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

St Mary, East Somerton

East Somerton: perhaps the most dramatic church ruin in all East Anglia

Read the captions by hovering over the images, and click on them to see them enlarged.
from the north from the east from the south from the west

    St Mary, East Somerton
inside looking east, Chris for scale   Set half a mile down a track in the grounds of Burnley Hall, this ruin is perhaps the most dramatic in all East Anglia. Chris, who drove me to it, had been here before, and had deliberately told me nothing about it. He parked the car in the middle of the woods, and as we got out he pointed vaguely to the trees, to see if I'd noticed.

I hadn't. I looked around, wondering where we had to walk to - and then suddenly, I saw it. We were parked right beside it, but it was so overgrown with ivy and elder, the long trunks of the oaks and beeches shouldering its walls, that I simply had not noticed it. But it is huge, the substantial remains of a 15th century Perpendicular church - or, more accurately, the nave and tower, for the chancel has long since disappeared, and the chancel arch yawns like the wide mouth of a cave.

St Mary survived the Reformation, but the parish was subsumed into that of neighbouring Winterton, and it operated as a chapel of ease to the Hall until the 17th century Commonwealth, before falling into disuse. It is likely that the chancel was lost and in ruins even before that, and probably this accelerated its demise. There really is no trace left of the chancel at all, and you can't help noticing that the Perpendicular chancel at West Somerton half a mile off would have fitted this church rather better than it does its own. If giants existed, and one could have picked it up from here and put it back down there, then that would be the most convincing explanation for its complete disappearance.

Stepping into the body of the nave, there is more drama; the vast green walls surround a huge oak tree growing right in the middle of the nave. There are a couple of curiosities; enough survives of the most easterly window splay in the north side of the nave to show that the roodloft stairs went up within it, which means that the rood loft went right across the church. However, in the eastern walls of the nave, on either side of the chancel arch, there are the ghosts of narrow arcading in red brick. Does this show that there were once stone reredoses built into the walls beneath the loft? Perhaps these were niches for Saints. Or is it the remains of fixings for the rood screen itself, with a reredos on each side built into the screen? I imagined something like the set up at Ranworth, and wondered what might have been lost here.

Rich and verdant on this early spring day, this must be a glorious space in summer, and I look forward to coming back and experiencing it again, assuming that I can find it.

Simon Knott, March 2006


the north doorway from outside the south doorway from inside looking west south doorway foliage above the south doorway
top of the chancel arch roodloft stairway curious brickwork in the east nave wall straight up the tower


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