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

497: St Mary, West Walton

West Walton: a quiet peace that is rooted in beauty and simplicity

Read the captions by hovering over the images, and click on them to see them enlarged.
West Walton tower West Walton tower West Walton tower West Walton tower West Walton tower

tower from the east - this is the tower arch, I suppose nave south side nave south side chancel north side
porch from the tower north side from the north-west north door 

    St Mary, West Walton
view from under the tower   If you have not been here before, then your first thought on approaching the village might be that you are headed for a quite magnificent East Anglian wool church. This is because of the mighty tower that can be seen for miles away, a bulky sentinel, across the fens. If the tower is so vast, you may think, then just how big is the church going to be? If you have come from neighbouring Walpole St Peter, you may even think that here is going to be a similarly massive 15th century 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 huge building you had been heading towards is a detached bell tower to the south of the church, at the junction of the main roads. And the long, low church beside it is an Early English extravaganza full of arches and curves, and quite different to the great majority of Norfolk churches.

West Walton is the most westerly parish in Norfolk; it's just a stone's throw into Cambridgeshire from here. But perhaps it is our proximity to Lincolnshire that will be most bought 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. There are odd proportions; 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 is the clerestory, a continuous run of blank arcading punctuated by the occasional window. The pattern is quite different inside, as we shall see.

It is always worth circumnavigating a church before entering, and then going around it again afterwards; the interplay between exterior and interior can raise and answer questions. Here, don't miss the west end - how magnificent that must have been when it was the main entrance.

  the shallow porch
tower through a nave window   tower through a nave window   The great tower is also worth an explore. It has been declared redundant, and is now in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust, who have recently replaced all the floors, recreating the rooms inside - for a century or more, it had been a hollow shell. It is like the tower of a great town church, the massive bell windows lifting to pinnacled battlements. It speaks of the full confidence and flowering of the English medieval church in the century or so before the Black Death snuffed it out forever.

No more than a few decades separate it from the church, but the two buildings 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. You wouldn't get planning permission to build it so close today.

And so along the path to the church, passing pleasingly under the tower and through that extraordinary south porch. You step into a church that 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, 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 said 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 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, as Jacquie observed, 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 nearby Walsoken and Kings Lynn St Margaret. I was happy to be here, just to wander, in one of my favourite churches.

It was time to go. I went to sign the visitors book, and it was only then that I noticed that the only previous visitor that day had been one of my heroes, Derek Mortlock, author of the Popular Guides to Norfolk and Suffolk churches. He had written, encouragingly, new edition coming soon!

It may have been that which distracted me. We headed into Kings Lynn and parked in the Tuesday Market. We had arranged to meet friends in the pub before going to see Morrissey that night at the Kings Lynn Corn Exchange. But they were late, and rather than just sit behind a diminishing pint waiting for them, I went out to the car to get my camera bag, so I could look at these images. But the bag wasn't there. I had left it in West Walton church.

I think we made it back to West Walton in about ten minutes. The church was already locked, but the very nice churchwarden across the road had rescued my bag and had it waiting for me, not having left it in the church because, as he observed patiently, you can't be too careful these days.

  roof angel: the Judas kiss

Simon Knott, June 2006


the view east font north aisle chapel view through the arcades
looking west nave roof pillar in the arcade south aisle chapel north aisle north arcade
south arcade north aisle altar looking west sedilia. The piscina was lost when the chancel was truncated
Our Lady Early English moment I Early English moment II Victorian moment I through a glass darkly
above the chancel arch angels clerestory 13th century stencilling

skull 'n' heap o' bones 

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