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St Nicholas, Swafield


Swafield Swafield

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    St Nicholas, Swafield

Swafield, pronounced sway-field, is a straggling hamlet just to the north of North Walsham, and its church sits alone by the road to Trunch, commanding its position on the slope up to the coast, its village to the south in the valley below. The nave and chancel appear to be a late medieval rebuilding, and there must have been a lot of money around here between the Black Death and the Reformation. However, the south doorway still looks 14th Century, so perhaps it was reused, for this is a fairly early rebuilding in the Perpendicular style. There are no aisles or clerestories, but the windows on the south side are so big they make almost a wall of glass in the nave. Interestingly, this side is so like St Andrew at Hempstead, some six miles away, that they must have been done to the same plan, perhaps even by the same mason - the tracery is almost identical, and the windows even have the same headstops, which Mortlock thought might be seahorses. They look more like dragons to me.

As so often the north side, away from the village, is bleaker, but the elegant 14th Century tower and and thatched roof soften it. That the tower was not rebuilt is confirmed inside, where the roofline of the earlier church can still be made out on the west wall of the nave. But generally, as you might expect from the outside, there is a uniformity to the inside, the result of the whole place being built in one go perhaps, and then receiving a fairly middle-brow restoration by the Victorians, an anonymous spread of tiles and polished woodwork. But there are some fascinating medieval survivals here, a couple of them very unusual indeed.

The screen is contemporary with the rebuilding, and the saints on it are well-preserved. There are eight of them, and they are arranged in appropriate pairs. On the north side are, firstly, St Andrew with his saltire cross and St Peter carrying the heavenly city and his keys, and then St Jude holding a fishing boat, with St Simon beside him grasping a gloomy looking fish. On the south side are St James, carrying his pilgrim staff and purse, and a rather cheery St John with his poisoned chalice, and then finally St Thomas carries the spear that pierced the body of Christ, with St James the Less and a fullers club, the instrument of his martyrdom.

screen: St Andrew and St Peter (15th Century) screen: St Jude and St Simon (15th Century) screen: St James and St John (15th Century) screen: St Thomas and St James the Less (15th Century)

St Andrew St Peter St Simon
St Jude St James
St John St Thomas St James the Less

Why only eight? With an apostles screen like this you would expect to see twelve figures, with St Paul or possibly St Matthias substituted for the errant Judas Iscariot. The entrance into the chancel appears disproportionately wide, suggesting that two panels with their four saints have been removed, but I'm not sure that twelve figures could ever have fitted into this chancel arch. The figures of St Peter and St Paul often flank the central gangway on Norfolk screens, and so I think it is very possible that these panels were brought here from another church, perhaps during the 19th Century restoration. The heads of the first two figures look like restorations to my uneducated eye, indeed possibly all of the saints on the north side. But the south side saints seem older. I came here once with roodscreen expert the late Tom Muckley, and he pointed out the sample cleaning on the hand of St James the Less, revealing the medieval hand beneath.

The nave roof is contemporary with the rebuilding. It is notably wide, and is punctuated with what at first appear to be bosses. Several of them take the form of roses, another a lion, but others have faces on them. One face is probably intended as Christ in Judgement with a five-pointed beard to represent his wounds. Another face is reminiscent of the head of St John the Baptist on a platter as nearby on the font at Irstead and the screen at Trimingham.

roof boss: roof boss: God the Father roof boss: face in glory
roof boss: lion roof boss: angry face roof boss: red rose

I say that they look like bosses, but you can't help noticing that the clumsy fragmentary tracery in which they are set. Where did it come from? Was it pierced wall tracery, or did it come from a lost rood loft? Perhaps they were put in their current position during the 19th Century restoration. But without a closer look it is impossible to say for sure.

A simple 1497 brass inscription asking for prayers for the soul of Margaret Burgh, probably by a local hand, has been reset among the 19th Century tiles. The several wall memorials seem grander than they would in a less humble space. The biggest, of 1803, tells us in terse terms that In a vault beneath this monument are deposited the remains of the Reverend Isaac Horsley, Rector of Antingham St Mary and Vicar of Briston, both in this county. His wife Priscilla and daughter Amey later joined him there. More affectionate by far is an elegant memorial of 1880 to Eleanor Stratton Layard, wife of a rector of Swafield. Her inscription is To the Honoured Memory of one who loved, served and prayed for Swafield, her home for many years, and who dying far away still poured out her soul before the Lord for its people. Further west lies Captain James Oliphent who died peacefully in 1808, perhaps having spent his working life not expecting to, for as his memorial reminds us:

Tho' Boreas's blasts and Neptune's Waves
Have tost me too and fro,
By GOD's decree you plainly see
I harbour here below.

Where I do now at Anchor lie,
With many of our Fleet,
Yet once again, I must set sail
Our Admiral CHRIST to meet.

A window, presumably by Ward & Hughes, depicts St Cecilia and St Nicholas flanking Christ as the Good Shepherd. The inscription tells us that to the Glory of God and in loving memory of Henry Dolphin who was killed at Laings Nek Jan 28th 1881 and Edgar Dolphin accidentally drowned Sep 21 1889 this window is erected by their mother. The Dolphin family lived at Swafield Hall, and both sons were in the military. Laings Nek was a foolhardy action during the First Boer War which met with a response which would be considered a war crime today. A convoy of 260 soldiers of the 94th Regiment along with some women and children was travelling through Laing's Nek on their way from Lydenburg to Pretoria when they were met by a Boer blockade. Lieutenant Henry Dolphin was one of the officers of the convoy that day. The Boers demanded that the British turn back, and when this request was refused and the convoy went to go on, hidden snipers in the hills above opened fire, killing 155 of them. The British forces nearby piled in, but the outcome was a fiasco as they poured into the pass and were equally easily picked off. This was when Henry Dolphin was killed.

His brother Edgar was a Captain, and died much closer to home here when the wherry he was sailing capsized in a storm on Wroxham Broad. The men had perhaps once been in the choir here, for the window is set behind the choir stalls and St Cecilia is the patron saint of music, St Nicholas of choirboys.

Simon Knott, June 2021

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looking east chancel looking west
font (19th Century) Good Shepherd flanked by St Cecilia and St Nicholas (Ward & Hughes, 1890s) Crucifix found on Walcott beach, 1937 In a vault beneath this monument are deposited the remains (1803)
one who loved, served and prayed for Swafield orate pro anima Margaret Burgh Tho' Boreas's blasts and Neptune's Waves Have tost me too and fro


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