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

St Botolph, Shingham


south doorway (12th Century) Shingham Shingham

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St Botolph, Shingham

As the Breckland heads north the Norfolk landscape sprawls out, the lanes threading through heathland and woodland beyond the Watton road. The parishes are larger than is usual for the county, but with a few exceptions their villages seem inconsequential, brief reminders of civilisation before the emptiness resumes. There's nothing but the call of birds, the wind in the trees, and then suddenly your peace is skewered by jets erupting from the RAF Marham base, tearing low through the skies above the fields. You reach the intensely agricultural countryside between Swaffham and Downham Market, and yet it must once have supported more people than today, for within two miles of the village of Beachamwell (population 331 in 2011) there are three ruined churches, and Shingham's St Botolph might so easily have joined them.

The hamlet of Shingham sits on the outskirts of Beachamwell village, but it has long been part of the same parish. Apart from the church, Shingham has a large farmhouse and then some cottages lining the street, but that is about it. As so often in rural East Anglia the population diminished rapidly through the late 19th Century, and by the early 20th Century the church had fallen into disuse. The thatch was prey to the elements, and when Munro Cautley visited in the 1930s he found a poor little church, rapidly falling to decay, and with only a galvanised iron roof to nave. By the 1950s it appears that the church was roofless, and soon afterwards it was declared redundant, the Diocese applying for permission to demolish it.

Today it is hard to imagine this happening, especially as you approach the church from the road. It is set at the far end of a neatly-kept churchyard with many recent headstones, for the whole of Beachamwell parish comes here to be buried. There is a fine 14th Century window facing you, but as you get closer the church is dominated by its vivid modern copper roof, which is startling in comparison with the rest of the structure. An elegant Art Nouveau-style memorial to the south-east of the church remembers Maurice Mason, late of Talbot Manor in nearby Fincham. Mason was a remarkable man, described at the time of his death in 1994 as the most respected amateur grower of tropical and sub-tropical plants in Britain. He was also a farmer of more than six thousand acres, which included the land on which Shingham church is set, of which he was tenant, and which is still farmed by the family. In the 1960s he took Shingham church to task, reroofing it, a single act which certainly saved it, for it is unlikely that it would be with us now if he had not.

The roof is continuous over nave and chancel and there is no break between the two. The nave shows still its 12th Century origins, and you enter through a memorable Norman south doorway, made all the more impressive by being set against such a humble little church. The door takes a bit of pushing, and will swing back hard if you are not careful, for the wall it is set in leans outwards dramatically. You step down into a delicious space of old wood, brick and stone. That the years have not been kind to Shingham church is immediately obvious. That so much remains is a tribute to Maurice Mason. The 14th Century font is green with years of damp, but the most remarkable survival is a set of small tracery-backed medieval benches. Cautley thought they were early 16th Century, and they may well be by the same workshop as the impressive and better known range not far off at Gooderstone. Unfortunately the bench end figures are almost entirely removed, except for one, and it is a surprise, for it shows a shepherd and his dog.

shepherd and dog tracery-backed benches (15th Century)

This is a curious survival for a number of reasons. The plinth it is set on is different to those on the other benches, and the strangest thing of all is that it has traces of paint. The dog's collar was painted red, the shepherd's smock was black. My personal feeling is that it is a later production, carved out of a larger defaced old figure, but Cautley was sure it was original, and other people have told me that they think the same.

In such a small church the double decker pulpit dominates the nave. The pulpit itself is early 17th Century, but so much later woodwork is incorporated into it that it seems likely that it was originally free standing. Unusually, the steps rise from the west rather than the east, and at their base there is another seat and space for a lectern which was probably for the parish clerk. Beyond to the east, the chancel was at least given a good going over in the early 14th Century if not rebuilt completely. The furnishings are charming, rustic 17th Century rails and a gate that were likely installed at the same time as the pulpit, while the piscina is roughly contemporary with the font. A curious alcove on the north side of the sanctuary is rebated, and looks as if it should have been an aumbry. Cautley thought it was an Easter Sepulchre, which seems unlikely to me, but it is hard not to think that it is similar in shape, size and setting to the squints from former anchorite cells at Ickworth in Suffolk and Lindsell in Essex. However, there is nothing on the outside of the church to show that this was the case.

One 19th Century intrusion is the pair of decalogue boards either side of the east window. The Lord's Prayer and Creed that went with them are now set on the west wall of the church. Shingham was no doubt a poor parish even at the height of its population in the 1870s, for apart from this the Victorians did very little here. Theirs is probably the pulpit arrangement, and there are some tracery-backed benches near the front which are copies of the older ones, but which only serve to emphasise the skill of the medieval craftsmen. And today, craftspeople are still at work here at Shingham, for when we visited in July 2022 there were building works going on at the west end, repairing and rendering the buttresses. Hugh Mason, Morris Mason's son who now farms this land and commissioned the work, tells me that it is being carried out by local people who live in Shingham.

It's fortunate that Shingham church has survived for us, when so many other churches that went through similar experiences did not have a knight in shining armour to come to their rescue. But having been rescued, what is the future for churches like this? Shingham church has no heating, no electricity or running water. It is hard to see how it could be used for concerts, exhibitions and other events. And yet perhaps its destiny is to survive for us simply because it is beautiful. The church is kept locked, which seems a shame when so many other churches around here are open daily. However, Hugh Mason is very keen that people should visit the church and see how lovely it is. A key is available at the office at Hall Farm which sits beside the road to Swaffham on the outskirts of Fincham.

Simon Knott, July 2022

looking east sanctuary (17th Century woodwork) looking west
font double decker pulpit grapevines (15th Century) aumbry
poppyhead (15th Century) poppyhead (15th Century) pomegranate? (15th Century)
Lords Prayer and Creed

the saviour of Shingham and his grandson

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