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

St Mary, Bridgham


Bridgham Bridgham Bridgham

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St Mary, Bridgham

Bridgham is one of those sprawling Norfolk villages a little off the beaten track which are always a pleasure to visit. And St Mary too, is a delight, and rather different to most other medieval churches in appearance. Its pleasing and curious shape is a result of the buffeting of the centuries. The tower has gone, and the west end now sports a high dutch-style gable with a bell turret. There is an imposing red-brick and flushwork porch in what can only be described as in a Suffolk style, and the chancel has been rebuilt higher than the nave. Its red tiles contrast with the slates of the nave to create an overall effect which I liked very much. As I say, it is quite unusual. The narrow upright lines that survive on the west wall suggest that this was a round tower, and the filled-in tower arch shows that it was probably of the 13th century. Altogether, this is a quirky, homely exterior, and that porch is really quite something.

It had been ten years since my previous visit, but I still remembered what a friendly lot they had been here. I'd come on a Historic Churches Bike Ride day, so it was a little disappointing to turn up now and find the church locked, though there was a keyholder notice which directed me down a long, long shingle drive beside the churchyard, crunch, crunch, crunch. I eventually reached the back door of a large house and rang the bell. Riiiiiiiiing. I waited. No one came. I waited some more. Still no one came. So, disappointingly, back up the drive, crunch, crunch, crunch. I'd gone about fifty yards I suppose, before I heard a loud shout behind me - 'Oi!'. So I turned back. 'I thought I heard flat feet!' said a tall gentleman in his seventies I suppose, dressed for gardening. I explained my mission. 'The missus isn't in', he said, 'but I can go and have a rummage. I shall have to come to the church with you!'. He went off into the house to have a rummage, shutting the door behind him.

As he did so, a car pulled up the shingle drive, parked, and a lady got out. I explained my mission again. 'Oh dear!' she said, ' I'm terribly sorry, but I've been away and I lent the key to someone and they haven't given it back!'. She explained where I could find the lady she had lent the key to. 'it's about a hundred yards up the road, it's the only bungalow!'. I explained that her husband was currently 'rummaging' for the key. She thought for a moment. 'He's not my husband, he's my gardener.'

Apologising profusely and stifling my embarrassment, I set off a hundred yards down the road into what turned out to be a sea of bungalows. After about four hundred yards I reach the one I was looking for. Riiiiing. The door was answered by a very jolly lady. 'The lady in the Old Rectory tells me that if I call here you'll give me the church key,' I said. 'Does she now!' replied the jolly lady. And she gave me the key quite happily, even though she didn't know me from Adam and she wasn't one of the people on the keyholder notice. Furthermore, she thankfully didn't come to the church with me.

Bridgham has one of the most interesting fonts in Norfolk. It is made of a white, chalky stone, and has traces of its original colour. It appears eroded as much as defaced, and is remarkable for two of its panels. That to the west shows the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin. This is very rare, and only occurs twice elsewhere on a font in East Anglia, at Great Witchingham church in Norfolk and at St Matthew's church in Ipswich in Suffolk.

font: Assumption of the Blessed Virgin into heaven

The Bridgham font font (L-R): angel holding a shield with the arms of the Diocese of Ely, Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, angel holding a shield with the arms of the Archdiocese of Canterbury font: seated bishop
font: God the Father holding the crucified Christ Bridgham font: angel holding shield of the Holy Trinity

The Assumption was the great late summer feast of the late medieval Catholic Church in England. Its celebration on August 15th coincided with the height of the harvest. Perhaps two hundred churches in East Anglia were dedicated to the Assumption. However, it was heavily frowned upon by the protestant reformers, and the Assumption does not figure in Anglican doctrine or in its liturgical year except for the churches in the Anglo-Catholic tradition. The medieval image of the Assumption is consequently one of the most haunting of survivals. It rarely survived at all in glass, but can be found in stone bosses in Several Norfolk churches, including Walpole St Peter and Wymondham Abbey.

The eastern panel has another rare image, that of the Holy Trinity. This is the traditional medieval composition of an old man as God the Father, holding the crucified Christ as the Son, with a dove descending to represent the Holy Spirit. This is found on a couple of other East Anglian fonts, most famously at Acle, and also occasionally in stained glass. Seated clerics on two panels may have been the donors of the font. Other panels feature angels holding shields of the Holy Trinity, the Instruments of the Passion, the Diocese of Ely and the Archdiocese of Canterbury.

The double piscina and sedilia are rather good, too. The other medieval survival of significance here is the dado of the rood screen, painted in red, green and gold with simple patterns. It must have been a very sturdy example when it was complete. Tucked behind it, a 15th Century bench end has been reused for a chair built into the back of it. It is inscribed to Thomas Watson and Alys his wyf. A bequest from Thomas and Alice Watson left the money for the rood screen in 1475.

An overpowering scheme of glass was installed in the chancel in the 1870s, and a more restrained later window of 1900 is signed by AL Moore. More memorably, at the west end of the church are the two surviving figures of Aaron and Moses from the old decalogue boards, apparently now in use as the doors of a cupboard. They look very grand and austere.

Simon Knott, November 2020

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Bridgham Bridgham The Bridgham font
John Watson And Alys hys Wyf Aaron and Moses (18th Century, now cupboard doors) Bridgham
Faith and Hope Living water/Of such is the Kingdom, 1870s The host of heaven Jesus saith unto them follow me (AL Moore, 1900) Of such is the Kingdom (detail, 1870s)


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