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St Nicholas, Bradwell
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St Nicholas is a substantial church in a wide graveyard, and must have been quite imposing when it was surrounded by fields. The trees that knew those times still shroud it sadly, and it was like being somewhere long ago: one hung its boughs over a large memorial to the family of a former rector, and a robin watched us quizzically from a lichened headstone. Walking around to the north side, however, we saw a large modern extension built on to the former north doorway. Such things are relatively common, and this one works quite well, if a little stiff and over-polite. It is certainly an improvement on the one at Belton, a couple of miles off.
We went inside. "Oh!" said a surprised voice as I pushed the door wide open, and then "Hello!". I looked around, and for a moment there was nobody: but then I turned, to see two old ladies sitting behind the doorway. The one who had greeted us smiled sweetly; the other sat a little more sternly, perhaps suspicious of the motives of two men in the middle of the day wandering into a church.
"Can we look around?" I asked. "Of course", said the smiling one. I explained that we were really pleased, and perhaps a little surprised, to find the church open. It turned out that they have recently started opening it every Wednesday afternoon, on the off-chance, perhaps in response to the Bishop of Norwich's plea for all the churches in the Diocese to be open to strangers and pilgrims.
"Do you get many visitors?" I asked. The two ladies looked at each other. "No, you're the first!" laughed our cheerful host. Her companion watched us warily as we examined the font, which is particularly characterful, and not a little interesting: for example, it bears clear signs of attempted iconoclasm. On one of the faces, a chunk of metal was imbedded in the winged lion of St Mark. I assume that it is the head of an axe or pick which has broken off. It probably dates from the 17th century. Puritan attacks on fonts of this kind are familiar in the area south of Bury St Edmunds, but it was the first time I had seen it up here. Paradoxically, it generally occured in churches where the Anglican reformers of a century earlier had not been enthusiastic enough in effacing or disguising imagery.
Bradwell church is substantially restored, and bears a huge imprint of the late 19th century. Cautley could find little to say about it. And yet, it is atmospheric and of interest. Perhaps this is a result of not being well-known, and rarely visited (although not as rarely visited as Belton). Perhaps the most interesting feature is a window on the south side. It dates from the 1930s, but looks older. It is a memorial to John and Christine Fellows, a brother and sister who ran a shipbuilding business on Southtown Road in Yarmouth. They provided the ships used by William Grenfell on his expeditions to Labrador in what is now Canada. Grenfell was an evangelical doctor, a medical missionary, who was well known in late-Victorian England, and accorded hero status. His expeditions to look after, and convert, the fishermen of Labrador, who he refered to as 'English-speaking people of our own race', were as avidly followed in the press as the adventures of Cecil Rhodes. Grenfell lived to a ripe old age, and did not die until 1940. It's curious to see a memorial to two people with imagery from the life of someone else.
Bradwellians of an earlier time are remembered up in the chancel. This is the memorial to William Vesey, who died in 1644. Again, it looks the work of half a century earlier. Improbably, it was brightly coloured by the hands of two local art students in the 1960s, and the blue and white of the framing creates an unfortunate wedding cake effect. Below the Vesey memorial are unusual communion rails. They depict sea monsters and cherubs, an unlikely thing to find in a church. They may originally have been stair banisters or balcony rails, from some great country house when it was rebuilt in the Victorian period, quite possibly Somerleyton Hall. They seem to date from the late 17th or possibly 18th century.
Wandering around, I increasingly felt a sense of being in a church which was once very busy, but which today finds itself slightly beached as the tide of Anglicanism has retreated. The 19th century restoration left it with an urban feel, so it is with some irony that the growth of Yarmouth has stifled the rural nature of its parish, leaving the church beleaguered. And yet, the interior has a certain gravitas which is missing from many of the churches around here.
Simon Knott, July 2008
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