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

All Saints, Bawdeswell

Bawdeswell

south doorway this stone was laid

    All Saints, Bawdeswell
crucifixion (Continental, late 20th Century copy)  

Nothing lasts forever. At a quarter nine in the evening of the 6th November 1944, a Mosquito bomber returning home from a raid on Gelsenkirken iced up as it descended through cloud near the small Norfolk town of East Dereham. The plane came spiralling down towards the Norwich to Fakenham road, and crashed right into the middle of the village of Bawdeswell. Fortuitously, it landed right on the village church, which it completely destroyed. The wrecked building had been an early Victorian church by John Brown, which itself had replaced an 18th century mock-classical building. The tower of the medieval All Saints had collapsed into the church and destroyed it in 1739. As often in East Anglia, neglect of a structure principally built of flint had led to its demise.

Over the centuries, English parish churches have always been extensively rebuilt, but the process just continued for longer at Bawdeswell than it did elsewhere. When the villagers came to choose a design for their new church, we may assume that they at least looked at something modernist - this was, after all, the 1950s, and the Festival of Britain was encouraging the clean lines and light spaces that would flush away the neurotic elaboration and darkness of much of the architecture of the first half of the century. Barely a hundred miles off, one of the great buildings of the century was going up in Coventry, where the city's cathedral, formerly the parish church of St Michael, had been gutted in the blitz.

It is worth pointing out that many surviving early 19th century parish churches like the one destroyed by the returning bomber have not worn well. Coming before the flowering of that century's architecture, they tend to be dark and dingy, their fittings are anachronistic, even absurd, and there is no reason to think the parishioners of Bawdeswell had a special fondness for the lost building. Indeed, what they chose to replace it seems almost a direct reaction. Rejecting both Gothic and Modernist forms, they chose something that is basically neo-classical, in the style of the 18th century but perhaps also with the flavour of New England. The materials, if you please, would not be concrete and steel but Norfolk flint and shingle.

The church sits near the centre of the village, set back politely from the street behind a small green and what appears to be intended as a carriage drive. A number of the old headstones were reset on the western side of the churchyard, and another intriguing survival is a large cross set up beside the porch. It's inscription reads When this church was destroyed on November 6th 1944 this cross remained standing on top of the bell tower. The cross was originally erected in loving memory of John Romer Gurney who died March 29th 1932.

All Saints has the homogenity that echoes the restored Wren City of London churches. The mock-classical portal, which should overwhelm, doesn't. The bell fleche and clock stage were completed in the 1990s, and you step inside to a space full of light, the simple wooden furnishings splendid under the mainly clear glass set with roundels and panels of continental glass, some 17th Century, some 20th Century copies.

Last Supper (Continental, 17th Century) Crucifixion (Continental, 20th Century copy) Ascension of Christ  (Continental, 17th Century)
Christ clearing out the moneylenders (Continental, 20th Century copy) Crucifixion (Continental, 20th Century copy) Delilah cuts the hair of Samson (Continental, 17th Century)

The architect was James Fletcher Watson who, in his nineties, could return to the fiftieth anniversary celebrations, and survey his work with pride. At the time it was built, and in the decade or so afterwards, his work here was scoffed at as being in what Betjeman once described as 'ghastly good taste', but the fact is that it has stood the test of time very well indeed. At this distance, there is a Festival of Britain cleanness and light to its lines, and although it is a very simple building it resists the blandness that would emerge in the 1980s shopping-centre-school of neo-classical, as found at, say, Quinlan Terry's Brentwood Cathedral.

To emphasise the early 18th Century intentions of the interior, Fletcher Watson insisted on a three decker pulpit, which the parish were at first uncertain about. They gave in when he designed one that could be easily dismantled if necessary, and there it is, still in place today. An organ gallery is tightly crammed into the west end, perhaps the only not-entirely happy moment of the interior, but in any case the eye is quickly drawn to the grandeur of the column-flanked apse, the altar serious and alone in the stark whiteness. One touching memorial records the plane crash itself, recording the names of James Maclean and Melvin Tansley, the pilot and co-pilot. It is made from a piece of the recovered fuselage.

The overall cost of the rebuilding and furnishings was slightly less than 20,000, about half a million in today's money, which seems very reasonable. Most of it came from the War Damage Reparations Fund.

In fact, no East Anglian parish church destroyed in the Second World War would be replaced by a determinedly modern, or modernist, building. Some were not replaced at all of course, for there seemed little point in rebuilding those lost in the Norwich blitz. The city already had enough little-used worship spaces.

Where churches were replaced, there was usually a looking back to what was there before. At Chelmondiston in Suffolk for example, Basil Hatcher replaced the destroyed church in textbook Decorated Gothic. More famously, at Great Yarmouth, the vast civic church of St Nicholas was rebuilt by the eccentric Stephen Dykes Bower as if none of the centuries from the 16th and 20th had even happened.

And so in retrospect it was never likely that the Bawdeswell parishioners would be feverishly dialling up the steel and concrete manufacturers. And yet neither had they any reason to mourn for the building they had lost. What they chose instead is rather wonderful. All Saints is a cool, bright, welcoming place, a refreshing delight, a must see.

  killed when their Mosquito aircraft destroyed Bawdeswell church

Simon Knott, March 2018

   

looking east font, 20th Century
looking east looking west three decker pulpit sanctuary arch sanctuary
when this church was destroyed this cross remained standing on top of the bell tower triple decker pulpit, 20th Century hymns & psalms when this church was destroyed this cross remained standing on top of the bell tower
skull and foliage incised spirals, 1757 coffin on a tombchest flanked by a lily and a rose

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