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St Michael, Aylsham
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St Michael is everything a small town Anglican parish church should be, in my opinion; the exterior glories of the Middle Ages, and internally the confidence and directness of Victorian civic pride, tempered by the modern low key spiritual values of the Church of England. It is neither too high, with provocative silver candlesticks and a smell of incense, or too low, with budget chairs in a half circle and an overhead projector screen. Stepping inside St Michael, you know that you could not be in any other country in the world.
Externally, it is fabulous; not far from the main square of this pretty, curiously remote market town, it sits in a kind of close that at once separates and defines it. And it is big. Here we have clerestories, aisles and a terrific tower. If you'd been there and you saw a photo, you'd recognise it instantly. It is made distinctive by the magnificent 15th century porch, and that lovely fleche.
Inside, the nave is quintessential 19th century confidence. Low pews are arranged crisply between the two arcades, the aisles left free as walkways, so common in big churches in this part of Norfolk. It would look even better if they were replaced with modern chairs. The west end itself is the result of a good late 20th century reordering, offsetting the fine 15th century font with its crucifixion and instruments of the passion.
The one medieval glory of St Michael is the rood screen dado. The best thing about it are the figures in the spandrels, including St Michael and the Dragon, which Tom spotted were by the same hand as those at Suffield, and the buttresses, which Mortlock notes are very similar to those at Cawston, not far from here. There are sixteen figures on the panels, and a dedicatory inscription to Thomas Wymer, who died in 1509. This is curious, because much of the screen is obviously older than this. If you look closely, the first and last four panels, which contain his inscription, are later additions, stuck on over the original panels.
From left to right, the panels are:
North side: Thomas Wymer's wife, St Thomas, Thomas Wymer, St James the Less, Moses, St James the Great, St John the Baptist, St Peter
South side: St Paul, destroyed figure (probably St John the Evangelist), St Andrew, Elijah, St Simon, a Saint holding the hem of his cloak (St Anthony?), St Matthew, St Bartholomew.
There is a nave altar, which seems to have distracted people's minds from the chancel, which is far too crowded, especially by comparison with the reordered transepts. The 19th century glass varies around the chancel from the magnificent through the intriguing to the frankly poor. Yarrington's fine east window depicts St Peter, St James, St John and St Andrew, but the 1850s glass by Clutterbuck in the south chancel chapel really ought to have been quietly lost before the Victorian Society cast their beady eyes on it. Never mind.
The reredos is wierd, an amalgam of various bits and pieces including some ecclesiastical junk, and apart from Thomas Wymer's fine shroud effigy the brasses in the sanctuary have been polished almost beyond recognition. But these are little moans set against the greater good of this fine, busy place. All in all, a fair reflection on the historic role of this building in the town around it.
Simon Knott, September 2005
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