home I index I latest I glossary I introductions I e-mail I about this site

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

St Mary, South Creake

South Creake

South Creake South Creake

Follow these journeys as they happen at Last Of England Twitter.


St Mary, South Creake

There's something magical about the area of Norfolk between Fakenham and the coast. The rolling landscape of fields and woods is punctuated by small, quietly-spoken villages, and at their heart is Little Walsingham. In the early twentieth century, a revolution overtook these parishes, for Anglican enthusiasts re-established the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, which had been destroyed by their church at the Reformation. The Anglo-catholic tide has receded in Anglicanism now, and in Little Walsingham you are as likely to come across Catholics of the more familiar variety, but the leafy-laned parishes around have never forgotten, and today still have their devotional, numinous atmosphere. Their churches have by and large retained the urgency to be open for pilgrims and strangers, wayside stopping places of spiritual refreshment. They are some of the loveliest village churches to visit in England, and South Creake is one of them. The church is set away from the main road, among cottages and approached up a path carpeted in May with pink blossom. The south side of the churchyard has been cleared of headstones, which is a crying shame, but perhaps only goes to emphasise the bulk of the church, for unlike most of the medieval parish churches in this corner of Norfolk, South Creake is not tiny, or ramshackle, or hauled back from ruination. As with its counterpart at North Creake, this is a big church, indeed a vast one.

The long chancel, as large on its own as many of the parish churches around here, is the oldest part that we see today, being mostly of the 13th Century. The following century brought the low tower which has since lost its parapet, and then in between them, the nave was almost entirely rebuilt from the early years of the 15th Century. This was a time when bequests to church buildings were urgently being made, for the Black Death of the previous century had concentrated people's minds. If they were to suffer being suddenly taken out of this world unconfessed, they wanted to ensure that prayers would be said for the welfare of their souls. Many of them were the late medieval equivalent of the nouveau riche, having grown wealthy from land bought up when the old Norman estates were being broken up as a result of the pestilences taking off sons and heirs. The easiest way of ensuring your spiritual welfare if you were well-to-do was to leave money in your will for rebuilding or refurnishing the church, perhaps including a dedicatory inscription asking the other parishioners to remember you and to pray for the passage of your soul through purgatory. Such bequests were anathema to the 16th Century reformers, which explains why very few churches were built or restored in the three centuries after the Reformation.

You step into a wide, light space, even larger than you might have imagined from outside. Cleared aisles and modern chairs give an uncluttered feel, but this is not a sparse or barren place. As John Vigar remarks, there is an abiding sense of being somewhere special. This is largely because of the Anglo-Catholic tradition here which over the last century or so has filled it not only with devotional statues but other furnishings with an attention to aesthetic detail. Probably the most memorable of the statues are those that greet you as you enter, a continental image of St Sebastian given a crown and repurposed as St Edmund, and Charles I, King and Martyr.

St Sebastian repurposed as St Edmund Charles, King and Martyr St George
Blessed Virgin and child Christ the King St John the Baptist

One of the reasons that Anglo-Catholicism was, and to some extent still is, so strong in this part of Norfolk is that, paradoxically, it arrived here so late. Many urban churches bear witness to the enthusiasms of the 1870s and 1880s, but less frequently did these reach remoter rural areas. However, by the 1920s the movement had grown in confidence and popularity, and was moving to become the most common expression of Anglican worship in England, although not one always welcomed by the establishment and the hierarchy. However, in the years during and after the First World War, the Church of England was at the height of its power and influence in this country. It was against this background that Alfred Hope-Patten established a shrine to Our Lady of Walsingham at the parish church in Little Walsingham, three miles from here. The interest that this generated, and, perhaps, an urgency created by the way that the Catholic Church had also re-established a presence at Walsingham, led him to build an Anglican shrine church, and Walsingham increasingly became the focus of Anglican Marian devotion and enthusiasm. Like-minded colleagues responded to the call.

The movement sparked into life at South Creake in 1921, with the arrival of Father Charles Hepworth. He seems to have turned the parish on its head, quickly introducing sung Mass with incense, as well as a daily said mass, the angelus, stations of the cross and side altars. The church guide recalls that he wasn't afraid to step on people's toes; he removed the medieval benches against the wishes of some of the parish, pammenting the floor with old stone and installing modern chairs. All these things needed faculties, of course, and the guide recalls that Hepworth asked the Diocese at Norwich to please kindly supply us with a general covering faculty to cover all changes in the future... I suppose this will cost more, but is cheapest in the long run with a church like South Creake. Father Henry Ventham, who succeeded him in 1927, consolidated these changes, and during his time here two major events cemented South Creake's place in the Anglo-Catholic firmament. Firstly, the opening in the 1930s of the shrine at Walsingham, ensuring a steady supply of pilgrims who passed through South Creake and lit candles at its altars and statues, and, in 1944, the purchase of the patronage of the living by the Anglo-catholic Church Union, who vested it in the care of the Guild of All Souls, who have appointed all rectors since.

But of course much survives from before the rise of the Anglo-Catholic movement, and South Creake has one of Norfolk's largest collections of 14th and 15th Century glass. It must be said that much of it is fragmentary and in poor condition and, it must be said, rather dirty, but there is much to see. As well as many angels there are surviving parts of a crucifixion and of the Holy Trinity, and among the figures of Saints are St Agatha holding her breast in a pair of pincers, St Helen with the true cross, and St James the Less with the top part of his symbol of a fuller's club. There is also some later collected continental glass brought here during the 20th Century, including a fine scene of the betrothal of Joachim and Anne, and best of all the Coronation of the Blessed Virgin in what I think must be 16th Century Swiss glass.

demi-angel (15th Century) crucifixion (fragmentary, 15th Century) composite figures (fragmentary, 15th Century) demi-angel (15th Century)
St Agatha (15th Century) St Helen (fragmentary, 15th Century) saint (St James the Less?) fragmentary, 15th Century
angel standing on a wheel (fragmentary, 15th Century) Christ (fragmentary, 15th Century) demi-angel (15th Century) Holy Trinity (fragmentary, 15th Century)
angel with a sceptre (15th Century) angel with a sceptre (15th Century) angel with a sceptre (15th Century) woman at a prayer desk (fragmentary, composite, 15th Century) three composite figures, 15th Century
Holy Trinity (continental, 17th Century) An angel stays the hand of Abraham as he is about to sacrifice Isaac (continental, 17th Century) The flagellation of Christ (continental, 17th Century)
The Coronation of the Blessed Virgin (continental, (Swiss?) 16th Century) The Betrothal of Joachim and Anna (continental, 16th Century)

Perhaps of the greatest historical interest is that South Creake has one of Norfolk's 20-odd seven sacrament fonts. It must have been very similar to the one at nearby Little Walsingham, but unfortunately the panels here are almost entirely defaced. However, it is still possible to make the sequence out, and to tell that the extra panel was the Crucifixion. Some original colour survives. Overhead is the great angel roof, restored in the 1960s when the wings were added to the 15th Century angels. Interestingly, when the angels were repaired they were found to contain shot from late 17th Century muskets. Almost certainly, this is surviving evidence of the attempts, recorded in the churchwardens' accounts, to get rid of jackdaws that infested the church. No less than 120 of them were killed in 1680 alone.

Ahead stands a great 19th century rood, the work of Arthur Blomfield. It is of particular interest to me, as it comes from the church of St Mary on the Wall in Colchester. This redundant church is one I visit more than most, as it is now the home of the splendid Colchester Arts Centre, and many of Blomfield's fixtures and fittings survive there. The screen below it is 15th Century and is fine, especially the tracery along the top which Pevsner describes pleasingly as having a quick rhythm, but the figures on the panels have suffered the same 16th Century iconoclasm as the font. High above, a great Perpendicular window would have backlit the medieval rood.

Survivals in wood include creatures on the late medieval benches in the chancel. There must have once been more of these, as Cautley records seeing a range of 15th Century benches when he visited in the years after the First World War. Nevertheless, among them are a dragon and what must have been a pelican, as well as a stately lion. There are more creatures in the spandrels of the 15th Century south aisle roof, including a curious scene of what appears to be a crane with an eagle perched on its neck while an animal, a hind perhaps, bites its legs. Beneath this aisle roof stands the latest major addition to the church, Neal French's Calvary Group of 2013.

As I wrote when I visited this church in the early years of the century, there is magic at South Creake. But there is rather more to it than that. The Church of England, by keeping its churches open in this corner of England, has shown that it has learned a great lesson. Open churches, into which people can wander, sit, rest and experience a sense of the numinous, are the greatest act of witness it has. The people of God can never benefit from churches which are locked when a service isn't on, churches where we have to hunt for the key before entering a building which is little more than a preaching space. To be a living church, the building should be one that speaks to the stranger and pilgrim alike, touching them with something like beauty and mystery, one where they can sense the presence of God, and know Him, perhaps for the first time.

Simon Knott, April 2022

Follow these journeys as they happen at Last Of England Twitter.

looking east looking west
nave altar and chancel arch nave altar and rood screen high altar
north aisle chapel seven sacrament font south aisle chapel
nave roof angel with pincers rood nave roof
eagle? with a wing missing pulpit (15th Century) a crane? on a branch with an eagle? perched on its neck and a deer? biting its legs
pelican? swan? (15th Century) collared dog (15th Century) lion (15th Century)
The men of South Creake for forty seven years churchwarden of this parish 'a virtuous woman is a crown to her husband'
Queen of Heaven pray for us tower screen S Creake M U St Anne

Calvary Group (Neal French, 2013)


The Churches of East Anglia websites are non-profit-making, in fact they are run at a considerable loss. But if you enjoy using them and find them useful, a small contribution towards the cost of web space, train fares and the like would be most gratefully received. You can donate via Paypal.


home I index I latest I introductions I e-mail I about this site I glossary
Norwich I ruined churches I desktop backgrounds I round tower churches
links I small print I www.simonknott.co.uk I www.suffolkchurches.co.uk

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