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

All Saints, Toftrees


from the north-east (and into the late afternoon sun) south side across the fields east end 
blocked transitional Norman window, Roman brick brick tombchests

    All Saints, Toftrees
Our Lady of Walsingham   It was good to come back to Toftrees on a hot sunny day, because that was how I'd remembered it from my previous visit. And this is in such a lovely area of Norfolk, most of the churches open and some of them stars in the Norfolk firmament. But many are small, homely little churches like this one, with an air of simplicity, and wholly rustic. However, this is also an area notable for interesting Norman fonts, not otherwise an East Anglian speciality, and Toftrees has one of the best. Unfortunately, unlike many of its neighbours this is a church which I have never found easy of access, so it was pleasing in 2013 to find that there was a keyholder notice at last.

All Saints looks delightful across the fields, splendid in its isolation with only the neighbouring farm for company. However, closer to it is clear that the church is in trouble, and indeed had declined since my previous visit some five years previously. All Saints is one of the last Norfolk survivors of the Anglo-Catholic twilight, with statues and candles abounding, but in truth it is in a very poor state, the guttering falling, the brick floors breaking up, and some window panes missing. Bats have taken up residence in considerable numbers. There is no village, and it is hard not to think that this church is hurtling towards redundancy.

I wondered if All Saints had already gone the way of a number of churches in this part of Norfolk, and was now disused, earmarked for the headlong rush into abandonment and desolation. But no, the kindly keyholder assured us that the church was still in use. He unlocked the door and we stepped inside, wincing at the heady stench of bat urine. And there was the wonderful font. It is a riot of carving with animal heads, including what appear to be a sheep and a badger, geometric designs and, on one of the original pillars, a representation of a Norman soldier wearing a helmet with a nose-guard. Of course, all churches once had Norman fonts, just as most Norfolk churches once had round towers. It is theology, the passing of the ages and of fashion which has replaced them. A fine survival.

Toftrees font

Toftrees font (detail) Toftrees font (12th Century) Toftrees font (detail)
Toftrees font (detail) Toftrees font (detail) Toftrees font (detail)
Toftrees font: badger? (12th Century) Toftrees font: geometric design  (12th Century) Toftrees font: Norman soldier with helmet (12th Century)

Even in sunshine, the gloomy interior was full of the shadows and ghosts of its Anglo-catholic past, now fading out of sight. Looking to the west, the upper part of the three-light west window had gone completely, and a gusting summer wind was rattling the surviving panes. As if to make a point, a small bird flew in through the vacant pane, circled around and flew out again.

Outside, a number of interesting 19th Century headstones bear witness to the busy life of the past, but in fact Toftrees has always been a tiny parish. At the time of the 1851 census, when many East Anglian rural populations reached their peak, there were fewer than a hundred living souls here, and all the land was in the possession of the Townshends of Rainham Hall.

Now, there is no village, just a few lonely farmhouses and workers cottages. But All Saints is a handsome church in a lovely setting, and its loss would be a sad blow for Norfolk. What was obstensibly a towerless Norman church was developed in the 13th century and then dramatically altered right on the eve of the Reformation. The 16th Century chancel can be dated to a bequest of 1506, and a further bequest of 1523 gave materials towards the building of the tower.

But already it was late, and the tower was never completed. Instead, it was topped out about two thirds of the way up, just below where the bell windows would have been, and is today finished with a jaunty copper cap. There is an endearing continental feel to it, a most attractive sight, and I know that if this church was open, and pilgrims and strangers were allowed to explore it, All Saints would soon become one of Norfolk's many much-loved churches.

  Blessed Virgin

Simon Knott, January 2018


looking east looking west looking east
sanctuary 1930s font cover 1930s font cover (detail) G III R
west window 14th century incised slab five children of William and Abigail Ruding
a public record of her eminently Christian virtues

draped urn 33 years gamekeeper for 27 years clerk of this parish
for 35 years Gamekeeper on the Raynham Estate vine leaves and spring flowers two jolly cherubs
lichened angel

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