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

St Augustine, Norwich

St Augustine: red brick tower and a pretty little church

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    St Augustine, Norwich
Sovereign House from the graveyard   St Augustine was one of thirty-six parish churches in medieval Norwich to survive the Reformation; but it has always seemed apart from the others, and doubly so nowadays. It is the most northerly of them all, and from here to the heart of the city the factories and workshops spread in the 18th and 19th centuries. Then came the blitz, and the area to the south and east of St Augustine was laid waste. Mad City Engineer Herbert Rowley seized his chance, and built a four lane urban freeway across the medieval city that cut St Augustine off from the heart. Just to make sure that everyone's misery was complete, Rowley allowed the stupefyingly ugly Sovereign House and Anglia Square to be built to the east of St Augustine.

When you stand in the graveyard of St Augustine, you can enjoy the 17th century almshouses that line the south side of the graveyard, and some modern award-winning sheltered flats on the north side. But dominating the scene is the jaw-dropping presence of Sovereign House. It really is stupefyingly ugly. It was built for Her Majesty's Stationery Office when such a thing existed, but today stands empty and derelict. Anglia Square and the multistorey carpark beside it seem almost jaunty by comparison, but don't be fooled. They are ugly too.

It really does seem a slap in the face for this pretty little church. Despite being in an area of the city where lots of people actually live, St Augustine is redundant, but mercifully in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust. This means that you can visit it, and the keyholders I met were really lovely, even offering me a cup of tea on this cold and snowy day.

The most striking think about St Augustine, of course, is its red-brick tower, the only one in the city. The rest of the church seems to hunch against it - the nave is really short, but very high, and the aisles continue eastwards to the end of the chancel. This gives a floor plan inside which is almost exactly square.

  the plan almost exactly square

I'm really pleased that the CCT have care of this church, because there are not many historical survivals inside, and it might otherwise have been lost. The furnishings are all late Victorian, and the rood screen dates from the 1920s - it is the parish war memorial, and the names of the dead are inscribed on the western side of the dado. They are not dead who live forever in our hearts it reads on the west side, which seems a curiously secular thing to say, as if it came out of a card saying with sympathy on the front.

strange little head on top of the font cover   When Mortlock came this way in the 1980s, he saw a surviving panel from the medieval screen reset in the north aisle, but this is now in safe storage. It depicts St Apollonia, and there are hopes to put it on display here in the future.

There are a couple of curiosities. The Laudian communion rails, presumably ripped out by enthusiastic Norwich puritans, have been pressed into use as the western side of the ringing gallery beneath the tower, although the gallery itself has been boarded up. Below it, the font cover has been cobbled together apparently out of bits of furniture - a strange little head sits on the pinnacle.

One famous name associated with this church is Matthew Brettingham, the 17th century architect, responsible for refurbishing a number of Norfolk buildings. His memorial is in the north aisle chapel; unfortunately, you can't see it, because the vestry was built around it and is kept locked. I wonder what he'd make of Sovereign House?

Simon Knott, December 2005


looking east: the screen is the war memorial sanctuary looking west: curiously secular inscription south aisle
font Christ in Majesty in the east window Marys at the tomb Mary Haydon
painted corbel to the roof two brothers two bishops communion rails reused in the ringing gallery


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