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

St Peter and St Paul, Watlington


blocked doorway to lost chancel chapel blocked north doorway aumbry and piscina of lost chapel

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St Peter and St Paul, Watlington

It was one of those heavy, sun-drunk days of July 2005, soon after I had begun my journey through the churches of Norfolk. On this particular day Peter Stephens had been my companion through the churches of the Marshland. Their late medieval towers seemed especially grand out here, rising from workaday villages huddled in the wide open silt fields of reclaimed land. It was now five o'clock, and the heat of the day was dissipating. We headed east, far distant Norwich in our sights. We reached the Great Ouse at the beautifully named village of Magdalen. A grumpy swan guarded the road, and then a high bridge took us over the wide reed-bounded river and its channel, the land and the sky spreading northwards to Kings Lynn and the Wash, the North Sea and all northern Europe beyond. On the far side it felt as if we had come back into Norfolk proper, the landscape softening and starting to roll again, copses and even woods increasingly punctuating the fields. And so we came to the last church of the day, St Peter and St Paul, Watlington.

Peter had told me about how he'd spent happy school days in this village, and how fond he was of its church. And I thought I could begin to see why. With its aisles and clerestory, sumptuous chancel and earlier tower, this is a typically East Anglian church of the Decorated period, except that it is constructed almost entirely from carstone, a gingerbread church. There is a higher roofline on the eastern side of the church. Was it for the current church when it was thatched?

Two men cutting the grass were jolly and welcoming, and the graveyard was beautiful, alive with wild flowers and the drowsy bees that the afternoon sun had awoken. Beyond the church the churchyard was wild, under a rolling mantle of the purple spikes of loosestrife and the happy dog daisies, soaking in the late afternoon sunshine. Remains of a chapel against the north wall of the chancel include a piscina, and aumbry and a roof line.

The church was open, and I have always found it open in the years since. This is a lovely, gently Victorianised interior, but with much to tell of its past. A roofline above the tower arch at the west end of the nave shows quite how small the church was when the first tower was built in the 13th Century. One of the tower windows has been drawn inside the nave by the grand scale of the 14th Century rebuilding.

The font was made for the rebuilt church. The saints are packed in around both bowl and stem, reminiscent of the fonts elsewhere in Norfolk at Stalham and also the Norwich All Saints font now reset in St Julian in that city.

font figures on the font bowl (15th Century) figures on the font stem (15th Century)

Memorable too are the bench ends, some of which depict several of the seven deadly sins. The most memorable of these is Sloth (sometimes given as Hypocrisy). A woman stoops, as if praying the rosary, but in fact she is asleep, her head in her hand. Avarice shows a man counting his money, and Anger is a man brandishing a sword. A man holds what may be a hock of ham to his mouth, in which case he is probably Gluttony. A man has a tail forming a phallus between his legs, and is possibly Lust. Another figure is too badly multilated to make out what he is doing. He may well be Avarice or Sloth.

Seven Deadly Sins: Sloth (15th Century) Seven Deadly Sins: Greed (15th Century)
Seven Deadly Sins: Anger (19th Century copy) Seven Deadly Sins: Anger (15th Century)

As at Wilby in Suffolk there are several Victorian reproductions which attempt to interpret the Sins in undamaged form, for example Anger with a sword. It seems likely that the 19th Century carver wasn't entirely clear about what he was copying though, for the Sin which is probably Gluttony has become a man ringing a bell.

Hatchments hang low in the north aisle. The screen is bubbly, delicate. The east window is full of late Victorian confidence. Now, in the deepening afternoon, it faded before our eyes as the sun sank westwards. Peter remembered coming here twice every Sunday. Studying the incumbents board at the back of the church, he found the name of his former headmaster. It was easy to imagine schoolchildren quietly gathered for evensong here, the shadows stretching out as the sad Anglican collects were intoned, the evening hymns brooding in the thinning light. For a moment, no longer than that, it was a world transfigured.

i.m. Peter Stephens, 1938-2020

Simon Knott, November 2020

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font chancel Peter Stephens at Watlington
Spes in Deo ('Hope in God') chained beast (15th Century)


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