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

St Peter, Smallburgh


crossed keys west front: crossed keys and cross

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    St Peter, Smallburgh

Here we are on the edge of the Broads to the south of North Walsham, and St Peter is perhaps one of the area's lesser-known churches, though full of interest nonetheless. Like many East Anglian towers, the one here was in a state of disrepair by the late 17th Century. Flint is a fairly high maintenance material, and lavishing money upon the buildings had been frowned upon for many years. And so, it collapsed, taking the western half of the nave with it, to be patched up with the mean-looking tower that Bloomfield saw in the early 19th century.

It was not until 1902 that Walter Tapper came along and revamped the west end. Pevsner thought it ugly, but surely this is unfair. It is certainly austere, and perhaps more typical of churches in urban settings. But if not wholly in keeping it is seemly, and imparts a certain amount of gravitas not typical of the period. And the crossed keys below the bells leave us in no doubt as to who the patron saint is here.

More curious in any case are the windows to south and north of the nave. No aisles here, no clerestory. The walls were heightened, presumably in one campaign, but the windows are a mixture of Perpendicular and Decorated. There is a symmetry to them, the earlier style in the middle flanked by two of the later on both sides of the church. I wondered if the Decorated windows were actually a Victorian conceit, although they appear to be genuine, unlike the tracery of the great east window, which is beautiful, but entirely Victorian.

Entering the church, there is a spartan austerity which the west front has prepared us for. This contrasts greatly with the splendidly vivid beams of the nave roof, also Tapper's, but which were painted in the 1920s under the direction of the rector's wife. In the style of a traditional Norfolk hammerbeam roof, even down to the hammer ends sticking out into the air, aching to have angels set on them. Were they ever intended? The beams are painted with floral designs and with texts rather than images - the Te Deum Laudamus to south and north, and Psalm 150 forming a canopy of honour at the east end.perhaps this showed that the Rector's wife had an understanding of medieval liturgical dynamics, because the angel roofs of medieval churches were not mere decoration, but a hymn of praise reflecting the devotional activities in the space below.

Despite all this early 20th Century rebuilding and redecoration, there are some interesting medieval survivals here. The rood screen dado is painted with eight saints, in poor condition now but enough survives to make identification of some of them possible. On the north side are St Anthony with his little pig, a King (possibly Henry VI), St Benedict and what must have been a fine St George. On the south side, in rather better condition, are St Giles with a leaping hart, St Lawrence with his grid iron and two figures that are almost entirely lost, except that they appear to be the ghosts of bishops.

St Anthony and Henry VI? St Benedict and St George St Giles and St Lawrence two bishops

Intriguingly, there are three more panels reset on the east wall. The panels themselves are of different sizes, but they may have come from either the rood loft or from the doors in the screen. One of the figures holds a key and might be thought to be St Peter, but the figure is dressed in royal robes and wears a crown and so I think is likely to be St Genevieve. The other two are Bishops, and it has been conjectured that these two, along with the two faded figures on the screen, might make up the four Latin Doctors: Augustine, Jerome, Ambrose and Gregory, a popular foursome on late medieval Norfolk screens. However, it must be said that one of the figures appears to have the word 'Martinus' lettered at the bottom and so is most likely St Martin.

St Martin?, a Bishop, St Genevieve?

A number of memorials tell the story of significant families and changing fashions over the years from the middle of the 18th Century to the middle of the 19th. The That to Richard Oram, dying in 1762, is still Baroque in style, under a wreath with crossed trumps, flanked by scrolls and fronds and supported by a cherub. The inscription tells us that he was content to have been obscurely good, which contrasts somewhat with his memorial. The most elegant memorial is to the two year old Jane Daubeny, a rector's daughter dying in 1815, and wholly classical in style under a simple draped urn. Thy sweet resemblance of a flower just blown, to what blest region is thy spirit flown! it wonders.

Perhaps most interesting of all, although by no means the most attractive, is the 1855 memorial to John Postle of Smallburgh House, who was Chairman at the Board of Guardians of the Hundreds of Tunstead and Happing for eighteen years, that is to say responsible for overseeing the workhouse and parish poor relief. We are told that he had sound judgement, unvarying politeness to his coadjutors and kind consideration for the poor, and that at his funeral his fellow guardians followed his remains in sorrow to the tomb. His memorial is of that heavy Gothic design being popularised at the time by the ecclesiological movement, a sharp contrast to that of little Jane Daubeny of forty years earlier.

content to have been obscurely good, 1762 thou sweet resemblance of a flower just blown, to what blest region is thy spirit flown, 1815 The Board of Guardians who looked up to him with grateful admiration during his life followed his remains in sorrow to the tomb, 1855

A delightful little memorial of 1931 is hand-lettered on vellum and framed in the south side of the nave. It remembers William Ugge, rector of the church during the turmoil of the 1540s and 1550s. His will desired that he should be buried without the porch door in the edge of the alley so that my gravestone may be a settle for the people to sett on. As the inscription drily notes at the bottom, the tomb has long since collapsed and may not legally be replaced, but the youths of the village (mindful of the testator) still assemble on the levelled slab.

There is no coloured glass, and on a dull day the church can seem rather gloomy inside, a feeling exacerbated by the barn-like feel of the nave. And yet it has an atmosphere all of its own, quite unlike any other church in the area. St Peter is perhaps not an easy building for the casual visitor to love, but it is full of interest.

Simon Knott, December 2019

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looking east nave roof and canopy of honour (1920s)
looking west font chancel 1914-1918 1939-1945 so that my gravestone may be a settle for the people to sett on


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