Churchcrawling trails: The Norfolk Broads around St Bene’t’s Abbey

Ah, Norfolk. Now that’s churchcrawling coun’ry. Well, that’s what people would say. Undeniably, the density of medieval churches is quite extraordinary in some parts, and the preservation of medieval furnishings – especially rood screen dados – is remarkable. This tour is based around the churches around the confluence of the river Ant with the river Bure, where the great Benedictine of Hume Abbey (now commonly referred to as “St Bene’t’s Abbey”) was strategically based. The Abbey would have been influential on these parishes, as it had the right of advowson (the right to appoint their next parish priest) for many of them.

One thing to notice round here is that you can’t drive wherever you want. Just because two places look quite close, it can actually be a good 20 minutes to go round the Broads to get to it (note, this is why the famous Ranworth is not included in this trip. You need to go back to Hoveton and back east to get to that). I don’t usually like to dictate a route, but here I will present them in order of visit, since there’s a pretty high chance you’ll be visiting these from Norwich, anyway.

Although there are 10 churches here, they’re so close together you can easily do them in even a short day.

Beeston St Lawrence, St Lawrence

PICT0090.JPGMust be one of the most-noticed round towers in the county, as it lies right next to the A1151. Although the majority of traffic will probably bomb past it at 60 mph, there’s a lay-by on the left as you head north if you know it’s coming (careful when you cross the road!).

Like a lot of Norfolk churches, it’s a two-cell building, large but spatially interesting. Lack of basically any good building stone, arcades are relatively rare around here. Round towers are certainly partly a symptom of a situation, since having no corners means you don’t have to bother finding good stone for quoins.


The chancel however, is quite a fancy bit of architecture, probably dating to the second half of the 14thc, when a starting gun really went off in Norwich for parish church rebuilding. Fancy buttresses with gables intersection with the shafts, fiddly but rigid window tracery, and, impressively, flush work patterns at the base of the E wall.

P1850011.JPGInside, the building is very plain caused by the 18thc ceiling dictating the walls’ overbearing whitewash. Of course, the walls are built of crap, so it’s not like there’s anything to scrape down. Bashed-up piscina at the E end of the chancel. You’d be pressed to spend longer than 5 minutes here. So unless you want to pray or anything, on we go…

Barton Turf, St Michael and All Angels

P1850273.JPGProblem with Norfolk churches, really, is they’re often totally overshadowed by a single possession. If all of England’s parish churches were like this, then there would be a case for removing furnishings to museums, as happened in Italy and Spain for much of the 19th and first part of the 20thc. But here we are, in deepest potato fields, one of the finest bits of late-15thc English painting surviving : their angel rood screen.


Here it is, in the very place where it was painted (it has been shown that these screens were painted after assembly). It used to be nigh impossible to get in here, but now this masterpiece is accessible to anyone who makes the journey.


The whole exterior of Barton Turf church was redone in the late 15thc. The arcades inside are earlier, from the 14thc, and originally would have led to much narrower aisles. The chancel was probably also built at this date, but given a full refenestration, and a S chapel added to it. Note how the arcade to the chancel chapel is totally different.


So, the screen. It has an utterly captivating balance of gilded pattern and the human feeling of dialogue between the paired figures as they hold attributes of their office (even though most of them are heavenly beings and not human at all, but, whatever). What’s unusual about it is that somehow, it’s almost completely and utterly untouched by even a scratch of iconoclasm (two have had their faces acted, one of them likely for its papal tiara, too much for anyone claiming to be Reformed). There’s a story, told in the mid-19thc, that in 1793 the rector came back from a trip to see the church completely remodelled, wall paintings removed and family pews replacing old oak benches, but was just in time to save the rood screen from being painted over, but this does seem a little of a fiction.


The screen shows the orders of Angels from Cherubim and Seraphim downwards: you don’t need me to go through them and their iconography, there’s enough guides to that when you get there. I can, however, tell you that the carpentry is identical to that at Westwick three miles west (though it’s much repainted there, so don’t get excited about that), and the accepted date is c.1480s-90s.

PICT0102.JPGIt’s interesting to note that it could have been put in before the aisles were reconstructed since the chancel arch is of that date, which would explain why the four kings screen to the S chapel, is of a totally different hand and just shockingly crap in comparison to the main screen.


Irstead, St Lawrence

The journey to Irstead is part of the fun. You’ll probably get stuck behind a slowcoach and then wonder how on Earth a church can be deep inside a wood like this. But this is the Broads, there’s always people about. Anyway, it’s worth it, as despite being a small church, it’s got by far the most to see so far: as well as a rood screen, wall paintings, bench ends, a font, and a beautiful iron-work door handle of the early 14thc.


P1850225.JPGIrstead is a good contrast to Barton Turf in a number of ways. Again, it’s a 14thc core (look at the windows, and also the evidence of one of the wall paintings), but this time it’s the walls, rather than arcades. The S arcade is much later, possibly 16thc, as the capitals are plastered brick. Usually the “shafts stuck onto the side of a chunk of wall” look was a stylistic one, but here, it may well be that they cut the arcade out of the wall.


And the rood screen. Or rather here, the paintings, since they’ve been remounted in a new support with a 19thc carved top, and were presumably detached from their original carpentered rood screen. Unusually, there were no architectural divisions between each figure, instead them standing in groups of three in front of the same wallpaper.


What’s interesting here is the object’s manifest history. Every single face has bad paint loss, as it’s been squiggled over with by a sharp object. Look closer, and you’ll see every attribute of each apostle has also been attacked in the same way, less comprehensively for larger ones like St Andrew’s cross. Instead of this demonstrating a parish who hated their screen, this is one where they perhaps wanted to keep it as an aesthetic object. By doing this bare minimum to “cancel out” the identities of the saints, it was now just a piece of furniture, and would probably pass muster with all but the most puritan of crown commissars. The people who did this were former Catholics who still believed in the power of images.


Neatishead, St Peter


On return to civilisation (well, as far as this bit of Norfolk gets, anyway ho ho), let’s make a stop at a deep-cut that will make no one’s top-whatever list, but is a great little riddle to solve. You don’t need to be an expert to feel something’s not right with this church. It’s just a box, essentially. A big box, too. It’s definitely medieval, the piscina is in the right place. It feels far too big to be a chapel, but the wrong shape for a parish church. So what’s going on? P1850208.JPG

Well, it turns out this is just the chancel of a standard tower-nave-chancel church, with those parts demolished in 1790. But at nearly 20 metres long inside, this would’ve been a heck of a chancel, no?

P1850207.JPGWell, actually, look at the side. You can see where the mid-14thc masonry of pebbles ends, and changes to standard flintwork. This is where the chancel’s been extended by a third, presumably with fabric from the demolished parts just as some tabernacles and a doorway have been used in the W front. Shows you can’t always trust windows as evidence (they were mostly redone in the 1870s). Anyway, it’s an usual bit of work for its date. Quite frankly in most places they’d have got rid of the whole thing and built a boring brick box.

Horning, St Benedict

Another one that’s hardly top of anyone’s list but all the more reason to make the effort. The door is on a timelock, 9am-5pm, like many places round here. Also it has hot-drink making facilities for visitors, which is nice (powdered milk, though).


First thing you’ll notice is that it lost an aisle. Yes, even though the stone for the arcades was hard-fought for round here, the space they gave was more liturgical purposes than general population. Any problems with the aisle roofs, and many parishes would elect to demolish them and block up the arcades instead.

From the inside, you can tell the N arcade was likely much earlier, the S arcade being part of the inevitable Perp remodelling, including provision for a now-vanished rood ensemble. Many medieval bench ends scattered around, and an impressively gnarled-looking parish chest.

Holm Abbey (St Bene’t’s Abbey)

If it wasn’t for the valiant attempts at Horning church to promote it and its legacy, St Benet’s would probably be much less visited than it is. It’s really off the beaten path and not terribly well-known by anyone not from around this parts. There’s not much left of the church, nor was it a particularly big one, but it’s a wonderful experience. Follow the signs to the private road, and eventually you will come to a car park with a clear pathway to the most substantial surviving portion, the W gatehouse.


St Benet’s claim to fame is that it was the only abbey not suppressed in the Dissolutions of the 1530s. Ownership of the entire abbey was given to the Bishop of Norwich, who never formally evicted the monks. But it’s not like you can survive as the only Benedictines in England, so the complex was quickly abandoned and ended up like just about every monastery, eventually quarried for stone by the diocese like every other foundation in the county.

In the 1720s or 30s, a brick windmill was built against the gatehouse, utilising it as a support. It is, itself, a significant structure, one of the earliest windmills you’ll find in this country. However, the building it partly envelops (and indeed, protects) is quite a mindblower.P1850179.JPG

It’s an exceptionally sophisticated use of limestone and flint, probably dating to around 1320s-30s. The spandrels of a man fighting a rampant lion are hardly done justice by this photo: they’re gigantic.

Although, as I say, the church is hardly impressive, but you ought to make the effort if you can. Wear proper shoes, and be aware there are some quite curious cattle kept in the field (they’re not aggressive, but they can be frustrating when they are standing exactly where the best bit of wall is).


The high altar is marked by a giant cross, and there’s a talking bench (no, really) on site that will help you understand it all when you get there. I’ll do a video about it eventually. But when most abbeys have had their enclosures completely obliterated from the environment, the experience of walking though open landscape for about five minutes from the gatehouse to the church is one of the best ways of getting an idea of the scale of these institutions.

Ludham, St Catherine


This is my favourite church round here. For many years following the first quarter of the 14thc it likely would have been undisputed as the standout. Strip the Perp away from every other church here and you’re not left with much at all, but here you’ve got the base of a significant W tower and a chancel to rival the finest Dec-essays in Cambridgeshire or Oxfordshire.


P1850103.JPGIndeed, much of the stone is probably clunch from Cambridgeshire, although the quickest way to get it here would be to put it round the coast from King’s Lynn and up the river Bure. Because it’s such a pliable stone susceptible to weathering, the extravagance is most interior: the sedilia and piscina group, but also the chancel arch capitals, full of characterful monstrosity.

Then comes the Perping, with grand new arcades, clerestory, and rood ensemble, the original carpentered screen of kings surviving pretty much unscathed. Notice on the capitals, a hole has been cut into each interior face for the vanished loft, and the capital now carries the rood beam, the inner mouldings of the chancel arch removed. But the extremely unusual thing at Ludham: there’s something on top of that beam.P1850088.JPG

PICT0129.JPGThe painted tympanum is of such incredibly poor quality it’s almost certainly a Marian replacement for the original that was destroyed under Edward VI. On the back are the royal arms of Elizabeth, which attests to this. The canvas the royal arms were painted on were originally over the rood group, and it’s been remounted on the reverse, so sadly it didn’t spin round when the commissars came round. Like the bit in Stingray. Some of you will know what I mean.

Catfield, All Saints


P1850073.JPGAnother ambitious church, but the arcades here are earlier, late 14thc. No clerestory, but instead a strip of wall paintings. They’re difficult to decipher but they’re an impressive reminder of how some quite “boring” architecture must have been designed with mural painting in mind. Easiest to identify is the Stoning of St Stephen in one of the spandrels. The screen survives, but is not of the exceptional quality of either carpentry or painting we’ve seen thus far. The kings on it are good, but more traditional grumpy standard International Gothic rather than energetic Flemish-looking stuff.

P1850060.JPGThe chancel was remodelled in the late 1460s, under the patronage of its rector, John Walters, who died in 1471. It retains windows identical to the nave (except the E window, which has been lost), but the walls cut back for giant blind arcading around the windows (see also Acton, Cheshire). The now unused wall shafts mean the main draw must have been some sort of fancy woodwork on the roof.

Sutton, St Michael


Back to normality here: no heroic Perp nave. Instead, the pebble construction advises basically all of the church is 13th and early 14thc, but with some later refenestration.


The S aisle is small but good for how it conjures the feeling of a distinct space. The Y-tracery, if genuine, advises a c.1300 date. Exceptionally good font, late 14thc is a fair stab at the date.

Ingham, Holy Trinity


Now, I have to first admit, I haven’t been in here. They had scaffolding up in the tower. Since they had temporary traffic lights outside and a massive scaffold over the pub, it felt like the whole village was being restored, but that might be a coincidence. I was a bit miffed, because it’s always been an enigma. Ah well.

P1850026.JPGStill, my questions were moderately answered by looking at the exterior. There was a priory here, but this doesn’t look that different to a normal large parish church. This is because the chancel, built in the 1340s by Oliver de Ingham, was adopted as the choir of Trinitarian community in 1355-60 by his son-in-law, Miles de Stapleton. Traces of how their ranges connected with the church survive outside, but all of the buildings themselves have gone.

The chancel itself is a nascent example of Norwich Perpendicular, as used by the Ramsey family on Norwich Cathedral cloisters and choir clerestory. It still uses some curvilinear elements in the tracery, but it’s all extremely rigid and solemn. Inside the sedilia have Perp panelling, Pevsner implies they’re essentially Victorian but I guess he’s exaggerating. Also, the effigy of Oliver de Ingham is famous, for he awkwardly lies on a bed of pebbles, in a conspicuous display of his purgatorial piety.P1850020.JPG

Now you’re out of the Broads, you’re free to choose your own path. Tunstead and Worstead, perhaps?

Any suggestions or corrections, please leave below in the comments!





  1. Having when young taken by my father to visit every church In Norfolk this has been a total delight for me, as usually are all your postings. Thank you

  2. Sorry – I referred to the omission of Horning (which, of course, you covered, excellently), but hoped that you might have got to see Honing, as well as Potter Heigham. Honing, Worstead, Tunstead and Potter Heigham are the other treats in the area, from my perspective. Apologies for that.

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