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St Martin, Thompson
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The Brecks sprawl across the border between south-west Norfolk and north-west Suffolk, a strange, restless place of sandy heaths and managed forests. The northern part is stranger still, for in 1943 the military commandeered more than 30,000 acres of land as a training area in preparation for the D-Day landings. This involved the evacuation of a number of villages on land belonging to Lord Walsingham, not least because the Army wanted the houses for practising door-to-door fighting, and although the villagers were promised that they could return after the War, this never happened. Today, the Stanta Battle Training Area is a ghostly place, the medieval churches of its four historic parishes marooned beyond public gaze in a landscape that has not substantially altered in almost eighty years other than the disruption of live fire training and the surreal construction of an Afghan village.
The villages around the Training Area are lonely, and Thompson is one of them. The road that runs south of the town of Watton takes you through the Merton estate with its Hall and round-towered church, and then just before you reach Thompson there is a small monument set behind rails at the corner of a lane. This is the Tottington war memorial. Tottington was one of the villages evacuated in 1943, and the lane here once led down into it and became its main street. It is now poignantly marked as a dead end, reaching a military gate after a few hundred yards.
Instead, the road continues down into Thompson, a village large enough to have a school and a pub, but with a curiously remote feeling, not least because the lanes that lead off to the west are marked road closed ½ mile, as if even now it might be a temporary measure. As often with East Anglian parishes the church is set away from the main village in a small settlement along a back lane, and here things get interesting in a different way, for Thompson was home to a college of priests, and some of the college buildings still survive. The church stands tall above the surrounding fields with a few cottages and the college farm for company, and as John Vigar observes in his book Churches of Norfolk, the journeys of the priests between home and church must have been a familiar sight to the local peasantry in the Middle Ages.
It is always with some anticipation and excitement that I approach this church, for it is one of the loveliest and most interesting churches in all Norfolk, firmly seated in an ancient space and properly lord of all around. It is almost all the work of the two centuries before the Reformation, for it was in 1349, coincident with and possibly in response to the Black Death, that the college was founded at Thompson by the Shardlow family for priests to pray for their souls, but also for the work of the parish, as we will see. Much of the rebuilding and refurbishing of the church from then until the Reformation was underway in the 1530s was as a result of that foundation.
This is a fairly large church. The nave is aisleless, but the chancel is long and wide. This tells us something about the priorities of the college and the Shardlows. The church unfolds from west to east in more or less the order that it was built, although the curious short, high transept chapel on the south side dates from the very eve of the Reformation. The wide nave roof is also a curiosity, as we will see inside, because it is a single span scissor-braced roof which, as Cautley observed, was often copied by the Victorians but this is a rare surviving medieval example. The problem with roofs of this kind is that they have a tendency to spread over the centuries, and as I write this is a difficulty that the parishioners of Thompson are having to deal with.
The south porch is tall with a tripartite set of image niches above the entrance. Mortlock wondered if this had been window tracery and that the porch once had an upper room, for it has clearly been shortened at some time. The interior of the porch, with its brick floor and 14th Century doorway and old door, is a taste of things to come, for you step into one of the most atmospheric of all Norfolk's churches. There is not a single pane of coloured glass, and white light floods the wide nave with its silvered woodwork and old stone. The benches are mostly 15th Century, but in the early 17th Century there was a major campaign of refurbishment at Thompson and the benches were given carved poppyhead bench ends, mostly in the shapes of fruit and flowers but including one very perky human head on the south side. The 14th Century font in the north-west corner is contemporary with the founding of the college. This and the size of the nave shows that the Shardlows intended their church for parochial use.
The combination of 14th Century and 17th Century work here is a happy one, and is partly thanks to that most contrary of guardians, neglect. The mend and make do attitude of the puritans provided a most idiosyncratic pulpit. At first sight it appears to be a triple-decker, but in fact it is a cobbling together of at least three different structures. The wine-glass pulpit itself is probably from the late 15th Century, and added to it are a modified panelled pew as a stall for the minister and a bench and desk for the parish clerk. To the south of it is the small transept chapel, probably intended for a chantry altar and erected at about the time the pulpit was added.
A counterpoint to the pulpit is one of Norfolk's loveliest old screens behind it, its woodwork faded, the shafts turned like barbers poles and the dado stencilled with flowers. You step through it into the emptiness of the long chancel. A few surviving stalls with misericord seats that would once have been used by the priests of the college line the north and south walls. The upper lights of the tall Decorated tracery of the windows has been filled in at some time, perhaps as a temporary measure in the 17th Century. At this time the chancel was reroofed as the initials RF and the date 1648 on two of the corbels show. This is an interesting date, for reroofing a chancel at this time is likely to have been to allow it to be used for a secular use, perhaps as a school. However, roughly contemporary with the roof are the altar rails. These are curious in themselves, for they have a groove along their length as if they might be used for propping up books, although it is hard to see why this would be. Beyond the rail, the church saves its greatest delight till last, for up in the sanctuary is one of Norfolk's most beautiful sets of sedilia, the seats used by the ministers celebrating at Mass. The alarming green men have stared out of its spandrels for almost seven hundred years.
Very little happened here during the 19th Century, and the church was almost abandoned in the early 20th Century until the intervention of Prince Duleep Singh, whose support a plaque remembers in the transept. That the combination of the 14th, 15th and 17th Century work here is so harmonious creates an illusion that it was intentional, but of course what we are seeing is the battleground of ideas that was so often erased by well-meaning Victorian enthusiasm.
This was the favourite church of Norfolk churches expert the late Tom Muckley, who usually stayed at College Farm in Thompson when he was visiting Norfolk. On several occasions when I met up with him there I got to speak to Lavender, the owner. She was a remarkable person. The daughter of Lord Walsingham, she had been in her early twenties when the Army took over her family's land. Now in her eighties, she was still passionate about the injustice of it not being returned. She lies at peace now near to the entrance of Thompson's churchyard.
Simon Knott, May 2021
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