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

All Saints, Alburgh

Alburgh: always and everywhere and forever

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massive tower, smaller church from the east

    All Saints, Alburgh
western face of the tower   Coming down Norfolk by a different road, I came out into a landscape that I knew. It was early spring, and five years before I had explored the Suffolk side of the Waveney valley at the same time of year. Here in Norfolk were the same rolling, secretive meadows, the copses that seeped and spread between the fields, the quiet, scattered parishes with mere hints of village centres. Introspective hamlets, not talking to each other, the narrow lanes that connected them veering and dipping as if trying to shake them off.

At a crossroads, an old Methodist chapel sulked under the indignity of conversion; and there were wide pig farms and ancient silage heaps and faded bottle banks outside the village hall. No commuters here, no holiday cottages or weekend homes. Everyone except me was here because they had to be. This was where they lived, where they worked; they were the modern equivalents of the blacksmith, the carter, the wheelwright. The Waveney valley is the heart of rural East Anglia, perhaps the last truly insular place in the south-east of England. I was glad to be here.

Alburgh is not a place I have ever thought of often. But now, in the crisp air, I stood in the graveyard and looked across the country at the scattered village and its setting. Beyond the houses was the ancient field pattern, the beech trees on the ridge and the rooks wheeling above them. I thought of a song of the early eighties, Pete Wylie's Story of the Blues, and his declaiming, towards the end, the words of Kerouac's Sal Paradise: the city intellectuals of the world are divorced from the folk-body blood of the land, and are just rootless fools. I had been born in a place like this, tiny and remote in the Cambridgeshire fens, a world away from now in the 1960s. But we moved to Cambridge when I was two, and I had lived in urban areas ever since. I was a city intellectual, and I stood now and looked around at the land, a rootless fool.

I first heard of Alburgh more than twenty years ago. I was living unhappily in Brighton at the time, learning to teach, finding out how little I actually knew about anything. I would cycle out to the University through the stinking traffic on the Lewes road, and often arrive cold, wet and battered by the wind from the downs.

I knew nobody, and spent most evenings in an attic room listening to the Smiths and New Order and feeling sorry for myself. I read all of Hardy, and at weekends I would cycle around the downs, searching for old churches, repopulating the hamlets and lanes of East Sussex with his Wessex scenes. I hardly went into town at all.

  as you sow, so shall you reap

Everybody seems to love Brighton, and they can't understand it when I say that I don't, but I was too miserable there. I don't mind if I never go back. Brighton, for me, will be forever associated with debt, and with the transience of being a student. There has never been a time in my life, before or since, when I have been so poor. And then, extraordinarily, a brief, doomed relationship, a love affair, became the one vivid thing, a brief, sweet memory of my year in that brash town.

She came from Alburgh, and at first I thought she meant Aldburgh in Suffolk, and she said it again, Ar-brer, and showed me on a map. How narrow was the single bed we shared, how intense those brief few weeks. And she loved me more than I could possibly have loved her, for I had already met the woman who would become my wife. And so it was messy, and then it ended. But Alburgh still existed, of course, and so coming here I remembered.

George Patrick Osborn Springfield, 1914   If that had been all there was, then I wouldn't have thought it worth mentioning, but there was also the Kerouac quote, and I had recently gone back to the village where I was born. It was a tiny hamlet, off of the Cambridge to Ely road. My mother had been born there, my parents married in the Church there. I was baptised there, and so were my brothers.

At one time there had been three farms, a shop, a railway halt, a pub, a school, a church and a chapel. I'm not looking this up in some mid-19th century White's Directory, I remember them from the 1960s and 1970s. Now, they were nearly all gone. The farms had been built over, the pub, shop and chapel converted to houses. To stand beside the railway line, you'd need a vivid imagination to guess that the halt had even existed, as the expresses screamed through at over a hundred miles an hour.

The church and the school survived, but only because this was now a commuter village. Every morning, hundreds and hundreds of white-collar workers left their identical modern houses and piled up the A10 to Cambridge. I knew nobody there anymore - my grandmother was dead, and all my relatives had left, or were lying under the frozen turf of the little cemetery. It made me sad. I thought that perhaps this was what growing old was, seeing change and resenting it. I was entering my mid-forties, which seemed like some kind of rubicon, although of course none of us can ever go back. And so I liked Alburgh because it appeased my sense of loss, as if something might survive after all.

All this then, gentle reader, was in my mind as I approached All Saints for the first time. This massive tower is matched by its non-identical twin half a mile across the valley at Denton. It is an imposing sight from there, although it was impossible to see a return view from here; simply, Alburgh's tower is bigger. The bulk of it is probably 14th century, but the bell stage with its enormous bell windows is later, a late medieval addition. It looks awkward because the new building technology no longer required the buttresses to continue up the bell stage. But the effect is unfortunate, I think, like the unnaturally small head of a fat man.

Denton is a big church, apart from the tower; but Alburgh is not, and I wondered again at that massive tower. I looked up at the buttressed pinnacles on the four corners, and it slowly began to dawn on me that this was actually a Victorian confection - I later discovered that the very top of the tower collapsed in 1895, and what we see at the top now dates from that time.

  Humphrey Osborn Springfield, 1916

The west front must have been rather grand once, with massive niches flanking the window, but the canopies of the niches have gone, either vandalised by protestants or simply worn away by the passing of the centuries. The south porch seems bigger than it is, because the nave is not large; a 1463 bequest for the porch by the Wright family is recorded, but it now looks all of its Victorian restoration.

And so, I am afraid, does the inside of the church, a big 19th century barn with a lot of the anonymity you'd expect of this date. And yet, there are neat, local, rustic touches; surprisingly, the roof is old, and it spreads impressively across the wide, aisleless nave. A beautiful gilded rood screen dado is almost defiant in the face of all the restoration. There are pretty little gilded gesso Saints in niches on the buttresses along the front, but I think the colour is wholly modern.

rood screen: north rood screen: south rood screen: detail

Echoing it, perhaps inspired by it, insipid apostles flank the altar and its simple reredos, a William Morris-style hanging. Turning back, the tower arch lifts tall and dreamily, light from the west window flooding the reset font below, the space becoming an echo of the wide chancel arch at the other end of the great roof. There's a pleasing harmony to the whole piece, and I began to see what the Victorians were getting at.

And so, that was all, my visit to Alburgh. My first, and probably my last. Just another church; and yet, like all medieval parish churches, a place full of stories, and memories, hopes, fears, regrets, embarassments, delights, hungers, desires, agonies, beginnings and endings. Here, I sensed around me a building that was a touchstone down the long generations, and a beacon across miles and oceans. Just another church, but always and everywhere and forever. Think of the millions of people who can trace atoms of their being back to this place! Think of the lives touched by people who stepped out from this parish! And that's true of anywhere.

I thought that she had probably been married in this place, if she had ever married, and so I said a silent prayer for all the people I have ever known and lost touch with, wherever they may be in the world, whether or not they remember me, or think of me, or are even reading this now. And then I left.

  the Good Shepherd

Simon Knott, March 2006


looking east looking west insipid Apostles
font, reset under the tower sanctuary


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