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St John the Baptist, Alderford
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the Baptist, Alderford
There are low hills to the north of the Fakenham road, and I had often wondered what it would be like to explore them. In Norfolk, you never need to get far away from a busy road to immerse yourself in lattices of narrow lanes, and moreover these hills appeared well wooded. On a map, there wasn't much out there. Tiny villages, but famous names for church explorers: Salle, and Cawston, and Booton. The summer before last I had begun to explore them. I was dying to go back.
It is also an open church in summer, accessible with a nearby key in winter, and thus preserves a sense of continuity in the heart of its parish that locked churches lose.
It is a narrow church, in a narrow hamlet. But even on this cold February day there was something lovely about it, and as I approached the sun came out for the first time that day, a day that had started in a blizzard. The tower is slender, perhaps too austere to be beautiful. Probably 14th century in origin, it is now heavily buttressed, and the top is rather curious, with 'Gothick' pinnacles, probably evidence of late 18th or early 19th century work. The church seems to have been given a bit of a makeover at this time, the pretty porch still with its wooden sundial reading Redeem the Time.
This is interesting, because we know that, before the late Middle Ages, many fonts were placed against walls or against the pillars of arcades. This font is quite late - a bequest in the 1520s seems to point to its installation, and it must therefore have 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 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.
Anti-clockwise from the east, the panels here are Baptism, the Priest holding the baby and flanked by two acolytes, one holding a taper and the other a chrism chest with the holy oils, the parents standing in front; Crucifixion (NE), the odd-panel-out, but here perhaps the best panel, almost unvandalised, and John and Mary at the foot of the cross retaining colour in the drapery of their clothes; Last Rites (N), an unusually successful rendition of the dying man's bed, which always gave medieval masons problems, and the acolyte holding the chrism chest is here too; Matrimony (NW), the Priest, flanked by two acolytes, wrapping his stole around the hands of the happy couple, who have interestingly been completely effaced from the shoulders up; Ordination (W), the Bishop ordaining three Deacons, which is unusual; Confession (SW), another excellent panel, the Priest seated in a canopied chair, and angel protecting the confessee while a devil slinks away; Mass (S), the celebrant with his back to the viewer, the acolyte on one side holding a taper while the other rings a bell which swings wildly; and Confirmation (SE), less crowded than is usual in Norfolk, with just two candidates and those ubiquitous acolytes flanking the Priest behind.
Images of all of these are below; hover to read captions and click on them to see them enlarged. I have corrected the perspective of the image of Last Rites to show it as if the arcade was not there.
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. They appear to be eight Apostles; St Andrew is clearly identifiable, for example. However, one appears to wear a crown, and may be intended as Henry VI, whose cult was reaching a peak at this time. Another, which has been identified as St James from the staff in his hand and the books, appears to wear a woman's head dress - could the staff be a crozier, making this St Etheldreda?
Simon Knott, March 2006
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