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

498: St Mary, Snettisham

Snettisham: few more impressive sights

Read the captions by hovering over the images, and click on them to see them enlarged.
spire west end from across the meadows Norfolk Dec 
site of the former chancel from site of the former north transept north side modern east window obligatory graveyard shot

    498: St Mary, Snettisham
jaw-droppingly impressive   There are few more impressive sights in Norfolk than that of the splendid church of St Mary sitting on its hill above the large holiday village of Snettisham. Approached from the west, it is jaw-droppingly impressive, the great west window with the mighty spire above framed by the dynamic buttressing of the aisles and, on this day in early June, north Norfolk in all its greenness.

It might even have you reaching for your road atlas in confusion, because surely such a mighty, bespired Decorated church like this should be on the other side of the Wash in Lincolnshire? Perhaps you took the wrong turning at the Hardwick interchange. But no, this is Norfolk, and St Mary is one of its greatest adornments.

We came here on the day that England played their first game in the 2006 World Cup. Kings Lynn, that busiest of the smaller East Anglian towns, had been a flurry of St George crosses, and as we headed north on the Hunstanton road the cars were impatient to be home, or in the pub, or in front of a screen somewhere. It was the hottest day of the year so far, and as we arrived in Snettisham the match had started, and the streets were empty.

The village was not completely dead. The field to the west of the church was still laid out for the annual village fete, emptied now of all but the organisers solemnly taking down the bunting. It was two o'clock in the afternoon, a time when most summer fetes are starting. I wonder who first noticed that they'd scheduled the annual village get-together to coincide with England's most important game for four years? As it was, the fete had been moved forward to eleven o'clock in the morning, and was now ending. I looked at a poster, and saw that one of the main events had been a baby contest, in three age groups. For a brief moment, I imagined the events this might involve - arm wrestling, high jump, the hundred metre dash - and thought it would probably have been worth watching.

There's no doubt that the perfection of St Mary is best caught from a distance. As you get closer, some flaws appear. The massive chancel, fully 40 feet long, was demolished in the late 17th century, and only an outcropping fragment of flint survives. The spire was rebuilt in the later part of the 19th century, and has a Victorian earnestness about it that sits ill with the stunning fluidity of the west window tracery. And the north transept has been lost, leaving the spire at the junction in an L-shape rather than at a crossing. But with that as a caveat, the approach to the west is still probably the best of any Norfolk church.

Pevsner describes St Mary as the most exciting c14 Dec parish church in Norfolk, which is of course slightly faint praise, given the paucity of this period in the county. What is delightful about the church for me is that, despite its epic scale, it retains a human touch, and perhaps this is an achievement of this artistic period, before the Black Death made us all serious and the Perpendicular style celebrated glory and power rather than beauty and mystery.

Internally, St Mary is essentially an engaging 19th century space, thanks to the thoughtful restoration by Frederick Preedy in the 1870s. He restored the crossing area as a sanctuary, replacing the one lost in the 1690s when the chancel was demolished. The crossing arch now acts as a chancel arch. Curiously, this new chancel space appears rather intimate, despite the open spaces on each side. The south transept is now the vestry, and although the north transept has gone the part of the aisle to the north of the crossing remains, and is now reinvented as a quiet chapel, a rather lovely space despite the overbearing presence of the memorial to Wymond Carye.

Unfortunately, St Mary can seem rather dark inside, because most of the windows are filled with coloured glass. There are acres and acres of the stuff, and much of this is very good indeed, especially that by the O'Connors; but this is a big church, and it does not have the jewel-like atmosphere that their work creates up the road at Ingoldisthorpe, for instance.

And it isn't all good, although the west window must be one of the most spectacular in Norfolk, doing the tracery full justice.

There are some nice touches elsewhere. The wineglass pulpit is in the style of the panelled ones at Castle Acre and Burnham Norton, and may even include some medieval woodwork, as it has a cobbled-together look. The tracery is mostly 19th century, though. It is painted with designs of four figures, among them a very imposing St Peter..

  early 16th century eagle and Ecclesiasticus   pulpit   St Peter

I like Snettisham church a lot. It has a great sense of presence, a rather urban feel of a church that means business. Very little survives of its medieval life, it is true, and parts of the building are even more recent than Preedy's work - the sanctuary was rebuilt after the eastern wall was destroyed by bombs dropped from a Zeppelin airship in 1915. Thanks to this, St Mary has the honour of being the first church in the British Isles to have suffered aerial bombardment. There would be thousands more in the three decades ahead.

Unusually for this part of Norfolk, St Mary is kept locked. However, there are two keys available, one at the village shop and the other at the post office. We went to the shop, although obviously it was empty, the staff all hiding away in a back room to watch the football. I had to go out the back and shout a cheery 'hello', but they were very nice about it. England won 1-0, by the way.

Simon Knott, June 2006


view east font north aisle
west door looking west sanctuary Wymond Carye north aisle chapel
west window apostle at the Ascension of Christ Ascension Jonah and the whale three Marys at the tomb Charity
west window suffer the children; three Marys at the tomb; the raising of Jairus's daughter Simeon and Christ at the Presentation Presentation in the Temple 
St Peter; Good Shepherd; St John west window, top tracery St Peter, Blessed Virgin, Crucifixion, St John, St Paul OT cartoon strip
Madonna and child flanked by Evangelistic symbols: Paul Jefferies, 1969 'that rock was Christ' 'so must the Son of Man be lifted up' 'the same did God send' angel
Blessed Virgin St Paul St Peter St Mark St Luke

war memorial Paul Jefferies, 1969 18th century gravestone

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