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

St Peter, Brunstead

Brunstead

Brunstead

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    St Peter, Brunstead

Brunstead, also known somewhat confusingly as Brumstead, is a small parish without a village just to the north of Stalham on the edge of the Broads. It largely consists of woodland and narrow lanes, but is bisected by the busy Stalham to Mundesley road. The first time I ever came here was with the late Tom Muckley back in 2008. To be honest, we had been looking for a pub. Oh, we also planned to visit St Peter, because we knew it was somewhere in the area, but both of us had left our OS maps at home, and so we thought a gentle pint to collect our thoughts might be in order. I knew that Ingham was also somewhere near, and that the Woodforde's Brewery had recently taken on the Swan Inn there, and so that seemed ideal. But while we negotiated the narrow lanes, a rather handsome church tower hove into view. It was grander than I expected, for it must be said that Brunstead is not usually accounted one of East Anglia's finer churches, but the setting is lovely, up a farm track in the woods, with just the grand pile of Brumstead Hall for company.

Coming back in June 2019 I once again came to a halt to the west of the church, taking in its loveliness. There was the Hall with the church beyond, the gardens immaculate, the tower of the church rising behind them. It was just about perfect, like something out of The Go-Between. For a moment, it seemed as if I had been transported back in time to before the First World War.

In 2008 we had found the church locked, most unusually for this area, and I have to say I was rather looking forward to getting the key again, for back then the keyholder notice had directed me to the Hall. I had wandered up the long drive, and coming towards me had been an old fellow pushing a wheelbarrow. I kid you not, he was the absolute spit of Paul Whitehouse's majestic Ted character in The Fast Show. I asked him where the key was, and he stopped, took his cap off, wiped his brow, and said thoughtfully "Arh, the missus is up in the conservatory". I can't do him justice, he was splendid. I'd walked on, and a very nice lady had given me the key. I looked into the Hall grounds, but the gardener was now nowhere to be seen - had I imagined him? Had it really happened? If I went for the key would I still see him pushing that wheelbarrow up the drive? However, much to my disappointment the church was open.

The grand porch is of a piece with the tower. Sam Mortlock notes that the style, unusually for Norfolk, is early Perpendicular, while the body of the church is late Decorated. This suggests that the church was built in what was effectively one long campaign, punctuated by the horror of the Black Death. I have to say that coming back I found the church something of a contrast with the tidy splendour of the Hall. The tussocky grass had obviously been cut earlier in the year, but was unkempt without being one of the churchyard conservation areas that were common all across East Anglia this summer. The porch was full of dead leaves from last year. A greening of moss coloured part of the thatched roof of the porch, and there was more moss and grass growing out of the brick buttresses. There was a feeling of, not abandonment exactly, but as if nothing much had happened here in the eleven years since my last visit. As if, indeed, the church had stood here all that time waiting for me to come back. For a moment I shivered involuntarily in the warm sunshine.

I had remembered the interior of St Peter as being almost entirely early Victorian. There was a restoration in the 1830s and then another in the 1870s which had left what Mortlock described in the 1980s as a bleak, bare interior. Certainly, nobody would describe St Peter as grand or lovely, but I remembered that there had been a rustic simplicity to it, and that it had felt well-looked after and loved. I turned the handle of the door, and stepped down inside.

Even as my eyes became accustomed to the dim light I could see that the story of outside was repeated within. Dead leaves were scattered over the west end of the nave, and a dead jackdaw lay on its back below the tower arch. The green of damp was rising in the walls and through the pamments of the brick floors. Over the benches there were woven what seemed magical skeins of spiders' webs, like something out of a fairy tale, as if the church were asleep.

What had happened here? Or rather, what hadn't, for it became clear to me that no one now cared for this church in the way they had eleven years earlier, and perhaps there was no one left who could, or at least who had the means or will to do so. The church hadn't been abandoned, it was clear that the occasional service still took place here. It was more as if there had been a slow retreat, what Matthew Arnold called a melancholy, long, withdrawing roar. At the east end, St Peter and St John, the work of the Norwich-based J & J King workshop in the 1870s, look down seriously on this silence. The same workshop's coloured quarries beneath the tower cast an almost dream-like light over the 14th Century font, sole survivor of this place's long medieval generations. There is no electricity, and the oil lamps that hang from the ceiling and rise from the benches echo the age of the church's restoration perfectly.

It all made me feel a bit serious, if I'm honest. I wandered around for a while finding things I remembered from before. What a perfect setting, I thought, for Brunstead's memorial to the dead of the Great War. I don't recall ever seeing another one quite like it. In white marble on black, an open book lies beneath a marble wreath. The eight names of the lost boys are inscribed on the left hand page, while on the right is the roll of honour of twenty other boys who went to fight and were lucky to come back. Almost a third of them lost, then, about average for a rural English parish. Presumably most of them worked for the Brumstead Hall estate. Their surnames show the extended families typical of an intensely rural parish at the start of the old century - two Birds, four Bullocks, four Gladdens, three Grimmers. It would be hard to imagine that you could find so many young men living in the parish today.

Before leaving, I had another look at the memorial to Charlotte Comyn, who died at the age of 73 in 1848. It doesn't tell us much about her, other than that she was amiable in person... and much respected for her good sense, but it does mention that her husband Stephen was chaplain to Lord Nelson, and was with him at the Battle of the Nile and Copenhagen. I closed the door behind me, and left them to their sleep.

Simon Knott, September 2019

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looking east looking west
font and tower arch chancel St Peter and St John chaplain to Lord Nelson
The men of Brunstead who fell on land and sea in the Great War

   

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