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

St Nicholas, Salthouse


Salthouse Salthouse Salthouse
Salthouse Salthouse Salthouse
Salthouse and the sea beyond Salthouse Salthouse

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St Nicholas, Salthouse

There's a place you can stand about a mile to the south of this church near the memorably named Gallows Hill. Here, among the bracken and the gorse, you are several hundred feet above the village and the shore. You can taste the salt in the air, the sea-spangled freshness that rushes across the green rise of the churchyard below. The wide blue sea stretches beyond the church, beyond the land, ceaseless, ever changing. The sea is the handmaiden of Norfolk, her fortune and her fate. In medieval times Salthouse was part of the great port of Blakeney Haven, reached by a creek from the great harbour that sprawled between the villages of Cley and Wiveton. This was a busy place then, but the creek and the harbour have long since silted up and the people have gone. Today, this is a lonely place.

Given the wealth of this area at that time, St Nicholas is unsurprisingly a Perpendicular church, for apart from its tower it was entirely rebuilt at the end of the 15th Century, largely at the expense of the Heydon family. As was fashionable at that time, the nave and chancel are continuous under one roof, the chancel projecting just one bay further than the east ends of the aisles. There are echoes of Blythburgh, another watery place, this church's almost exact contemporary in Suffolk. As there, the older tower survives, because protestantism intervened before it could be rebuilt. But in the aisles there are none of the walls of glass that you find at Blythburgh. Rather, the building here rises to heaven flanked by narrow paired slits, as if they were a defence against the buffeting and the storms rolling in from the sea. The east window is large, but seems larger by comparison with the aisles and clerestories. The flintwork looks almost new, and so it must, for if it is not regularly maintained it will soon succumb to the damp and the gales.

You step into an upturned boat full of light, again like Blythburgh, and there is yet something else that this place shares with Blythburgh, for both were to benefit from a commodity that was in short supply in the 19th Century, sheer neglect. By the time they got around to restoring this place, we had moved on from the sacramental scouring that the Victorians lavished on the great majority of English churches and were taking into account the importance of the past surviving. There is no coloured glass, just the light from the sea falling on old wood and stone. As large as the church is, the font is still imposing at the west end of the nave. The panels include a Tudor rose and Instruments of the Passion. Below the bowl the lions seem to be smiling happily, and surely no woodwose would have the heart to club them. Indeed, as is common the former woodwoses on the stem have been reduced to buttresses, as if they had given up and slinked off.

font font happy lions on the Salthouse font

Because the chancel only projects one bay beyond the east wall, the liturgical chancel takes in the most easterly bays of the nave and aisles, and the screen must have necessarily stretched right the way across the church as, for example, at Eye and Southwold in Suffolk. Most of the screen was moved to the back of the church in the 1930s, only that in the south aisle remaining in place. Pevsner recorded that the screen bore images of sixteen saints, although in fact they appear to be an alternating sequence of saints and Old Testament prophets, St Andrew with his saltire cross on the first panel of the south side, for example, and St James with his pilgrim staff as the left hand figure in the next pair to the south. However, one of the prophets has been most viciously circumscribed, so I wonder if there may be more going on than meets the eye.

On the other side of the screen are some memorable graffiti of ships. They are presumably 16th Century, from the time when Salthouse was a port. It is interesting that they are on the east side of the screen and so must have been done from within the chancel, suggesting that the graffiti may be post-Reformation and from a time when the chancel had found a new use, perhaps as a school.

Salthouse screen (north) St Andrew, St James and St James the Less alternating with prophets
ship graffiti saint and prophet ship graffiti

Two other unusual survivals are here in glass and brass. A collected panel of late 16th Century continental glass installed in the 1950s at the east end of the south aisle depicts the Mass of St Gregory, the elevated host turning into the real body of Christ. In the floor of the chancel there is a chalice brass of 1519 to Robert Fevyr, rector of this place. There is more ship graffiti in the choir stalls. The ledger stones up the nave chart several influential families of the parish over the course of a couple of hundred years, but one ledger is earlier and of particular interest because it remembers Richard Burage, who was late preacher of God's word at Happisburgh. Burage died in 1638, and so was part of that great ferment of protestant and millennial ideas at the start of the 17th Century that would inevitably lead to the English Civil War and the Commonwealth.

There are also memories of non-conformism from more peaceful days here. At the time of the 1851 Census of Religious Worship the population of Salthouse was just over three hundred. Roughly half the people of the parish were at church on the morning of the census, but only sixty of them were here. Salthouse was also home to a Wesleyan Chapel under the guidance of preacher William Hardingham, a shopkeeper, who attracted another sixty, and the rest were in the Primitive Methodist Chapel where the leader was William Dew, a grocer. There is a good collection of Dew family graves to the south-east of the church.

On 31st January 1953 the Great East Coast Flood swamped the land from Scotland to Kent, killing hundreds of people, mostly in East Anglia. Only one person died at Salthouse, but almost half the village population was made homeless by the destruction of the waves, and the villagers made their way up to the church to seek sanctuary, in an echo of that famous scene in Dorothy L Sayers' The Nine Tailors. I wonder how often that had happened before in its long history. Today, the church remains in use, but it has also found a new role in co-operation with local artists, putting on exhibitions throughout the summer.

Simon Knott, November 2022

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looking east looking east looking west
side chapel Mass of St Gregory (continental fragment, 17th Century) Bible and ship graffiti
late preacher of God's word at Happisburgh, 1638 Mr Henry Stanforth, merchant, whose sobriety, modesty and temperance with many other virtues were conspicuous (1751) chalice brass, 1519
roof corbel 'two brothers who gave their lives for their king and country'

Thomas Dew, 1842 Salthouse
cherub and stafish

Salthouse church from Blakeney tower, Sheringham beyond


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