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

St Mary, West Walton

West Walton

West Walton West Walton West Walton
south door doorway West Walton

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St Mary, West Walton

When you come this way for the first time you might think you are heading for a quite magnificent East Anglian wool church. This is because of the mighty tower which can be seen from miles away, a bulky sentinel standing high above the fens. If the tower is so vast, you may think, then just how big is this church going to be? If you have come from neighbouring Walpole St Peter, you may even think that this is going to be a similarly massive late-medieval rebuild, full of Perpendicular space and light.

But this is far from the truth, for on arriving in the centre of the village you will find that St Mary is a towerless church, and the great structure you had been heading towards is a detached bell tower to the south of the church, at the junction of the main roads.The long, low church beside it is an Early English extravaganza full of arches and curves, and quite different to the great majority of other Norfolk churches.

West Walton is the most westerly parish in Norfolk. We are just a stone's throw from Cambridgeshire from here. But perhaps it is our proximity to Lincolnshire that will be most brought to mind, for St Mary was built between 1225 and 1240 in a style which resonates directly from Lincoln Cathedral. This is not immediately apparent from the outside, which can appear a little dumpy and scruffy, especially on a dull day. These are odd proportions, for the porch was made shallow when the aisles were widened at about the time the tower was built, and the chancel was truncated in the early 19th century. Perhaps most striking of all is the clerestory, a continuous run of blank arcading punctuated by the occasional window. The pattern is quite different inside, as we shall see. How magnificent the west end must have been when it was the main entrance. As so often, the interplay between exterior and interior hee is going to raise and answer questions.

There are a number of separate bell towers in this part of the world, the builders learning the lesson of Elm, just across the Nene, where the sinking tower dragged the west end of the nave down to the south, a twist in its structure that survives to this day. The tower here has been declared redundant, and is now in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust. As part of their restoration they have replaced the floors, recreating the rooms that had once been inside, because for a century or more the tower had been a hollow shell. It is so like the tower of a great confident town church, the bell windows lifting to pinnacled battlements, that it seems a little out of place beside its church.

No more than a few decades separate the building of the tower from the church, but the two speak complex architectural languages, as if one is at the start of a movement and the other at its flowering. It is rare to find two such strong Early English buildings in such close proximity. The path to the church passes pleasingly under the tower and through that extraordinary south porch. You step into a church which is simply one of the loveliest buildings in England, full of that paleness and ancient light you find in churches of this age, a simplicity, a chiarascuro, a balm for the soul. There are no big noises here, no seven sacrament font or rood screen, no medieval glass or bench ends. This is an architectural masterpiece and an artistic delight, a perfectly harmonious whole. It isn't a church to break down into elements. Nothing here is bad.

The nave is full of simple, modern chairs, which always enhances a medieval building, especially an old one. Under the 15th Century roof, with one of the angels holding a shield depicting Judas kissing Christ, the beautiful clerestory is punctuated by wall friezes that date from the time the church was built. You can make out repeated patterns, monograms and the like. The large roundels on the arcades are 18th century, and are supposed to depict the twelve tribes of Israel. In the aisles, modern benches are angled towards a simple, devotional altar. The long hall of the nave is so beautiful that the truncated chancel appears as almost an afterthought. The arcades march through all this like an elegant forest, slender columns clustered together and crowned by beautiful capitals.

West Walton is not a church to be awed by. It will not stun you into silence. Rather, your silence will grow from within you, a quiet peace that is rooted in beauty and simplicity. It is just lovely. Early English architecture like this is architecture on a human scale, perhaps the most simple and pure form of Gothic before it became the language of power and glory. And West Walton is Early English at its best, a coherent essay in all that is so lovely in mere snippets at so many other English churches.

Simon Knott, November 2020

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font looking east looking west
north aisle south aisle chapel 13th Century arcade
double hammerbeam roof north aisle altar stiffleaf capital
Blessed Virgin and child and war memorial West Walton angel with instruments of the passion
West Walton I West Walton tower II West Walton M U

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