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All Saints, Ashwicken
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Here at Ashwicken, the mighty horse chestnuts at the church gates seemed to have escaped the blight, and were as majestic as ever. On the ground beneath them were thousands and thousands of conkers. It was clear that very few children had been here to fill their pockets. This is because All Saints is one of those remote churches you find often in Norfolk, some half a mile from the nearest proper road, approached up farm tracks. A huge sign by the lane reads ALL SAINTS CHURCH Our Church in the Fields WELCOME which I thought was lovely. The graveyard belies this remoteness - it is immaculately well-kept.
This part of Norfolk is packed with tiny parishes, and inevitably some of the churches have been lost to us. There are more ruined churches in this part of England than any other, and it is not because of the Black Death or lost villages, but simply because the old pattern of manorial patronage left us with more church buildings than reformed Christianity could possibly cope with. All Saints serves three historic parishes; as well as Ashwicken there is Bawsey, where the former parish church is an impressive ruin, and Leziate, where the church building is now gone completely.
Reading about Ashwicken church in Pevsner, you might not think it worth the visit, but it is actually a delight. The building is quite beautiful, the trunacated tower with its 19th century cap looking lovely across the fields. When you get close up, you see that the south wall is made of carstone, but the grand Perpendicular windows are surrounded by red brick, and supported by red brick buttressing which Tom felt was Elizabethan. It was nice to see the tumbling arrangement of the bricks at the top of the buttressing. There are even mightier buttresses on the west side of the tower.
You step into what is, to all intents and purposes, a Victorian church, but one which feels very simple and rustic. The exception is an extraordinary wedding cake of a font, dripping in pendant tracery and carved from a sparkly marble. If it was a bit pinker you could get away with putting a Barbie logo on it. Cautley, in a rare moment of distraction, wondered if it might really be 14th century. In fact, it was carved in Benares, in India, in the 1870s, specifically for this church, and given as a memorial to a dead child.
The chancel is rather sombre, with serious-faced windows of St Peter and the Blessed Virgin, who looks uncharacteristically matronly. The chancel is rather dark; but, looking back westward, the nave was filled with a beautiful autumn light, slanting gently northwards, and dappled by the swaying chestnuts outside, a memorable sight. We stepped out, and the threshing giants towered above us venerably. I couldn't resist picking up a few of their mahogany jewels as we left.
Simon Knott, October 2006
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