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

St Peter, Rockland St Peter

Rockland St Peter

Rockland St Peter Rockland St Peter Rockland St Peter

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St Peter, Rockland St Peter

During the long Coronavirus Panic of 2020 my mind often turned to distant churches I remembered fondly, and at Rockland St Peter it was the setting, on the edge of the village surrounded by woodland and meadows, a narrow graveyard inhabited on my first visit by, of all things, half a dozen peacocks, and that pretty round tower with the later octagonal top. The large porch and vestry contributed more of a cruciform feel than the truncated transepts on the body of the church. On the eastern gable of the little chancel the cross leaned alarmingly. I wonder if it has been repaired..

At first sight the tower has similarities to that at neighbouring Breckles. Round towers of this kind are often assumed to be Saxon or Norman, with a bell stage added in the 14th century, but unlike Breckles this one was probably all built in one go, and none of this is earlier than about 1300. The south porch was rebuilt in the 17th Century. The chancel was presumably ruinous, and was rebuilt on a smaller scale in the the early 20th century. But what makes St Peter memorable is the interior, one of those spaces that lift the heart, filled with light, air and space. A neat scissor-brace roof tops the white of the walls. In the body of the nave are ranks of modern wooden chairs, which I think always looks good in a medieval church.

If the interior looks as if it has undergone a recent restoration, then that is correct, because the roof of this church was destroyed in a fire in the late 1940s. There are some dramatic pictures of this event at the back of the church, and afterwards there was a full-scale restoration at a time when, happily, there was a great deal of sympathy for buildings like this. It is beautifully mantained, but not clinical or over-neat. It feels loved.

The most striking feature of the interior is the screen which is, curiously, two thirds of the way along the nave. The reason for this is that it didn't originally come from this church at all, but was brought here in the 1950s from nearby Tottington church, now in the Battle Training Area, to which access is forbidden. I had been to Tottington the previous year, and had seen the fixings in the chancel arch there where it had been removed. Now I was seeing the screen itself. It has six lights, three either side of the entrance, and there are the remains of buttressing, more commonly found in the north-east of the county. The rood group on top came from a York church when it was declared redundant in 1973.

Tottington screen

Tottington screen (detail) Tottington screen (detail) Tottington screen (detail)

If you had come here before the 1990s you would have seen more of the Tottington furnishings, because the 15th Century benches with their carved animal bench ends were also brought here after the War. They were later taken back to Tottington, where I saw them in 2004, When they were returned it was found that they had been shortened by the churchwardens of Rockland St Peter in the 1950s to fit them into the church. Now too short for Tottington nave, they lay stacked up in the church there along with the original tiles from the roof. However, in recent years the best of them have been carefully restored and are now on display at St Peter Hungate in the middle of Norwich. The 17th Century Tottington pulpit was also in Rockland St Peter church until the 1990s, but it wasn't returned to Tottington. I don't know where it is now.

Intriguingly, the bulky octagonal 14th Century font, a tracery-carved affair in front of the tower screen, may be contemporary with the tower outside. The tower screen itself might be part of the original Rockland rood screen that Bloomfield saw here 'with four figures'. There are none now, and Pevsner hedges his bets, describing it as part of the C15 screen of a ruined Rockland church.

Stepping through the screen, the slight transepts create an opening up before the narrowness of the chancel. Jones & Willis's 1909 glass in the east window is vivid in its blues and greens. Nearby is a memorial to James Fielding, for fifty years local Preacher and Superintendent of the Sabbath School in this Parish. He died, aged 90, in 1865, one of the last vestiges of the old Church of England that the Ecclesiological movement was wiping away.

Simon Knott, November 2020

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Tottington screen Christ the Good Shephed (Jones & Willis, 1912) Tottington screen
Jones & Willis font James Fielding
The Lord is my Shepherd Christ the Good Shepherd Good Shepherd wood, stone, air II

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