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St Martin at Palace Plain, Norwich

St Martin Palace Plain

St Martin Palace Plain St Martin Palace Plain

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    St Martin at Palace Plain, Norwich

A small church, but everything is in place, the tower, the aisles, the clerestories. It is worth making a tour of the outside to see this, for the current configuration of the interior makes it seem unfamiliar, as we shall see. The church sits in a tight little graveyard with traffic on three sides, trees bowering high around and above. But on closer inspection the current appearance of St Martin is essentially that of a substantial Victorian restoration, as a result of a partial collapse of tower and chancel, and the heavy hand of Edward Hakewill.

Despite the proximity to the cathedral (the Palace in question is that of the Bishop) the setting was rather unlovely until a couple of decades ago, because the Norwich city gasworks sat immediately to the north of it. At one time, there had been a plan for a railway that would have cut St Martin off from the Cathedral precincts, but this is an area of regeneration, and today you would not know that such a controversy had ever existed.

The courts building is now on the site of the gasworks, and this led to St Martin being used for several years as the home of the Probation service. Internally, a split level steel and glass mezzanine provided working space above and below the floors. It ascends into the space beneath the tower, reaching ground floor level at both the west end and in the chancel. The aisle chapels have been glassed in and form meeting rooms. It is all crisp and airy, fully functional without detracting from the former character of the church too much, for the inner walls are pretty much intact and unscathed. Of course, it is now very different to how George Plunkett found it in 1934:

looking east, 1934 (c) George Plunkett looking west, 1934 (c) George Plunkett east window, lost to bombs (c) George Plunkett 15th century font (c) George Plunkett

A surviving piece of Victoriana is the solemn inscription How Dreadful is this Place: This is the House of God, and this is the Gate of Heaven above the south doorway, which must have concentrated the mind a bit. A good 18th century ledger stone features a skull and hourglass backed by crossed bones, and Lady Elizabeth Calpthorpe's table memorial of 1578 is a good example of the seemly Anglicanism of the period.

Much of the glass was destroyed in the Norwich blitz, but some good figures by Heaton, Butler & Bayne survived and are now isolated in clear glass. The later figures of Christ in Majesty flanked by Longinus and the Blessed Virgin appear to be by the William Morris of Westminster workshop, installed in 1952. Bikin Hayward thought them poor, but they stand up well for the period, especially the figure of Mary.

Longinus (William Morris of Westminster, 1952) Christ in Majesty (William Morris of Westminster, 1952) Blessed Virgin (William Morris of Westminster, 1952)

Today the building is in use as the headquarters of the Norwich Historic Churches Trust, a worthy use no doubt but it does rather give the place the feel of a museum. Back in 2005 when I was here last I asked the kind man from the probation service who let me wander around if it was a suitable building for its then-use. He said that it was, and that the setting generally encouraged everybody to take each other seriously, and so when clients came for the first time they knew that this was a place that would give them a future. Perhaps the same applies now that the building is the focus of giving the city's historic churches a future.

Simon Knott, December 2019

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looking west adopt, adapt, improve Lady Elizabeth Calthorpe, 1578 Richard Manby, alderman 1720
to honour the moemory of the men who gave their lives in the Great War 1914-1919 St George (Heaton, Butler & Bayne, 1860s) Christ (Heaton, Butler & Bayne, 1860s) St Patrick (Heaton, Butler & Bayne, 1860s) St George flanked by angels with flaming bowls (Heaton, Butler & Bayne, 1860s)
hourglass and crossed bones, winding sheet and skull with crossed bones flints, stoup, shield


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


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