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

St Peter, North Barningham

North Barningham

North Barningham Untitled

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    St Peter, North Barningham

Leaving the coast behind and climbing the ridge, you come down through north Norfolk on meandering, narrow lanes through the rolling fields and woods, and soon the tower of St Peter beckons from far off. When you reach it, you find it all alone in its birdsong-filled secluded churchyard on the edge of the fields, a shimmer of bluebells hazing towards the east on this lovely day in May 2021. There is no village, and we are about a mile north of the Barningham Hall estate. Far off on the crest of the next rise south you can just make out the ruined tower of Barningham Winter church in the grounds of the Hall, the parish church which now serves this quiet spot for, not surprisingly, North Barningham's own former parish church is no longer in use.

The story of this church is one of slow decline over the last three centuries. The Palgrave family, who are closely associated with this parish, died out in the 1730s without leaving any heirs, and the land of the parish was bought by the Felbrigg Estate to the north. As Derek Palgrave's excellent guide book notes, by then there were only two inhabitants left in North Barningham, and the church was nearly derelict, a state which it was to endure until the 1890s. Then, a light and probably fairly cheap restoration made it safe and sound but did not overwhelm it. However, St Peter gradually fell out of use altogether during the course of the 20th Century, and the need for further repairs made redundancy inevitable. In 1969 the church was closed. Lack of any demand for a new use resulted in a decision to demolish the church and plough the land under. Enter the redoubtable Billa Harrod and the Norfolk Churches Trust, which supported local people to save the building, and, over the course of the next few decades, to make it beautiful again. Thanks to them it was vested in the care of the Redundant Churches Fund, now the CCT, in 1976.

This is a small church with a narrow north aisle, and the exterior is that pleasing mix of Decorated segueing into Perpendicular, a process which probably happened later out here than it did in the towns and cities of East Anglia. The church is open every day, and you step into one of the loveliest of interiors. The nave is rough and ready, the furnishings slightly ramshackle, the mottled pink of the walls a setting for memorials of jewel-like beauty, and of national importance.

The most memorable of these is in the north aisle. It is to Sir Austin and Dame Elizabeth Palgrave, and dates from the 1630s. His inscription tells us that he was A learned and an upright Magistrate and of good Authority in this County, while of her it says that there were, for patience matchless, for charity to ye Poore, for Curtesie Loyall, none in her tyme more. The two gaze out blankly in busts from within alcoves. Sam Mortlock observed that he is bearded and vaguely quizzical; she will brook no nonsense, which is about right. The sculptor has politely shown them both in their prime, though in fact he was thirty years older than her when they died. A lion rampant roars beneath two of his fellows looking out, and whimsical cherubs bear the whole piece upwards.

Sir Austin and Dame Elizabeth Palgrave, 1630s Sir Austin Palgrave, 1639 Lady Elizabeth Palgrave, 1639

On the floor beneath them are Sir Henry and Dame Anne Palgrave from more than a century earlier, and the other side of the Reformation divide. They stand gracefully, him in his armour, and her with her beads hanging from her girdle. These Palgraves died in 1513 and 1516, and beneath them their seven daughters and five sons pray for their souls. Their Latin inscription asks for our prayers for their souls also, and commends them to God.

Sir Henry and Dame Anne Palgrave, 16th Century Sir Henry Palgrave, 16th Century Dame Anne Palgrave, 16th Century
Palgrave sons, 16th Century Palgrave daughters, 16th Century

There are two more splendid memorials up in the chantry, also on the north wall. Margaret Pope was a Palgrave daughter who died in 1624. She kneels stiffly within a curtained chamber which is held open by two angels. There is a very similar memorial at Riddlesworth in south Norfolk, which came originally from Knettishall in Suffolk. Further east is the earliest of these three great wall-mounted treasures, to John Palgrave who died in 1611. His tomb chest bears the figures of Justice, Labour and Peace, perhaps a reminder that he was a lawyer in the Inner Temple in London. Curiously, the three figures have been defaced - did some dull-headed puritan imagine them to be saints?

Margaret Pope, 1620s John Palgrave, 1611 Labour

There is a beautiful double piscina and sedilia on the south side of the chancel opposite the memorials. It is in the full flowering of the Decorated style, a reminder of how English art flourished in the years before the Black Death. It would be all downhill from there. A curiosity that probably comes from half a century later is the ornate wheel picked out in brick and flint in the nave floor. It might perhaps have been a decorative feature to surround an earlier font, but is perhaps more likely to mark the entrance to a vault, maybe to Richard Bacon whose brass inscription of 1472 is set in another curiosity, the lozenge (coffin?) shaped ledger beside it, a feature which is unlikely to be contemporary.

The guide book tells us that the altar furnishings were installed in the 1890s at a cost of 116. This is not far short of 10,000 in today's money. Perhaps this included the cost of the altar rails, which were transferred to nearby Matlaske on redundancy being declared here. In the long term though North Barningham got a good deal, because they were replaced with the beautiful 17th Century set that used to be in St Mary Coslany in Norwich. The benches on the north side of the nave came from another CCT church, St Peter in Sudbury, which is now home to some fairly horrid plastic chairs. Suffolk's loss is beautiful North Barningham's gain.

Simon Knott, May 2021

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looking east looking west
north aisle font mouse proof organ image niche
coffin-shaped ledger and wheel south sanctuary window bearded corbel head
orate pro anima Robertus Bakon, 1472


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