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

St Peter, Neatishead

Neatishead

Neatishead west doorway

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    St Peter, Neatishead

Here we are in the gently rolling fields and woods to the west of Barton Broad, a gentle patchwork of small hamlets sprawling towards Hoveton. This area of Broadland is not touristy at all, but intensely agricultural, which is perhaps surprising given its proximity to Wroxham. But there is a feeling of remoteness. Neatishead is pretty much in the middle of nowhere, a large parish with several settlements and in one of them, Three Hammer Common, you find the church. At first sight this is a relatively insignificant little building set back from the road at the end of a long avenue of pollarded trees. However, the more you look at it the more interesting it gets, for what you see today is in fact merely the surviving chancel of what was once a vast church, stretching back as far as the road.

The church was probably the work of the 14th Century, and the surviving remnant was patched up in the 1790s. The tower had come down about a century earlier, and perhaps this was what damaged the nave beyond repair, although of course the change from an emphasis on private devotional worship to public congregational worship at the Reformation meant that parishes with a small population had no longer any need of a huge church, and there are many examples in East Anglia of aisles being demolished to make the nave smaller, and a couple of examples in Suffolk of the nave being demolished leaving only the chancel for worship, which is effectively what has happened here. No traces remain at all of the ruins.

Because of the date, the reimagining of the church was done with a preaching house rather than a sacramental building in mind. The entrance at the west end is simple and apparently old. Pevsner thought it might be a reuse of the original west doorway, but it is just as likely to have been a former south or north aisle entrance. Above it was reset a strange relief that is presumably the side of a former memorial tombchest. It serves no purpose and probably they did it just because it looked grand.

Inside, the overwhelming sense is of a well-kept, well-loved building. A watery light plays across dark wood and the font, a trim traceried work of the 14th Century which survives from the medieval church. Some of the woodwork also survives from the earlier church, including a 16th century pulpit and, most memorably, an unusual 15th Century bench end of what appears to be a gryphon holding a bearded head in its beak, probably a reference to St John the Baptist. There is a memorial plaque to William Emmyson who was vicar here in the second half of the 15th Century, but its convoluted word play was too much for my schoolboy Latin to cope with.

There are several glimpses of the life of Neatishead a century ago. A rare surviving Girls Friendly Society banner hangs at the west end. This Anglican society began in the years before the First World War to care for girls away from home in service. Surprisingly, it still survives today in a different form, working with girls in deprived areas. And the church has no less than three separate memorials to young men killed in the First World War. They were all in their mid-twenties.

Simon Knott, December 2019

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looking east

font gryphon with the head of St John the Baptist war memorial killed in action near Arras
Died in France of wounds received in action William Emmyson, vicar 1480 died of wounds received whilst stretcher-bearing
St Peter's Neatishead Girls' Friendly Society St Peter's Neatishead MU St Peter's Neatishead

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