 18th Century, they built one of the great houses of the age, furnished and decorated inside by the likes of Giovanni Pelligrini. Successive Fountaines were antiquarians and collectors, devoting their time and money to bringing together great art treasures from around the world and furnishing the house in an outstanding fashion.

What makes it all the more fascinating is that, since the mid-20th Century, very few people have been allowed in to see it. Pevsner's revising editor certainly wasn't. However, Pevsner was, albeit briefly, and we know this because of John Harris's wonderful and funny book No Voice From The Hall: Early Memories of a Country House Snooper. After years of trying to see inside, Harris was finally granted permission in 1960 on the condition to which all visitors had to agree, no photography. He describes the eccentric Louisa Constance Catherine Fountaine, in an ostrich-feather dress and an ostrich-feather hat which covered her face, and the great Pelligrini painted hall, piled high to the ceiling with what appeared to be mostly unopened copies of the Times, the later ones just thrown to the top of the heap. In fact, Harris and Mrs Fountaine got on very well, and she proved very knowledgeable, but during their tour there was another knock at the door.

"I am not expecting anyone," said Mrs Fountaine. The maid returned to report. "A man and a woman with a clipboard, Mum. Maybe from the Council, perhaps to read the meter." "I'd better see them," said Mrs Fountaine. "I didn't think they worked on Saturdays.' There is a ripple of amusement on our part when the maid announces "it's a Dr and Mrs Pevsner asking to see the house. From the Buildings Council.' In come Nikolaus and Lola, she indeed with a clipboard in hand. I wondered if there could be anything more off-putting to the landed classes than to arrive at the front door looking as though you'd come to read the meter.

Mrs Fountaine's husband Vice-Admiral Charles Fountaine had been a Naval ADC to King George V, and their son Andrew was probably the most infamous of the 20th Century Fountaine eccentrics. Born in 1918, he had fought as a teenager on the side of Franco in the Spanish Civil War, before signing up as an ordinary seaman in the Second World War. Before the end of the War he had been appointed a lieutenant-commander. After achieving a First in Chemistry at Cambridge, he became an active member of the Conservative Party, the ordinary route into politics for a member of the East Anglian landowning class, and even stood for parliament, but was eventually disowned by the party for his increasingly bizarre and anti-Semitic speeches. In 1960 he became a founder member of the British National Party, a far more radical party than the one with the same name today. Its paramilitary wing, Spearhead, used the Narford Hall estate for training with guns and for its annual British Aryan camp which attracted followers from all over western Europe.

The original British National Party was one of the groups which came together to form the National Front, of which Fountaine was a leading member. He stood as candidate for Norwich South in 1979, but increasingly became disillusioned by the bitter infighting between the old guard, of whom he was one, and the increasing number of younger populist neo-Nazis who would eventually split to form the British Movement. After getting just 0.7% of the vote in Norwich South, Fountaine retired from politics, to concentrate on growing trees, as his wikipedia entry quaintly puts it.

This, then, is the background against which you approach Narford church. The churchyard is bounded by new metal railings, but it is very easy to see into the park and ornamental gardens beyond. The church rides the churchyard like a ship in a storm, because the great mound that covers the Fountaine mausoleum swells against the north side of the chancel. The tower was rebuilt in 1857 in memory of Charlotte Fountaine, who had died young. The inscription around the top records her husband's fondness for her in a pleasing manner.

You step inside to a scene of near-dereliction. The walls are black with water, and the stone floor green. The large memorials in the north aisle are covered in plastic sheeting to protect them until such a time as the roofs can be replaced. There are just four benches in the short nave, facing each other in college chapel fashion. The chancel beyond is raised.

It is a haunting place. It would be hard to stand in here and not be affected by it. The two grand memorials at either end of the south aisle recall the wealth and influence of the 18th Century Fountaines. Sandwiched between the traumas of the 17th Century and the energy of the 19th Century, it was the landowners of the 18th Century who had every reason to think that their world was permanent and unchanging, that the world would always be as they knew it. Collecting art, tinkering with primitive science and technology, dispensing benevolent largesse to the poor on their estate - it is a world that is at once attractive and appalling.

In the north wall of the chancel is a tomb recess, 13th Century presumably, although its knight has disappeared. The stone arm rest on the sedilia is a curiosity.

In the north aisle, an elegant ledger stone of 1740 tells us that its inhabitant was A Good Companion and an Honest Friend, Rare Virtues in this Age, & hear they End. At the east end of the north aisle, something has happened. The bricks that filled the entrance to the Fountaine crypt have come loose and fallen away, possibly because of the water ingress. You can see down the stairway into the vault, the wooden Fountaine coffins set in the alcoves. One facing the stairway has a coffin plate which reads CF died Aug 9th 1857. This, then, is the Charlotte Fountaine who died young, and for whom the tower was rebuilt.

Outside to the north of the church overlooking the ornamental lake and the gardens are the memorials to the 20th Century Fountaines, among them Andrew Fountaine, who died in 1997. And beyond the lake, the wind ripples hundreds of young birch trees in the new plantation.
  aged 14 weeks

Simon Knott, August 2016

last days

font sanctuary looking west
Sarah Fountaine 1740 life how short! eternity how long! Mrs Elizth Riley
Sir Andrew Fountaine 1753 harmonium tomb recess
crossed bones tied with a ribbon: 'Remember Death' A Good Companion and an Honest Friend, Rare Virtues in this Age, & hear they End winged hour glass
north aisle entrance to the crypt Fountaine crypt

died at Northumberland War Hospital Andrew Douglas Algernon MacLean Fountaine and Rosemary Fountaine Narford Hall


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