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

St Peter, Smallburgh

Smallburgh: spartan austerity

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  St Peter, Smallburgh
rather more traditional from this side   Like many East Anglian towers, St Peter's was in a state of disrepair by the late 17th century; flint is a fairly high maintenance material, and lavishing money upon the buildings was frowned upon by the puritans, an attitude reflected in much of the Anglican church itself. 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's west end was built; Pevsner called it ugly, but I think this is unfair. It is certainly austere, and perhaps sits a little uncomfortably in the rambling graveyard; in truth, there is an urban quality about it.

But if not wholly in keeping it is seemly and imparts a certain amount of gravitas not typical of the period. I rather liked it, especially the crossed keys below the bells. No doubt about the patron Saint here.

More curious 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 Victorian.

Entering the church, there is a spartan austerity about the interior that matches the west front. This contrasts greatly with the vividly painted roof, which is contemporary with the rebuilt west end, but was painted in the 1920s under the direction of the Rector's wife. The interior is certainly unlike other Norfolk village churches. I'd guess it is something of an acquired taste.

more spartan austerity - but look at that roof te deum laudamus Psalm 150

Actually, I found the roof quite interesting. In the style of a traditional Norfolk hammerbeam roof (though I assume that the hammerbeams are false) it is painted 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. I thought this showed that the Rector's wife must have had a good understanding of medieval liturgical dynamics, because general thinking nowadays is that the angel roofs of medieval churches were exactly this; not mere decoration, but a hymn of praise reflecting the devotional activities in the space below. Interestingly, the hammerbeam ends stick out into the air, and ache to have angels on the end of them, but there are none. I wonder if they were ever intended?

Despite all this modern rebuilding and redecoration, there are some interesting medieval survivals here. The rood screen dado is painted with eight Saints; they are in very poor condition, 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 fine 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.

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 is certainly St Peter. 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 'Martin' lettered at the bottom.

I was pleased to find the church open, and the nice lady hoovering inside told me that it always is on a Saturday. She was extremely knowledgeable about the building, which is reassuring, since people who understand a building are more likely to exercise a proper duty of care towards it. And St Peter is not an easy building to love, but it is full of interest. As I said, something of an acquired taste.


Simon Knott, April 2005


19th century font screen (south) screen (north) panels on the wall

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