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

St John the Baptist, Bressingham

Bressingham: most impressive

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tower south porch west door spiky

    St John the Baptist, Bressingham
sanctus turret   This big church sits just to the south of the busy Diss to Thetford road, but the graveyard is also a big place, making the south side of the church secluded and secretive. A narrow, windy lane leads up to the west of the church, completing the feel of a rural space. As you step through the gateway, a recent gravestone inscription to the 99 year old Alan Bloom records that He made things grow, a lovely sentiment.

Looking up beyond the magnificent clerestory, the sanctus bell turret survives on the eastern gable of the nave, above the point from which it could be rung at the consecration of the Mass in England's Catholic days.

What is most impressive about the clerestory is its individual windows. There are eight of them on each side, and each window is in a two light traceried late Perpendicular pattern. It is a mark of a very late rebuilding here, in 1527, the older tower and chancel being incorporated into the magnificent new structure.

This is a part of Norfolk where there are many large churches, urban and triumphal in style, but in almost every case they remain full of character despite the tendency of the Victorians to make proper town churches of buildings on such a scale. St John the Baptist does not have the urban, anonymous feel that you might fear, and you step into a neatly kept, obviously well loved, rural space. The care obviously lavished here belies what is a verey small congregation, who should be congratulated.

Bressingham has one of those churches which is full of interesting little details, but perhaps the most significant, and certainly not little, is the fine collection of benches. They were made for the new nave, and have a style that is tantalisingly poised on the edge of what would have been the English Renaissance, if the the Reformation hadn't intervened. Instead, the stately homes of England benefited from this great flowering of decorative art, while our churches suffered the dumbing down of Protestantism. Under the circumstances, these are remarkable survivals.

Heraldic lions and bears assert themselves confidently at the top of bench ends replete in flowing foliage. On one, what appears at first to be a woman in armour is probably an angel with a sword, almost certainly St Michael, has lost his face to puritan righteousness, and another angel with a scroll was almost certainly St Gabriel, and part of an Annunciation set. Smaller bench ends must once have included a set of the Seven Works of Mercy: feeding the hungry and visiting the prisoner are both still discernible.

  St Michael?

In terms of medieval splendour, these bench ends aren't as spectacular as some of Norfolk's more famous sets - Wiggenhall St Mary and Wiggenhall St Germans, for example - but they are a precious survival of the English Church before it swallowed itself, and as such deserve to be as well known as the Trunch font canopy, the Walsoken font and the Oxborough tombs.

English Renaissance English Renaissance part of a work of mercy? St Gabriel?
English Renaissance feeding the hungry? visiting the prisoner?

There are scatterings of medieval glass, a fine and unusual Charles II royal arms, some unusual early 19th century glass, a set of stocks and a funeral bier, all giving a sense of church with a character all of its own. One thing you might miss, though, if you did not know it was there, is the little barrel organ in one corner of the nave. There are only about half a dozen of these left in East Anglia; a metal cyclinder is loaded into the back and turned, little teeth operating pipes to play a tune. The beauty of it was that barrels were obtainable for both sacred and secular tunes, allowing the organ to be used both in the church and on the village green. Perhaps the mingling of these worlds helped create the late 19th century enthusiasm for new hymns and new tunes, leading to the development of the English Hymnal and Hymns Ancient and Modern - a new renaissance of a different kind, perhaps.


Simon Knott, January 2007

looking east chancel looking west stocks
porch window porch window font St Paul and St Peter Mary, Queen of Heaven
porch window (detail) Charles II royal arms St John the Baptist and Christ the Saviour of the World Lamb of God
Elizabeth Mary, Queen of Heaven Elizabeth Susannah
bier this organ organ barrel barrel organ instructions 
bear barrel organ 


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