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

St Margaret, Witton
(Witton by Norwich)

Witton

Witton biscuit barrel glimpsed

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    Norfolk has two parishes called Witton, and rather confusingly they both have churches dedicated to St Margaret. This one is sometimes referred to as 'Witton-by-Norwich', but the name is surreal, for it is hard to imagine that we are barely ten miles from the centre of that great city. At the time of the 1851 Census of Religious Worship, Edward Frere, who was the curate in charge of returning Witton's entry, recorded that the name given to it is not known, so presumably the dedication here was a fruit of the ecclesiological revival later in the century. Frere recorded that the average attendance at service was 55, which may have been an exaggeration (it often was) but even so it suggests a high level of attendance, for the population of the parish was barely 150 at this time when rural Norfolk parishes were reaching their population peak. There must be far fewer than that today, despite our proximity to Norwich.

It was one of those beautiful days in Holy Week 2019, and all the birds of the county were making their pleasure known. It was a joy to be out in rural Norfolk again. The church is remote from the villages of Witton and larger Great Plumstead. There's a converted barn for company, and a couple of farms on the long, lonely roads leading out to it, but that's all. The little church is unusual of aspect, for the tower was reduced and topped off with a little octagonal turret in the 17th century. It seems to grow out of the west end of the nave. The effect is similar to that at Thurton, a few miles off on the other side of the river. To the south of the church is the rather singular early 19th century memorial to Mary Taylor, looking like nothing so much as an enormous stone biscuit barrel.

The friendly keyholders are a fair way off, but this a church it is worth getting the key to see, because it is full of interest, and most of it of an unconventional kind. From the outside it is, of course, obvious that this is not a large church, but stepping inside is to enter a jewel-like space that is entirely in proportion. The first surprise is a small figure brass set on the threshold. It remembers Dame Juliana Anyell, and probably dates from the first decade of the 16th Century. The inscription tells us that Juliana was a widow and a Vowess, which is to say she was a member of a religious order of widows who had vowed not to remarry. She stands wearing the robes of a Vowess, and this is one of only four such brasses in the whole of the British Isles. The church has another tiny brass inscription set in the south-west corner of the nave.

The 19th Century restoration here was under the careful eye of Richard Phipson, and was designed as a setting for High Anglican worship. As usual, he kept the medieval font, which is a riot of tracery patterns, but his is the chancel, and most of the glass is by Hardman & Co in their typical style of the mid-century. But the best glass is on the south side of the nave, a joyful depiction of the Presentation in the Temple and the Annunciation by William Warrington of 1852, and it is hard to think of a happier window of that decade anywhere in Norfolk. Beside it is the sober memorial to John Penrice of 1844, still entirely Georgian in style and depicting him in profile. It is odd to think that just eight years separate it from William Warrington's window, a mark of the cultural revolution in church furnishings in the middle years of that century.

Never have I seen so many candles in such a small church as there are at St Margaret! It is one of those churches which I most love coming across - no one seems to know about it, it has a sense of its place in the long history of its parish, and it captures a moment in liturgical tradition with such quality that it stands as a living example while still being a fitting worship space for today.

   

Simon Knott, April 2019

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looking east sanctuary font
Dame Juliana Anyell, Vowess (c1500) Dame Juliana Anyell, Vowess (c1500) He loved this place Roll of Honour
Soldiers asleep at the Resurrection (Hardman & Co, 1850s) Blessed Virgin and St John at the foot of the cross (Hardman & Co, 1850s) St Margaret (Hardman & Co, 1850s) Presentation in the Temple and Annunciation (William Warrington, 1853)
Pelican in her Piety (Hardman & Co, 1850s)

 

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