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

St John the Baptist, Alderford



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St John the Baptist, Alderford

In the rolling landscape to the north of the Norwich to Fakenham road the parishes sprawl, a landscape of wide fields and wooded hills, the villages seeming inconsequential perhaps but the church towers punctuating the landscape as far as the eye can see. What would you be, you wide East Anglian sky, Without church towers to recognise you by? wrote Betjeman, and Salle and Cawston to the north of here are some of the tallest and grandest. But the huddled villages have their churches too of course, and Alderford is one of them. Perhaps you might miss it if you did not know it was there, for it is not a large church and it sits in a narrow churchyard hidden from the lane by a tall hedge. I think you would have to be a fairly hard person to step through that hedge and not think it lovely. It is all of a piece, the work of the first half of the 14th Century, as so often around here. Later in that century a bequest brought the porch, and that was it pretty much apart from the topping of the tower parapet with finials, perhaps an 18th Century affectation.

I hope it doesn't seem as if I am being critical if I say there is an endearing shabbiness to this building. When I first came here in 2005 I was admonished by the sundial on the porch to Redeem the Time. Coming back in September 2022 I found the sundial surviving - just. The gnomon is still in place, but some of the lettering has fallen, and it did seem that it might now be beyond redemption. In May 2021 I had passed this way and found the churchyard alive and in full bloom. Now, at the end of the hottest summer of the century so far, Alderford churchyard's high grasses baked in the afternoon sunshine, and it was easy to think of the church as a great drowsy beast slumbering in the midst of it all.

The south door is probably older than the porch, which is to say it came with the early 14th Century rebuilding. You step through into a narrow space that was once wider, for the north arcade has been blocked and the aisle which stood beyond it demolished. Dominating this end of the church is one of the most memorable of England's thirty-odd Seven Sacrament fonts, imposing in this small space, its reliefs characterful and retaining traces of original paint. The most easterly panel depicts Baptism, the Priest holding the baby above the font and flanked by two acolytes, one holding a taper and the other a chrism chest with the holy oils, the parents standing in front. Then, moving clockwise, the next panel is Confirmation, a less crowded scene than is usual on a Seven Sacrament font, with just two candidates and those ubiquitous acolytes flanking the Priest behind. The south panel is Mass. The celebrant stands with his back to the viewer as in the famous scene at Westhall, Suffolk, the acolyte on one side holding a taper while the other rings a bell which swings wildly.

Next comes perhaps the most memorable panel, happily facing the door so it is the first that you see as you enter. This is Confession, the Priest seated in a canopied chair, and an angel standing behind the penitent and pushing the devil out of the picture. The west panel depicts Ordination, a Bishop ordaining three deacons, and as we turn towards the wall we come to Matrimony. The priest, flanked by two acolytes, wraps his stole around the hands of the happy couple. The north panel is hard against the wall, and so is hard to see, but it depicts the Last Rites. The dying man lies in bed under rumpled blankets, an acolyte holding a chrism chest behind the priest. The final panel is the odd one out, the Crucifixion, perhaps the most common eighth panel on Seven Sacrament fonts.

seven sacrament font

seven sacrament font: Baptism seven sacrament font: Confirmation seven sacrament font: Mass seven sacrament font: Confession
seven sacrament font: Ordination seven sacrament font: Matrimony seven sacrament font: Last Rites seven sacrament font: Crucifixion (eighth panel)

Although it is more rustic than the font at neighbouring Great Witchingham there are clear similarities, including the angels and symbols of the Evangelists under the bowl. If they were not made by the same workshop it seems likely that the people who made this knew the Great Witchingham font. But there is a curiosity, for, in this narrow setting, the font is placed dramatically at the top of two high pedestals, with its northern panel barely a foot from the north wall. And yet, it appears to be in its original setting. The steps are at least as old as the font itself. Clearly, when this church was wider, it would have appeared more centrally placed. But the surface which it is close to was part of the arcade, and so it has always been this close to a wall. This is interesting, because we know that, before the late medieval period, fonts were often placed against walls or against the pillars of arcades. This font is quite late, a bequest in the 1520s pointing to its installation, and so presumably it replaced an earlier font on the same double pedestal.

What was the earlier font like? There's no way of telling, but seven sacrament fonts were part of a wider late-Medieval project to reinforce Catholic orthodoxy in the face of local abuses and superstitions. Many Norman fonts feature what came to be perceived as pagan imagery, and some of them - I think particularly of the fonts at Burnham Deepdale and Castle Rising - have a side which is clear of detail, showing that this was the side against the wall. Some of these fonts survive, but the vast majority must have been replaced in the late 14th, 15th and early 16th Centuries. There are seven Catholic sacraments, and octagonal fonts have eight sides, and so why was the panel on the north side here not left blank? Simply, I think this is evidence that Seven Sacrament fonts were bought 'off the shelf' from stonemasons, and were not carved in situ or necessarily tailored to suit the setting. The Alderford churchwardens bought their font and did the best with it that they could.

The shaft of the font has little niches with saints in, again in good condition and battered more by the hands of time than of iconoclasm. St Andrew is clearly identifiable by his saltire cross. Another appears to wear a crown. One, which has been identified as St James from the staff in his hand and his books, appears to wear a woman's head dress - could the staff be a crozier, making this St Etheldreda? The western side of the double pedestal is widened and raised slightly, to make a platform for the priest. If you stand on it, you are raised quite dramatically above the benches to the east. Many years ago the incumbent of this lovely group of parishes told me that baptising babies in this font would be a fairly hazardous operation if you didn't have a sense of balance and a firm pair of hands. Interestingly, the platform has dozens of tiny scratches on it, most likely made by superstitious parishioners gathering stone fragments and dust for use in folk rituals, an intriguing thought as you leave and make your way back through the polite little village outside.

Simon Knott, September 2022

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looking east chancel
who "fell asleep"


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