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

St Alban, Lakenham, Norwich

St Alban, Lakenham

St Alban St Alban, Lakenham St Alban's Cathedral

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    St Alban, Lakenham, Norwich

St Alban, in the well-to-do suburb of Lakenham to the south of the city centre, is perhaps the most successful of the Anglican churches built between the wars in Norwich, if not as spectacular as St Catherine at Mile Cross. The architect was Cecil Upcher, perhaps best known in the city for saving and restoring Pulls Ferry and the Ferry House, where he lived and worked. The style is curious, an amalgam of ideas that creates its own unity. There are Norman motifs without it being neo-Norman, and Early English details that do not combine to give an overall effect. There are perhaps the last whispers of art deco as it leaves the room for good (imagine it as a bakelite model, and there you are), and the blind chancel is typical of its decade, the Thirties. Pevsner considered it in the Maufe succession, perhaps identifying a nod to Guildford Cathedral, begun the same decade. Ian Nairn thought that Maufe was a man with genuine spatial gifts but out of sympathy with the style of his time, but I do not think the same can be said of Upcher.

A sculpture of the church's patron sits in an alcove looking east from the chancel wall. Below him are set three stones with plaques recording that they were brought here from Canterbury Cathedral, St Alban's Cathedral and Norwich Cathedral for a ceremony to mark the start of work on 4th August 1932. They were dedicated by Bertram Pollock, the Bishop of Norwich, but it would be another five years before he could come back to consecrate the building in 1937, towards the end of the staggering thirty-two years of his episcopacy.

With the storm clouds of war already gathering, the opening of St Alban must have seemed a triumph of hope over anxiety. The Norwich photographer George Plunkett came here on the afternoon of the 25th June 1938, the year after the opening, and took the photographs below. You can see at once that the Norman motif from the south porch is repeated in the arcades, creating a near-Classical effect.

St Alban's Lakenham interior view east [2499] 1938-06-25.jpg

I first visited St Alban back in 2009, more than seventy years after its completion, but unlike many other city churches the original urban context here remains almost entirely unchanged, the polite Edwardian houses around still the setting that Upcher planned for and Plunkett recorded. On that occasion I stepped through the west porch into an interior which was full of light, for there is no coloured glass at all here. Again, and despite the exterior, there is a feel of the Classical, perhaps not intentional at the time, but the white walls and serious arcades are a reminder of the influence of that genre on Modernism. Blot out the clerestory, and we might easily be in part of Basil Spence's University of Sussex. The wooden chairs photographed by Plunkett had gone to be replaced rather uneasily by modern cushioned ones, although generally the clearing of clutter had done the building a service (and would continue to do so, as we will see). Above the clerestory rides a beautiful panelled roof, slightly canted and looking for all the world as if it has come here from an 18th Century country house.

St Alban contains one interesting medieval survival. This is the 14th Century font which came from Knettishall, just over the Suffolk border. The parish church of Knettishall, which has always been in the Norwich Diocese, suffered abandonment in the early decades of the 20th Century, and in 1933 its furnishings were dispersed, mostly to Riddlesworth church on the Norfolk side of the border, but the font came here. It was a happy coincidence that St Alban happened to be the only church in the diocese under construction at the time. The font cover is Jacobean, did it also come from Knettishall?

In George Plunkett's photograph, the east wall of the chancel appears stark. The Reverend Hawthorn, vicar here in the 1950s, obviously thought so too, and suggestrd a competition in the pages of the Eastern Daily Press to provide a reredos. The winner was Christ in Glory by Geoffrey Camp, which depicts the Risen Christ above scenes of Norwich. It sits perhaps a little uneasily among the clean lines of the chancel. To the south, the glazed windows of a side chapel are engraved with scenes from the Nativity.

When I first came here the parish mid-week Eucharist was in progress, and I observed in these pages at the time that the High Church end of the Church of England in Norwich appeared to still be hale and hearty. But coming back in 2019, everything had changed. The church has been cleared of most of its furnishings, and the south aisle and western part of the nave have been converted into a Christian café. The north aisle appeared to be in use for art workshops of one kind and another with only the chancel retaining its previous fixtures and fittings. The people in charge (all much younger than me) were very friendly and welcoming (as, indeed, I had found their elders twelve years earlier) though they did find it a little odd that I only wanted to photograph their church and didn't want to sit down and talk. I thought the empty nave suited Upcher's vision, the white walls and rolling arcades remaining a slightly severe witness. The best of the original furnishings have survived. These are the twin pulpit and lectern from which prayer desks and then choir stalls turn back into the chancel, typical of their decade, if not as spectacular as the same thing in inlaid polished walnut at the exact contemporary All Hallows, Ipswich. You can see a mixture of before and after images below.

Simon Knott, July 2021

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You can see thousands of George Plunkett's other old photographs of Norwich on the Plunkett website.


looking east Grace
looking west St Alban, Lakenham St Alban, Lakenham
Fearfully and Wonderfully Made/Friday Night Youth Knettishall font St Alban, Lakenham
St Alban, Lakenham St Alban, Lakenham St Alban, Lakenham


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