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

St Andrew, Tottington

Tottington

Tottington

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St Andrew, Tottington

Tottington sits in the Breckland, that strangely wild and lonely area of East Anglia that straddles the border between Norfolk and Suffolk. But if you try to reach Tottington down the lane that runs from the main street of neighbouring Thompson, you will come across signs telling you that the way ahead is closed mile, as if this might be just a temporary measure. In fact, these country lanes have been closed for almost eighty years. This is because Thompson sits against the edge of Norfolk's Stanta Battle Area, which the British Army uses for training with live ammunition, and the parish church of Tottington is is one of the four churches of the Battle Training Area abandoned when their villages were evacuated in 1944 and which are now marooned behind high security fences. The area had originally been chosen for training troops for the land war in Europe that was expected after the D-Day Landings, but it was assumed at the time that the villagers would be allowed back at the end of the War. This did not happen, for the Army retained the area for training, and the churches within the zone are no longer generally accessible by the public.

But if you are fortunate enough to be allowed to visit, you will enter a landscape which is quite unlike any other. Around Tottington church, the Breckland has rewilded itself. On the day I first visited back in May 2004 the place was alive with the sounds of spring. All around, the wind ruffled the waves of coarse grass, but the oblivious sheep wandered slowly, their new lambs skittering in their wake. As we approached Tottington church up what was, eighty years ago, the village high street, a handsome buck deer stepped out of the reeds beyond the track. He didn't flinch, but watched us with curiosity. On my most recent visit, a beautiful crisp day in the autumn of 2023, the trees that once marked lanes and field divisions were beginning to turn, the Norfolk landscape putting itself to bed for another winter. Close to the church, a row of brick-built former council houses still stands, refurbished as a northern Irish village during the time of the conflict there and still bearing IRA graffiti, but the Norfolk clunch cottages that once kept them company have otherwise gone back to ground, melting down as the decades pass.

St Andrew is set at what would have been the top of the village, and the mound to the east of the church is the old vicarage. To the south was the village pub. The school that served the four villages of Tottington, Merton, Thompson and Sturston, paid for by Lord Walsingham who owned almost all the land in the parish, is nearby. St Andrew is the largest of the four churches now marooned in the Battle Training Area, and I think the best, with wide aisles and a rather mean clerestory, as if it is keeping the Breckland winds out. This is a largely 14th Century building with a 15th Century tower. Pevsner thought that the clerestory was entirely of the 1880s restoration. There are some similarities with the church of neighbouring Thompson, and both churches have medieval scissor-braced roofs in the nave, and 17th Century roofs in the chancel. The roof tiles here at Tottington have been replaced by blast-proof panels as at one of the other Battle Training Area churches, Stanford.

You enter through the south porch into a squarish nave which is full of light, for there is no coloured glass left here apart from some decorative panels in the upper lights of some windows. Indeed, most of the windows have hardly any glass at all. Part of the brick paving is also missing, leaving a sandy floor in the south aisle. The former roof tiles are stored in the nave, as are some of the benches with their 15th Century bench ends rounded with animals and mythical beasts. After the evacuation here the benches were taken to nearby Rockland St Peter, but they were returned in the 1990s, and then in more recent years the best of them have been sent on permanent loan to St Peter Hungate in the centre of Norwich. The 17th Century pulpit stands forlornly in the sand of the south aisle. The octagonal font that Pevsner recorded seeing in the 1950s has gone (where to?).

The chancel arch seems disproportionately tall and narrow after the width of the nave and the aisles, and the lowness of the clerestory. The rood screen that once filled the arch was also moved to Rockland St Peter, where it remains, extended awkwardly on each side to make it fit the width of the nave there. Beyond, the 19th Century stone reredos with its decalogue boards is still in situ. The south wall of the chancel has suffered some movement, a westwards lean, and the elegant 14th Century sedilia and piscina have been braced since my previous visit with wooden boards to stop them collapsing. This must have been a busy place in medieval times, because there is also a dropped-sill sedilia at the eastern end of the south aisle, and a pretty little piscina in an angle at the eastern end of the north aisle.

In the floor are 18th Century ledger memorials to Knopwoods and Farrers, and wall memorials remember Duffields and Hares. High above, the patient faces of grotesques and green men stare from the corbels of the arcades. The architect and writer Munro Cautley came here in the 1930s, and recorded a fine church... a fine 15C square headed screen, beautiful benches with grotesques and pierced backs, a Jacobean pulpit and tower screen and fragments of 15C glass, a mark of how much has been lost. Arthur Mee, compiler of the King's England series of books, also came to Tottington in the 1930s. In his flowery way, he recalled that Tottington was the home village of Abbot Sampson, who made the Abbey of St Edmundsbury one of the most powerful in Europe, and until recently was remembered as the symbol of the Greene King brewery in the town.

Outside are more silent attendants, Leggates and Suttons, Boughens and Oldfields. A headstone for a member of the famous Guinness family, whose Suffolk estate was a few miles to the south of here at Elveden, remembers Charlotte Ann Guinness of Portadown, Armagh died at the vicarage in 1924. She was 75 years old. In the south-east corner of the churchyard is the last resting place of Lucilla Reeve. This remarkable woman lived at Bagmore Farm on the edge of the village, and continued to tear a living from the harsh Breckland soil even after the military takeover. She killed herself on Remembrance Day 1950, and was buried here. After the war, the Tottington war memorial was moved to a spot on the road between Merton and Thompson, at the end of a lane that led once to the now-lost village.

The 1851 Census of Religious Worship gives an interesting insight into the religious complexion of this area at the time. Tottington parish was joined with that of Stanford, even though they were in different deaneries, and the joint incumbent was one Frederick Mant who lived in the vicarage opposite Tottington church. At the time of the census there were three hundred and seventy people living in Tottington and a further one hundred and eighty living in Stanford. The morning service alternated between the two churches, and on this particular Sunday it was held at Stanford church which is only a couple of miles off. Fifty-one people chose to attend the service, fewer than one in ten of the population, which is perhaps about right for this strongly non-conformist area.

However, nearly two hundred people were at Tottington church for the afternoon sermon, a figure made more impressive by the fact that there was also an afternoon sermon at Stanford where roughly fifty people were in attendance. The afternoon sermon was almost always more popular than the morning service in East Anglia, but the disparity in the two figures suggests something else going on. Most likely, the greater part of the population of Tottington were workers on the Walsingham estate, and attendance at the sermon was firmly encouraged by Lord Walsingham, their employer, who was a hearty protestant. Almost a century later at the time of the evacuation of the village, the daughter of a later Lord Walsingham, Lavender de Grey, was in her early twenties. In later life she would live at College Farm in neighbouring Thompson, and I met her a few times towards the end of her life, because the late Norfolk churches expert Tom Muckley would stay at the farm when he visited the county. Even in her eighties she was still passionate about the injustice of the villagers not being allowed to return. She lies at peace now near the gate of Thompson churchyard.

Simon Knott, December 2023

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looking east

chancel looking west
font base bench ends pulpit piscina and sedilia
south door sacred Anne Hare
Robert Knopwood

Tottington war memorial

a general introduction to the churches of the Norfolk battle training area


a visit to the Battle Training Area churches in 2023

   
 
               
                 

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