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

St Nicholas, Blakeney

Blakeney

lantern tower Blakeney the other tower
'flutter and bear him up the Norfolk sky' big blue

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St Nicholas, Blakeney    

The north Norfolk coast is studded with memories of its seafaring past, and Blakeney is perhaps the most atmospheric of the little towns and villages that cluster around the Glaven. It is easy to conjure up in your mind the busy, wealthy port as it was in the late medieval period. Blakeney haven was fed by creeks that allowed ships to berth in Cley, Wiveton and Salthouse, but these were allowed to silt up in the 17th Century when the demand for cloth exports collapsed and grazing for the London market became a profitable alternative. Till then, Dutch must have been heard in the streets almost as often as English was, as hard-nosed men of business paved the way out of the Middle Ages into protestantism and capitalism.

The church stands distant from all this, high up on the edge of the town looking down on it. Pevsner thought it a masculine, somewhat forbidding church, and it is certainly large and muscular. Perhaps its brooding nature arises because the church sits close to the southern edge of its churchyard, so any view of it is inevitably from the north with the sun behind it. The nave and tower are big-boned Perpendicular of the 15th Century, the tower fully a hundred feet high, but the chancel is of an earlier period, elegant Early English, although later refacing hides this from the outside. A kind of reskinning of the building took place in the 1880s, the nave in flint and the chancel in cement, a not uncommon approach where the structure was basically sound, but the materials were succumbing to damp.

The first reaction on seeing the building, of course, is that it has two towers, a 'proper' one at the west and a curious, spindly beacon rising to the south-east of the chancel. This has been adapted to hold a light, and perhaps that is what it was always for, so that a ship coming into the now-silted up harbour could use the two towers to navigate home. I like to think that it might have served as a sanctus bell turret too. The east window has seven lights, one of only two such 13th Century windows in England. A small window above the seven lights lets into the area above the vaulting, the location of the crime in Ian Sansom's recent very funny novel A Norfolk Mystery. A surprise on seeing it from the inside is that the chancel is fully vaulted, most unusual in East Anglia. This Early English grandeur may have survived because there was a Carmelite priory here at Blakeney, and although the chancel slightly predates the establishment of the priory they may well have had use of the chancel as their own buildings fell into decay. No trace of the priory survives in situ, although fragmentary remains appear to be built into some local houses.

You enter the church through a surprisingly humble north porch and step into a large, wide interior that is quite different in character to its near neighbours Cley and Salthouse because the north aisle is glazed with a sequence of windows by Powell & Son, the largest collection by the firm in Norfolk. They were installed in the first few years of the 20th Century when there was a major makeover here which also brought the screen. The furnishings of the nave had come about twenty years earlier. It seems likely that the second restoration was a result of the parish fully embracing the Anglo-Catholic tradition, of which there are a number of survivals including devotional statues, but even more than this the main impression is of a grand town church, urban and perhaps a bit self-important, but with echoes and resonances of the its parish over the centuries. There is some good if fragmentary Norwich School glass of the 15th Century in the north aisle, including some survivals of the Orders of Angels an a memorable fragment of Christ arising from his tomb at the Resurrection. A couple of misericords set in the chancel may be survivals of the Carmelite Priory.

It's possible to go up the tower if you arrive on the right day of the week (their website has the details) and few Norfolk churchyards are so rewarding for exploration. Inscriptions I found in just a brief wander include that to John Easter who was drowned February 9th 1861, was washed on shore November 2nd 1861, aged 37 years. I with seven others went our fellow men to save, a heavy sea upset our boat, we met a watery grave and then a bit further on I came across ye bodys of William and Thomas Grix marriners. Thomas died in Febry ye 10 in 1742:3 aged 20 years. William died August ye 30 in 1750 aged 30 years. Tho Boreas winds & Neptunes waves have tost us to & fro, in spite of fate by God's decree we harbor safe below. This is a lively parish, and everything comes together here to make a church which is fun to visit, full of interest, and devotional too.

Simon Knott, March 2022

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looking east chancel
north aisle chapel south aisle chapel St Uriel, St Michael, St Gabriel, St Raphael (Powell & Sons) Blakeney
font: seated cleric with a book between evangelistic symbols of St John and St Luke font: seated cleric with a scroll between evangelistic symbols of St Mark and St John RNLI window (Jane Gray, 2002)
angel with a creed scroll orders of angels (15th Century) angel with a creed scroll
fragments Resurrection (15th Century) fragments
St Alban, St Germanus, St Lupus, St Ninian (Powell & Sons) St Columbus, St Oswald, St Aidan, St Cuthbert (Powell & Sons) St Catherine of Siena, St Theresa, St Agnes, St Bridget of Sweden (Powell & Sons) St Augustine, Queen Bertha, St Ethelbert, St Paulinus (Powell & Sons) St Wilfred, Abbot Theodore, Venerable Bede, St Hilda (Powell & Sons)
The Absolution of King Henry II (Powell & Sons) misericord The Martyrdom of St Thomas a Becket (Powell & Sons)
Jane Gray 2002 hic jacet St Elizabeth of Hungary

hour glass and waves drowned, washed on shore the two wives of Charles Dack

   
   
               
                 

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