home I index I latest I glossary I introductions I e-mail I about this site

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

St Mary, West Tofts

West Tofts

West Tofts West Tofts Robert Rolfe
Pugin's chancel West Tofts West Tofts
Sir Richard Sutton West Tofts

Follow these journeys as they happen on X/twitter.


St Mary, West Tofts

West Tofts church is one of the four churches of the Norfolk Battle Training Area and it can't generally be accessed by the public. But if that ever changed, it would receive plenty of visitors. This extraordinary building would be the focus of pilgrimages by church enthusiasts, Pugin fans and casual visitors alike, who would all want to come and gawp in amazement. West Tofts was a typical small Breckland parish in a landscape of sandy heaths and pine woodlands. Its 14th Century church was augmented with a fine west tower in the 15th Century, and the donors had their names immortalised in flushwork around the base. You can see something similar a few miles off at Santon Downham in Suffolk. Not much happened after the Reformation until 1827, when Sir Richard Sutton purchased nearby Lynford Hall. A wealthy man, he expanded the estate by buying up the land in adjacent parishes, including Cranwich, Mundford, and this one, West Tofts. By the 1830s he owned all but four hundred acres of West Tofts parish. At this time, he paid for a restoration of West Tofts church, an early date, and intriguingly White's Norfolk Directory of 1844 tells us that it was beautified with stained glass about 15 years ago.

But the big changes were yet to come. In 1842, Sir Richard's wife Jane Mary died, and the family commissioned a mausoleum transept to be built on the south side of the nave. They engaged the services of the most notable architect of the day, Augustus Welby Pugin. This was completed in 1846. Then, in 1849, Richard Sutton's son Augustus was made rector of West Tofts, and embarked on a rebuilding on what Pevsner described as a remarkably ambitious scale. Pugin's brief was a complete transformation of West Tofts church, inside and out, including glass, furnishings and decoration, and no expense was to be spared. First, the ruinous north aisle and south porch were rebuilt. The following year, Pugin produced the design for the elaborate chancel, but before it could be completed he died in 1852. From this point onwards the work was overseen by his son, Edward Welby Pugin. The chancel is the most memorable feature of Pugin's church, for it is taller than the nave and has a western bellcote intended as a sanctus bell turret, giving the impression of a separate new church beside the old one. The roof extends a bay back into the nave, so that externally the south transept now comes off of the chancel, and the chancel appears longer than the nave. On the north side is a half-timbered extension which contains the internal stairway leading to the organ loft. It sits above a vestry.

The long church feels almost shoe-horned into its churchyard, an effect amplified by the tall wire fence protecting it from incursions. The churchyard is set back from the track that was once the village street, but the avenue of lime trees still leads up to it just as it did a century ago. There are many more headstones here than in the churchyards of the other Battle Training Area churches, and of all the churches, this is the one in the best condition, for it is effectively maintained as if it were a working church. You enter the nave through the south porch into a fairly dim and intimate space. The furnishings are to Pugin's design, and the tracery backs of the benches are based on a familiar late-medieval style found locally at a number of other churches. The south windows are filled with figure glass, most of it made by Hardman & Co to Pugin's design, but some of it is by Augustus Sutton's brother Frederick who was an enthusiastic glassmaker.

Turning east, the nave and aisle become a simple foil for Pugin's fireworks, for the south transept contains the memorial to Sir Richard Sutton's wife Jane Mary, a remarkable Gothic Revival piece, one of the grandest of its kind in England. It's in the Early English style with a highly decorated gabled canopy above what is effectively a shrine with a brass ledger. The roof above it is vaulted and painted. The memorial is contained within iron railings with the repeated Sutton rebus in copper of a barrel (or 'tun') with an S on it. Beyond the transept, Pugin's tall, elegant rood screen leads through into the long chancel with its tiled floor, stencilled walls and painted roof. On the north side, the organ loft projects dramatically from the upper wall. The organ itself, with its memorable painted panels, is now at South Pickenham. However, as that church is now no longer in use and appeared in a state of some decay when I visited in 2022, I wonder if it might be safer for it if it was moved back here.

The east window contains a crucifixion with scenes of the Passion, made by Hardman & Co to Pugin's design. It was removed into store with the other glass in the 1980s, but it has all gradually been returned. That on the south side of the chancel is by Frederick Sutton and incorporates figures of saints in 14th Century continental panels which had been collected by the Suttons. They originally came from an abbey in Austria, The best of the glass is in the north-west chancel window (though west of the screen) opposite Jane Sutton's shrine memorial. In its two lights it depicts firstly Eve in the Garden of Eden being tempted by the serpent, two hares sitting at her feet, and then the Annunciation, the Angel Gabriel appearing to the Blessed Virgin. it was installed in memory of Jane Sutton. Other glass in the north aisle is decorative, and to Pugin's design. The font sits at the west end of the aisle, with large protruding figures of angels holding scrolls, who emerge from beneath the bowl. It appears to be 14th Century. Above it is a crocketted Jacobean font cover.

At the east end of the aisle is a screened chapel with a crocketted and cusped wall memorial in the style of a tomb recess, angels with scrolls flanking the opening. I'm told it was intended for Sir Richard Sutton, but in fact it was not used for him, for outside, low on the south wall of the transept, is another recess. Within it, Sir Richard lies close to his wife. He died in 1855, and the Suttons sold Lynford Hall to Stephens Lyne-Stephens and his wife Yolande. They had inherited a fortune made by a relative who had patented moving dolls eyes, and when her husband died in 1860 Mrs Stephens became one of the wealthiest women in England. Her stewardship of this part of the Breckland would be a new chapter.

As the church sits close to West Tofts army camp, it is the least secretive of the the Battle Training Area churches. It can be seen from a public road. It's used for an annual carol service for which members of the public can apply for tickets, and by the Norfolk Churches Trust for its annual service in the summer. It's also in use for some secular purposes such as lectures. It wouldn't take a great leap of the imagination to see it used more regularly for concerts and the like, and back at the end of the last century I recall ideas were being mooted that it might become generally accessible to the public again. But I am told that the changing security situation of the last twenty years or so has made that prospect unlikely.

Simon Knott, December 2023

Follow these journeys as they happen on X/twitter.

Pugin's screen Pugin's screen chancel
stencilling by Pugin chancel ceiling chancel floor tiles
font and font cover Sutton memorial vestry door and stairs to organ loft beyond tracery backed benches
Sutton memorial detail Sutton memorial detail Sutton memorial angel Sutton memorial
Eve in the Garden of Eden (AW Pugin for Hardman & Co, c1856) two hares in the Garden of Eden (AW Pugin for Hardman & Co, c1856) Ascension
St Andrew and St James (AW Pugin for Hardman & Co, c1856) St Lawrence and St Stephen (AW Pugin for Hardman & Co, c1856) St Andrew and St Jude (Frederick Sutton, 1858) St Helen and St Ethelbert (Frederick Sutton, 1858)
Martha Partridge, 'truly religious without ostentation', 1760 Pugin's parclose Pugin's tomb for Lady Sutton: angel St Luke's bull
Annunciation Crucifixion font cover
Pugin's tomb for Lady Sutton (ceiling) Pugin's reredos sedilia
Pugin's organ loft east window organ loft stairs
Of such is the Kingdom of Heaven

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

a visit to the Battle Training Area churches in 2023


The Churches of East Anglia websites are non-profit-making. But if you enjoy using them and find them useful, a small contribution towards the cost of web space, train fares and the like would be most gratefully received. You can donate via Paypal.


home I index I latest I introductions I e-mail I about this site I glossary
Norwich I ruined churches I desktop backgrounds I round tower churches
links I small print I www.simonknott.co.uk I www.suffolkchurches.co.uk

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