Beeston-next-Mileham Little Dunham Necton Wellingham

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

St Mary, Beeston-next-Mileham

Beeston-next-Mileham: seen from across the fields at Kempstone

Read the captions by hovering over the images, and click on them to see them enlarged.
Beeston-next-Mileham, July 14th 2007 Beeston-next-Mileham, July 14th 2007 An early summer afternoon Aisle from the east view from the lane
north porch graveyard Beeston-next-Mileham, July 14th 2007 signature on the iron gate

    St Mary, Beeston-next-Mileham
Gipsy Jem Mace, heavyweight champion of the world   I wanted to tell you about an impending disaster. Now, it seems, I can let you know of an act of salvation.

I first came here in June 2003. The early summer afternoon was wide and bright under the open Norfolk sky. All around, the countryside was burgeoning, shrugging off the last chills of the winter gone. A lark 'spiralled upwards in perfect pitch' as we snaked through the barley fields and copses on our narrow lanes, far from anywhere. A vale opened out to the north, and we skirted the top of it. Out there somewhere were Fakenham, and Walsingham and Binham, and Salthouse and Cley, the giants of north Norfolk, and beyond them somewhere the sea.

Halfway along a lane that seemed to exist for no reason at all, like a beacon against the north, we came to the hulk of St Mary, Beeston-next-Mileham. The village, or what remains of it, is a couple of miles off, so all we could hear was birdsong and the occasional distant grumble of sheep. Such large churches are, of course, not unusual in Norfolk, but it is uncommon to find one so remote from civilisation. Even Salle, famously the cathedral of the fields, has a cricket pitch and village hall beside it. Here, there was nothing, except us, the sheep and the warm windless air.

The banded brick spire is unusual both in design and in that it exists at all. It dates from the 1870s, replacing a more familiarly East Anglian spire and cupola that were destroyed in a storm. There is a brooding Victorian sadness about it, perfectly in keeping with the setting and interior, as we shall see.

The churchyard is fenced into sectors for grazing sheep, so you need to be quite athletic to do a circumnavigation of the church. When you do you can see that there was plenty of money here in the early 14th and early 15th centuries. Before the Black Death they built the tower and aisles, and perhaps a clerestory. A hundred years later the roof and present clerestory were added, and the tower refashioned. The whole piece just sits there now, as if for hundreds of years it has been waiting for something to happen.

You enter through the north porch, and you will need to find out the combination of the key lock in the porch from a churchwarden first. This seemed to me a sensible way of ordering things in such a remote place, so that regular visitors can come and go as they please, while new visitors must make themselves known.

The interior is breathtaking. Quite literally. I suffer with athsma, and had not stepped into such a damp church before. The brick floor at the west end of the nave is green; beautiful, but deadly. Even the font has begun to succumb. I had to concentrate on my breathing. And yet I would not have wanted you to think that this felt like a neglected church; rather, it seemed as though organic, at one with the land around and beneath it. Above, the glorious 15th century hammer beam roof and the contemporary benches were silvery with age. At least one of our party found it a sad place, and I too felt infected with a brooding that comes with grief at a loss. But it is, undoubtedly, beautiful.

the rood screen font south parclose

Above the chancel arch, the window that back-lit the rood has been filled with garish purple glass, very curious and more than a bit unfortunate. There was a fashion for this kind of glass at a certain point in the late 19th century (at its worst, see Wiveton). Below it, there is a pair of unusual scrolls, a rectangular space between them. This was the setting for the royal arms, now preserved in the south aisle. At the time a set of arms was first put in place, a man called John Forbye donated a set of stalls. these have gone, but the Latin inscription remembering the event remains.

The Victorians made do and mended here rather than indulging in a full-scale restoration. But in such a big church with such a sparse congregation, that would have been expensive, and so Beeston, like Blythburgh and Salthouse, benefited from the mercy of neglect. In a busier place, they would probably have repaired the rood screen, which looks very odd with the spikes of its coving sticking up into thin air. It is a strange delight, the carvings including mythical creatures and a mythical Saint, St George. The panels, in which the figures are set curiously in a courtyard with a brick wall behind and gardens beyond, include a touching St Agnes, and the parclose screens offset the whole of the east end in a charming way. This church is not redundant, but it already felt like a Churches Conservation Trust church, as if this was the best way of maintaining buildings like this one. It was hard to imagine a service taking place here, but they still did, in the chancel apparently, several times a month.

Screen, north I,II Screen north, III (St Agnes), IV the view east Screen south, V, VI Screen south, VII, VIII

Done, we set off in the direction of the Dunhams, a gentle return to the 21st century from this place apart. And yet, this parish has touched the modern world at least once in a brash and unexpected way. Beeston-next-Mileham was the birthplace of 'Gipsy' Jem Mace, heavyweight boxing champion of the world in the 1870s. He spent most of his life in America, and is buried in Liverpool, but a stone here remembers him; and Mortlock was delighted to discover, across the path, another headstone to a certain 'Henry Cooper'. Serendipity. And all about, the silence continued.

In late May 2005, I visited this church again. It was almost exactly two years later. A new sign on the gate said that the church is no longer opened except when someone is in attendance; it suggested that visitors should come to a service if they want to see inside. The reason it gave was a series of thefts; but when we let ourselves in there appeared to be a more likely reason.

It seemed to me that nothing had been done here at all since my last visit, except that all the benches and parclose screens have been roped off as dangerous. The woodwork is in a terrible state. It seemed that nothing has been cleaned for several years; the benches were filthy, spattered with bird mess, and there are bat droppings all around. The floors are damper than two years previously. The 15th century crocketted font cover is still under the tower. St Mary is suffering serious neglect, and I imagine that visitors are being kept out for their own safety, because it really is a health hazard.

As the Church of England undergoes a period of managed decline, it has generally been careful to safeguard the future of its less necessary buildings. I have to say that this is not happening here. For whatever reason, what appears to be a slow withdrawal from this church is making it increasingly vulnerable.

Thanks to the ban on visitors, there are now few names in the visitors book compared with two years ago. The visitors before us, some six weeks previously, wrote simply Please save this church! Someone wrote to me recently suggesting that part of the blame must be put at the feet of the Church Society Trust, who present to the living here. But in my experience, such thorough-going evangelicals would at least make an effort to keep the place clean; after all, cleanliness is next to...

A reminder of former glories can still be found in a frame on the north wall. Some ten years ago, this church was the venue for a concert given by Dame Kiri Te Kanawa in the presence of the Prince of Wales. Hard to imagine, now.

And then, in March 2006 I received a message from Mike Simpkins, a member of the churchcrawler yahoogroup. He wrote I visited yesterday and allowed myself two hours to do everything I could to gain access ( am trying to visit all 1000 of Simon Jenkins amongst others) but had low expectations. Anyway I found the church door unlocked and surveyors in attendance discussing the major renovations about to start.Whilst there is still no public access apart from services and little to see as everything apart from the chancel, where all services are held is sheeted, there is a plan and apparently a 2 year timescale for a major repair.

In April 2006, Tom and I visited, and found work well underway. I took these photographs below, deciding to come back and check on progress later in the year.

Beeston-next-Mileham, 12th April 2006 Beeston-next-Mileham, 12th April 2006 Beeston-next-Mileham, 12th April 2006 Beeston-next-Mileham, 12th April 2006

In the end, it was more than a year until I came back to Beeston-next-Mileham. In July 2007, one of the rare days of that month which was dry, and the sun shone, Peter and I took the lonely road from Great Dunham. In the distance, the treetops around ruined Kempstone boiled in the clean light, and a rooftop towards Mileham gleamed.

Beeston-next-Mileham, July 14th 2007: Looking up - nave roof.   We arrived at the church to find a heavy duty metal barrier across the graveyard entrance, and although this could be easily circumnavigated, a notice board just beyond it halted us. WARNING, it read. IMAGES AND/OR SOUND ARE BEING RECORDED FOR THE PURPOSE OF CRIME PREVENTION AND YOUR PERSONAL SAFETY. Above, another sign reminded us that a repair grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund was helping pay for repairs, but there was no actual reminder to keep out. The graveyard was beginning to show the signs of several years of neglect, although a swathe had been mown down by the road where the new graves are.

Building work seemed even more entrenched. Within the south porch, the floor had been removed and was covered with what looked like rather precarious boarding.

There were channels being dug outside the church, presumably for drainage. We let ourselves into the church, into that familiar Beeston-next-Mileham smell of warm earth and damp. The nave was as full of scaffolding as it had been more than a year previously, although now all the plastic protective wrapping on the woodwork and font had been removed, and was draped on the scaffolding above. Much work seemed to be still afoot, and looking up the ceiling was completely obscured by boarding.

Beeston-next-Mileham, July 14th 2007 Beeston-next-Mileham, July 14th 2007 Beeston-next-Mileham, July 14th 2007 Beeston-next-Mileham, July 14th 2007

St Mary has always felt sad to me, and now, after several years of first neglect, then traumatic repair, it seemed sadder than ever - I might almost have wished it back to when I first saw it in 2003, obviously unloved, but still so beautiful. The chancel is obviously still in use, although there was much more dust around than there had been the last time we'd been there. For the first time, I feared for the screens in the north and south aisles, although I'm sure the contractors know what they are doing.

Outside, I gazed from the lonely road northwards, watching the Breckland become High Norfolk. It is one of my favourite places in England. It'll be interesting to go back soon and find out what is happening.


Simon Knott, November 2004, updated April 2006, July 2007

You can also read: With Giants around Swaffham


Some of the photos on this entry are from pre-digital camera days.
I'm gradually updating on later visits, although I think it will be a while before there is easy access to the main screen again.

How did the Devil come? Flutter and bear him up the Norfolk sky

north aisle screen north aisle screen tracery
Looking east, the Reformation divide above the chancel arch. The northern parclose The spiky screen South parclose Figure in a wall post north arcade and door
Bier in the south aisle Medieval benches with pierced tracery in the back John Forbye memorial
St George slaying dragons St Agnes with her lamb Return benches in the north aisle chapel


Beeston-next-Mileham Little Dunham Necton Wellingham

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