Barton Turf Catfield Irstead Ludham Ranworth Upton
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St Michael, Barton Turf
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Michael, Barton Turf
One of my kidnappers was Tom Muckley, a regular correspondent since the early days of the Suffolk site. Tom lives in Hampshire, and is very fond of Suffolk. But he loves Norfolk, and was determined that I should too. Part of his game plan was to describe churches that were simply, well, better than those in Suffolk, and I began to get an impression of a vast county full of vast churches full of medieval survivals. As it turned out, there would be plenty that would fit this bill. However, I had heard from contacts that, while the Anglican Diocese of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich (bless its cotton socks) promoted a policy of open churches, the Anglican Diocese of Norwich encouraged them to be locked. Now, this may or may not have been the case, but my experience would soon be that most Norfolk churches are open, at least as many as in Suffolk. But there were exceptions...
On one of our trips, we set off around the northern half of the Broads, discovering amazing screens and some pretty damn fine fonts as well. Tom had included Barton Turf on the itinerary without much hope; but I was quietly determined. As a way of returning at least some of the favour to Tom for his kindness and support, we would get inside Barton Turf church.
Another correspondent of mine has an amazing list of every keyholder in the county, and he kindly pointed me in the direction of the one for Barton Turf. I rang the day before, but there was no reply. Again, in the morning, all I could hear was the ringing in an empty room. Often, on our slow stopping curve up through Norfolk, I whipped out my mobile, but it was to no avail. However, at Stalham I noticed that one of the Lay Ministers for the benefice actually lived in Barton Turf, and I took careful note of his address and phone number. When we got to St Michael, there was a sign saying that if we wanted to get inside we should ring one of the keyholders, and make an appointment to return on another occasion.
What a stupid sign. I had only travelled from Ipswich; what if you were a family history chaser from Australia or the States making a special trip? I decided to ring the Lay Minister instead. Well, he was very polite, and terribly posh, and perhaps a little perturbed. He insisted that I should try the other numbers first, and if nobody could help me we could drop by and he would lend us the key. Result! Except that I might get through to a keyholder, who would disapprove of me and make me come back another day. Hmmm...
I thought about suggesting to Tom that we should just drop in on the Lay Minister anyway, but that didn't seem in the spirit of the thing. I decided I should try ringing the keyholders. One of them, I knew, was out - heavens knows, I had been ringing her since the previous afternoon - so I was down to two. The first number rang, and rang, and rang. Don't answer, I breathed. And he didn't.
The second number rang several times, and then the answer machine cut in. Yes! We were halfway there. We leapt into the car and hightailed it to the village, a mile or so away.I don't know what picture you have in your mind when a house is called The Hall, but whatever it is you are going to have to double it. This was BIG. I thought about going up the main steps, and pretending I was Anthony Hopkins in The Remains of the Day, but suspected that the servants' entrance would be more appropriate. I still wasn't entirely confident of being granted access. Tom, I think, fully assumed that this would be another occasion that he wouldn't get into Barton Turf.
Fortunately, the first person I bumped into was the Lay Minister's wife. She was lovely, and I was charming (I can be, you know) and I simply told her that her husband had said that if we called we could have the key to the church, which was true. And there it was - she placed the sacred object in my hand, and we were away.
Even then, I wasn't a hundred per cent sure. I once took a key to a church in Suffolk and spent twenty minutes trying to get in. It was a bog-standard Victorian church, and I wrenched my wrist trying to get the blessed thing to turn. In the end, I just gave up and took the key back - she was a frail little old lady, and if I couldn't open it I didn't feel I could ask her to try. But I had learned a lesson. I would not be confident of getting into Barton Turf until I was actually inside.
As I said earlier, Barton Turf's glory is its screen, and although the structure is not as magnificent as that at Ranworth, the paintings are, for my money, the best I've seen anywhere in England. There are actually two screens; the stunning twelve panel rood screen across the chancel arch, and a rather more primitive four panel parclose screen across the south aisle chapel.
The figures on the rood screen are astounding, gobsmacking. I really was stunned into silence, which isn't a thing that happens very often, I can tell you. The north range features St Apollonia with her pincers and tooth, St Sitha with her household keys, and then four of the orders of angels: Powers, Virtues, Dominions and Seraphim. Partnering this last, the south range begins with Cherubim, and then continues Principalities, Thrones, Archangels and Angels, before finishing with St Barbara holding her tower. The orders of angels can also be found over the border in Suffolk at Southwold, Hitcham and Blundeston, but nothing like as good quality. You can see them all below; my favourites are the three women, but notice also the monstrous creature at the feet of Powers (panel III), and the naked sinners cosying up to Angels (XI).
The south screen is curious. It features four kings, all easily recognisable - Henry VI (considered a Saint by many in the late Middle Ages, but the Reformation intervened before his canonisation) St Edmund, St Edward the Confessor, and St Olaf of Norway. The quality is nothing like that of the roodscreen, and I wondered if it had come from elsewhere originally.
Simon Knott, September 2004, updated and some photographs added 2013
You can also read: an introduction to amazing screens
an introduction to amazing screens
Barton Turf Catfield Irstead Ludham Ranworth Upton
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