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

St Michael, Oxnead

  St Michael, Oxnead
view from the west - this was never a large church   I climbed away from the Bure, and, for the first time, wasn't sure which way to go. The lanes twisted, and junction followed junction. High hedgerows blocked landmarks. Soon, I wasn't sure even where I was. I stood puzzling over the OS map, and suddenly noticed the birdsong around me punctuated by a dull clipping. I looked up, and a girl on a tall brown horse came around the corner. She was very pretty, and she greeted me confidently before I did her, and so I asked her the way.

Well. I'm not saying she was posh, but she had the kind of voice that I suppose would have won gainful employment on BBC Children's Hour just after the war. I bet she didn't come off the Aylsham council estate.

However, she was very helpful and polite; I am reaching an age when I feel qualified to complain about the state of the nation's youth, so it was pleasing to find someone who didn't ignore me sulkily, especially someone so pretty. I was soon on my way, climbing through woods. It was early afternoon on a beautiful spring day, and I had begun the return leg of my lazy, elliptical orbit about north-east Norfolk. A jay complained loudly at me from the wood, an affirmation. It was good to be here.

I was woken from my daydreaming by a vast tractor heading slowly up the lane towards me, its wide wheels straddling the verge on both sides. The driver stared stoically ahead, the burden of piloting the great beast apparently a weight on his shoulders. If there had been walls I would have been crushed (although I suppose I could have gone underneath) but I hauled my bike up on to the ridge on the edge of the wood to let him pass, acknowledging his nod of thanks. I'm becoming good at these Norfolk niceties, a reminder of how East Anglia varies. In Norfolk you nod, in Suffolk you wave; in Cambridgeshire you just stare straight ahead, ignoring each other completely.

I cycled on, the lane narrowing, trees coming into leaf in the bowering overhead. Then, there was a glimpse of flint through the copse on my right. Here, lost in the woods beside Oxnead Hall, was the church. It seems extraordinary that it is still in use, but it is.

It was inconceivable that it would be open, but it was. I tried the door to make sure, and then did a circuit of the place. It is in pretty poor shape, and I don't just mean the ruined north chancel chapel - I hadn't seen such a dirty interior since Beeston. Just beyond the high churchyard wall is Oxnead Hall, a splendid affair, with ornamental gardens, a maze, long brick walls, and the like. I peeped over at it, being fairly gobsmacked by its opulence - and, in fact, all that remains of it is a servants wing. Whatever must it have been like originally? St Michael is a pretty poor neighbour. I thought to myself that the rich didn't have such a bad life, despite Mr Blair's determination to stop them murdering foxes and driving 4x4s.   g4ervdfewds

The church has a curious external appearance, because much of its restoration happened at unusual times, the late 16th century and the 18th century. Hence the pencil-like tower, the expanse of red brick at the east end, and the ideosyncratic porches. Inside, the overwhelming flavour is of the Victorians. As I suggested, it is now a bit shabby; but it wins so many points for being still in use and open to pilgrims and strangers that it is forgiven this. And in any case, the main goal of most people's visits is the collection of tombs to the Paston family, who lived at the hall after leaving Paston itself.

I fear that by the time they moved to Oxnead the descent of the Pastons into vulgarity was complete. The alarm bells ring at Paston, where you see the difference between the restrainhed, beautiful 15th century memorials brought there from Broomholm, their original location, and the massive, vulgar 17th century classical affairs by Nicholas Stone. One of the memorials here is also by Stone, to Lady Katherine Paston, who died in the 1640s. It exhibits a kitsch not wholly characteristic of that century. A bland bust in white set in an alcove of grey marble, with so little character it might as well have come from some kind of Stuart Monuments-R-Us. It's not very much different from the kind of sculpture with which the self-importance of 19th century aldermen is exerted in the corridors of northern town halls. I wonder how many people over the centuries have looked at it and winced. No wonder the cherubs at the top look so pissed off.

Katherine Paston grumpy cherub

The curiosity of this kind of memorial is that it is pretty much wholly secular, and although we nowadays associate churches, and particularly churchyards, with 'remembering' the dead, this was a fairly new idea in the 17th century. In a sense, these early protestants invented the relationship with the dead that we still articulate in churches today. Before the Reformation, the dead played an active part in church life, not only in the liturgy (they were praying for us, while we prayed for them) but in the practical manner of leaving bequests for memorials and church furnishings; to assert the importance of their family, of course, but also to focus our prayers for their welfare after death. Such prayers were anathema to protestants, and still are; but if local landed families were still to press their significance upon the ordinary people, what better way than to aggrandize themselves in the central public building of the parish? And so, losing their devotional component, the memorials became grander and more vulgar throughout the 16th and 17th centuries.

To be fair, the one further east, to Clement Paston, is pretty good, a fine example of Tudor monumental art becoming Jacobean - and he is an important Paston. He was the one who took the Pastons away from the coast, and brought them here to Oxnead. He died in 1608, having served five English monarchs in public office from the time of Henry VIII through to that of James I. He lies in his armour as if ready to spring up at a moment's notice, his wife relegated to a praying position at the side. Having lived through such interesting religious times, it might be a surprise that his monument, too, is so secular. Or perhaps he was just fed up with the whole lot of them by then.

Clement Paston, 1608 Clement Paston - detail

There are a number of brass inscriptions, although no figure brasses. Surely there must have been once? But there are no indents left to see. They are worth a look - the one to Alice Paston has a blank in the place of her father's name. Perhaps the inscriber did not know it, although I prefer a stranger explanation, a mystery to do with a will perhaps; the kind of thing that Wilkie Collins would have conjured up.The nearby brass to Edmund Lambert is very similar, and indeed it dates from the same year, 1608, obviously not a good time to be at Oxnead.

Alice Paston, 1608 Edmund Lambert, 1608 John Paston

In the filled-in doorway to the former chapel, there are four pieces of marble drapery arranged roughly in the form of a cross. You can see them in one of the images below. I wondered where they had come from. Norfolk churches expert Chris Harrison passed on some interesting information about both these fragments and the general restoration of the monuments here. The tombs were renovated during the 1950s, having fallen into a state of some deterioration through dampness caused by the accumulation of rubble and earth in the ruined side chapel.

Chris tells me that on top of the projecting shield on Clement Paston's tomb are the letters REP WILLIAM BRIGST 1665 (the name appears to be unfinished owing to lack of space and the last figure was cut on the edge and is not distinct). This is assumed to be William Brigstowe, who is mentioned in one of Sir Thomas Brown's notes as being mason at the reparation of the steeple of Norwich Cathedral in 1663. So the Pastons had their ancestor's tomb repaired by the best hand available once the puritans were off the scene - as Chris points out, it seems odd that Brigstowe signed it so crudely.

Katherine Paston's tomb had been in a poor state of repair. The cherubs had at one point been removed, but were replaced to fit in with dowelling holes at the top. The pediment was rebuilt, having been found in three pieces loose in the church. Four pieces of alabaster drapery were on or near the monuments, but it was found impossible to determine where they were originally fixed.

These, then, were the four pieces of marble drapery I saw arranged in the shape of a cross. It was indeed hard to guess where in the church they might originally have come from. Was there another grand classical monument here at some point?

I went back outside into the graveyard, into the stillness in the heat of the day. I sat on the porch step, and thought of what Eliot said about the silence that is at the heart of all music. Or perhaps it was at the start of all music. And maybe it wasn't even Eliot. Anyway, a brief rest; and then, back to civilisation.

Simon Knott, May 2005


looking east towards the chancel looking west from the chancel font curious cross of marble fragments over the wall: the gardens of Oxnead Hall


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