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

St Leonard, Billingford

Billingford: an ancient treasure house in a beautiful hill top graveyard

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unfinished tower you reach it up a narrow track on a day in late spring there is bird song all about 
St Leonard, Billingford St Leonard, Billingford St Leonard, Billingford St Leonard, Billingford
St Leonard, Billingford St Leonard, Billingford St Leonard, Billingford St Leonard, Billingford

    St Leonard, Billingford
a windmill turning lazily in the valley below   If I told you that St Leonard is an ancient treasure house in a beautiful hill top graveyard, that you reach it up a narrow track, that on a day in late spring there is bird song all about and a windmill turning lazily in the valley below, it would make you want to visit it. If I told you that to get to the narrow track you would need to negotiate one of Norfolk's most hellish roads, the A143, with juggernauts hurtling towards the ports and cars overtaking crazily, it would probably make you less keen. At one time, the church was difficult to visit for another reason: incredibly, visitors, weren't welcome. When I first came this way in 2005, the Scole benefice had a reputation for not allowing keys to be borrowed. But all that has changed.

We headed back to Billingford in May 2007. We'd been border-hopping, working our way down the Waveney Valley visiting churches in both counties. We'd found all the Suffolk ones open, and standing in Oakley churchyard, gazing out across the valley to Billingford windmill, the copse of trees that enclose St Leonard's graveyard on the hill above seemed most enticing. We headed down the hill and across the narrow bridge, and climbed again the track to the church.

The pretty church revealed itself from behind the trees. The tower is capped slightly above nave level. Was it ever finished? Simon Cotton tells me that there was a bequest in 1527 for its construction - perhaps it was only begun before the Anglican Reformation intervened. The nave and chancel are a pleasing combination of Dec and Perp, and those big red roofs glowed handsomely in the sunshine that hadn't been predicted by the forecasters.

I was optimistic, and not just because of the sunny day. I had been told that, now, all the churches in the Scole benefice are either open or have keyholder notices. I think this may be due in part to the Diocese of Norwich having appointed an Open Churches Officer who happen to live in Scole. His name was Ralph Barnett, and although he had now moved onto another challenge he seemed to have made a big difference.

There had also been the appointment of a new and enthusiastic Rector to the Scole benefice. Quite by coincidence, we met both of them outside St Leonard; we parked on the grass verge, and found they were parked behind us.The Rector, a bluff Yorkshireman, answered our request for access with the question "why, are you collecting the silver?" to which the obvious answer was "yes, and we only need this one for the full set!". The freemasonry of English humour, which must baffle any foreigner, was complete.

For some reason, this exchange was enough for Ralph to recognise me. We'd previously had an e-mail correspondence. It is always reassuring to meet people who are enthusastic about the life of medieval churches, and Ralph's zeal is infectious. I could easily see how he had got the good people of the Waveney Valley thinking in a new way about how their church could provide a welcome.

  entrance

The great majority of Norfolk churches are, in fact, open every day, but those that are kept locked tend to huddle together as if in mutual misery - the area south of Norwich, the Thetford area, and, until recently, this place. It has to be said that St Leonard still isn't actually open, but it is certainly a step in the right direction to be let in without suspicion.

We stepped into a delightful, rural, rustic interior, quite the loveliest of little churches. It feels smaller inside than out. The 19th century restoration seems to have been more of a reordering than a refurbishing. The medieval font, in the typical East Anglian design, leads to medieval bench ends with grotesque faces on the poppyheads. An elegant 17th century font cover is matched by a pulpit of the same age on the other side of the range of benches.

bench end bench end bench end

Some ancient glass is largely heraldic, although there are fragments of other late medieval themes set around them. A great curiosity is the wall painting on the south wall. It appears to show several different scenes, perhaps once part of a larger scheme. In the clearest, several figures stand in a doorway. Could it be one of the Works of Mercy?

The pretty screen is very small, just two double lights either side of the centre, but it is imposing in this tiny space. The corbels that hold up the roofs are old too. It is all very pleasing; no outstanding treasures, but a harmonious whole bringing together elements of the late Medieval and the early Modern, crystallised sensitively by the Victorians. It is delightful.

One of the young men who set out from this tiny parish for the killing fields of the First World War received the Victoria Cross - as, indeed, did a soldier from neighbouring Scole. Billingford's was a man called Flowerdew, a name remembered elsewhere in the church from an earlier generation.

Mortlock became quite emotional about him, recalling Wilfred Owen's words Was it for this the clay grew tall? O what made fatuous sunbeams toil to break earth's sleep at all?

Even more moving than this is the framed photograph set on the font. Six of the young men of Billingford choir pose proudly in their uniforms before heading off to war. Only two survived: Sam Fisher and Leonard Bloomfield in the front row. The names of the other four are listed on the parish war memorial. Four out of six being killed may seem a lot, but this was roughly par for the course for the 'Old Contemptibles' who signed up at the very start of the First World War.

  a burr in the memory

Simon Knott, June 2005, updated May 2007

   

looking east looking west west end ancient glass
screen (detail) wall painting royal arms spring light
granted 10 screen Flowerdew after a few days illness
ancient door font font wild-haired corbel
Flowerdew font war memorial ancient glass
pulpit roll of honour de Grys inside looking out 

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