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

St Michael, Sidestrand

Sidestrand

Sidestrand

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    St Michael, Sidestrand
Sidestrand, 29th September 1894   The Victorian journalist Clement Scott retains his place in Norfolk's collective imagination for the part he played in popularising the north-east Norfolk coast. In the late 19th century, he described this area of Norfolk in an article in the Daily Telegraph as Poppyland, and it was as Poppyland that the area then promoted itself to holidaymakers, most famously on a Great Eastern Railway poster - the company had paid for Scott's visit. Mortlock recalls that Scott, a Catholic convert, first dreamed up the name Poppyland while lying in poppy-filled Sidestrand churchyard, which he described as a garden of sleep.

However, if Scott enthusiasts came to St Michael to repeat their hero's experience, they would be making a mistake, for, remarkably, this pretty little rural spot is actually a later Victorian replacement further inland than the churchyard that Scott knew. The current St Michael was built in 1881 by Samuel Hoare, but the old one was right on the cliff edge, and finally fell into the sea in 1916. The lovely watercolour to the left shows it on 29th September 1894 as a Miss J.M.L. Forrest saw it and painted it, the result of her labours generously lent to the site by Michael Huggins.

Scott's church was already ruinous, as you can see, and much of the old fabric was brought here to be built into the new church. It is, apparently, to more or less the same design, although the round tower of the new church is topped by a tall octagonal stage in the 13th Century fashion. It is done remarkably well. You would not guess, if you did not already know, that this is a 19th century church.

Scott might have been surprised by the traffic rushing past this church. It is a busy road, although the tiny graveyard still feels like an oasis beside it. In a niche in the porch is what appears to be a medieval angel holding a chalice, probably once a pinnacle on a tower or wall at the old church. You step into the delightful space beyond, crisp and fresh and yet homely and rustic. The font is set in a kind of baptistery beneath the tower, the floor an elaborate greeny-blue mosaic, perhaps intended to represent water. Above, a brass candelabra dripping in poppies has a quote from Romeo and Juliet: My bounty is as boundless as the sea, My love as deep...

This church must have been very high in the Anglo-catholic firmament in its day, and there are still echoes of this. Pevsner says that the war memorial is by Seely and Paget, re-using a Renaissance image niche. The reredos is equally grand, with a gilt, carved representation of the Last Supper under what may be reused late medieval cusping. The window above is by the great Henry Holiday, as are all the windows here, designs he did for Powell & Sons. Pevsner points out how appropriate it is that the east window depicts a very manly Christ walking on the water, given that this church stands as a memory of its predecessor lost to the great North Sea, and holds still the sense of the special place that is Clement Scott's Poppyland.

   

Simon Knott, July 2019

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