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All Saints, Skeyton


Skeyton Skeyton

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    All Saints, Skeyton

Skeyton is one of those quiet, lonely little churches that I can never pass without stopping and going inside. I vividly remember the very first time I came this way. It was late March 2005. I had been cycling around the Bure valley between Hoveton and Aylsham, but it was only early afternoon on this first proper spring day of the year, and I saw hills to the north that were the most beautiful thing I had seen all day. Tiny lanes threaded into them, and so I followed one.

The land folded gently, a long corrugated ridge curving between Swaffham, North Walsham and the sea. Although I had my OS map, I had to keep my wits about me, for tracks split off in all directions, and cycling in the folds I could see no landmarks ahead. When All Saints first appeared where I knew it to be, it was as a pillbox on top of the next ridge.

This resolved itself into the top few metres of the uncrenellated tower, and then I was climbing the ridge, the church rising lonely on the plateau beyond. For the first time, a chilly east wind caught me, and even in the sunshine I could tell that this would be a bleak spot in winter. PH Ditchfield, in his Edwardian celebration The Parish Clerk, recalls a Mr Stracey Clitherow, who, when he went to his first curacy at Skeyton in 1845, found the clerk sweeping the whole chancel clear of snow which had fallen through the roof.

A farmhouse keeps the church company, but otherwise there is nothing for miles. You can see at a glance that this is an ancient building on an ancient site. The west end of the 12th century nave is helpfully delineated in brown carstone, and the lower part of the tower is probably the same age. The buttressing and big windows of the nave make it look bigger than it is. Curiously, the tower is actually set at the south end of the nave west wall, and I am guessing that a north aisle was absorbed at some point. There was never a separate chancel, so the Victorian tracery in the centralised east window might suggest that this was when it happened, although this assumes that the aisle extended right to the east end. Puzzling.

In those days, of course, I did not know that Skeyton church is open every day. The double doors in the porch looked rather forbidding, and I was sure the church would be locked, but they opened, and inside the porch I found that the grill was also unlocked across the inner door. I pulled it back, and tried the handle doubtfully, but it turned, and I stepped down into the cool interior.

Coming back in June 2019 for what must have been the fourth or fifth time, I remembered that first moment as I let myself into the church. Elsewhere on this site I have mentioned 'bread and butter' churches, the ordinary parish buildings that serve their purpose and have done so for hundreds of years, but are otherwise unremarkable. All Saints is certainly that. When Stracey Clitherow came to Skeyton in the 1840s, not only did he find the chancel in ruins, but the font was of wood, painted orange and red... the singers sat within the altar rails with a desk for their books within the rails. But change was coming. All Saints is now, pretty much, a Victorian church inside. A radical restoration, with plain, simple furnishings. The benches, the font cover, the sanctuary, the tiled floor, all are 19th century. The cast iron royal arms are typical of those mass-produced and hand-painted in those years, and all in all it feels a fairly plain, sparse kind of place.

And yet, and yet... on the west wall there is a photograph of All Saints in its 1920s Anglo-catholic heyday. It is only a black and white shot, but still... I gazed at the silverware and flowers around the high altar, the grand reredos and altar frontal, the candles, the incense... all gone now, all gone. Turning around and looking towards the chancel it was possible to recognise that this was the same church, but only just. What an extraordinary lonely little shrine in the hills this must have been then! And now, bare and plain, just another church.

Back in 2005 I had left the inner and outer doors open, closing the grill to keep out birds. It had seemed a sin to shut out the sunshine, the birdsong, the warm air, the world coming back to life. Feeling a little serious, I headed off in the direction of Tuttington, deeper into the hills.

Simon Knott, August 2019

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looking east font lived respected and died lamented (1812)
decorative tiles (19th Century)

the Skeyton dead


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