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

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St Andrew, Tottington

OUT OF BOUNDS TO TROOPS

Tottington Tottington the end
lost silent attendants lost

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  St Andrew, Tottington

There is a curiosity awaiting the unknowing visitor to the nearby village of Thompson, for the signs that point towards Tottington down the lanes from Thompson's high street warn you road closed mile, as if this might be a temporary measure. In fact, they have been closed for almost eighty years, for Thompson sits hard against the edge of the Norfolk Battle Training Area, and the parish church of Tottington is is one of the four churches of the Battle Training Area and is not generally accessible by the public. But if you are fortunate to be allowed to visit it you enter a place which is quite unlike any other. This is the Breckland, a landscape that in Tottington has almost entirely 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. Here, a row of brick-built council houses still stands, refurbished as a northern Irish village during the time of the conflict there, and later repurposed as an Afghan village, but the Norfolk clunch cottages that once kept them company have otherwise gone back to ground, melting down as the decades pass. Here and there, a chimney stands defiantly, but that is all.

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. The clerestory came as part of the 1880s restoration, but the greater part of the church dates from the end of the 14th Century and the first half of the 15th Century, a solidly late medieval East Anglian church. As at Stanford nearby, the roof tiles have been replaced by blast-proof panels. You enter through the south porch into a squarish nave which is full of light, for there is no coloured glass here. The roof tiles are stored inside, and also here are the medieval benches, a fine set, their dusty ends rounded with animals. After the evacuation here, they were taken to nearby Rockland St Peter, where they were altered to fit the narrower nave there. They were returned 1990s and then since I took these photographs in 2004 the best of them have been sent on permanent loan to St Peter Hungate in the centre of Norwich.

medieval benches medieval medieval benches

As at Stanford, the chancel seems small after this wideness. The Victorian decalogue boards still stand where the altar once was. This must have been a busy place in medieval times, because as well as the elegant sedilia and piscina in the chancel, there is 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, patient faces stare from the corbels of the arcades.

Outside are more silent attendants, Leggates and Suttons, Boughens and Oldfields. And there are surprises. One, a headstone for a member of the famous Guinness family; their country estate was a few miles to the south of here at Elveden. Charlotte Ann Guinness of Portadown, Armagh died at the vicarage in 1924. She was 75 years old. And in the south-east corner of the churchyard, daffodils fly in the spring breeze above 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 neighbouring Thompson, on a road that led once to the now-lost village. There's a photograph of it at the bottom of this page.

Arthur Mee came here to Tottington in the 1930s when there were still people living here. In his flowery way, he recalled something that is now often forgotten. Tottington was the home village of Abbot Sampson, who made the Abbey of St Edmundsbury one of the most powerful in Europe, and is remembered still today as the symbol of the Greene King brewery. The 1851 Census of Religious Worship gives an interesting insight into this now lost village. Tottington parish was joined with that of Stanford, even though they were in different deaneries, and the joint incumbent was 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. 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 lived 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, May 2004, revised December 2022

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south door nave sanctuary
roof tiles tower arch dropped sill
font cowled head foliage
Anne Hare seats of ghosts sedilia
Robert Knopwood William Farrer
William and Mary Farrer Margaret Knopwood

Maria Williams Mary Sutton Mary Marner
Mary Ann Herring John Oldfield James Boughen Charlotte Ann Guinness of Portadown, Armagh
Leggate Lucilla Reeve

Tottington war memorial

an introduction to the churches of the Norfolk battle training area

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