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St Mary, Burgh-next-Aylsham
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Burgh-next-Aylsham probably seems a busy little place if you approach it from east or west along the busy Aylsham to Wroxham road; but I have never done this. If you come down the narrow lane through the Tuttington woods out of high Norfolk, you get a quite different impression, crossing the main road being the only sign of civilisation before you get to the church. Better still, across the water meadows of the Bure from Brampton to the south; no traffic here, just footpaths and footbridges over the lazy river as it meanders pointlessly between the two villages. When a church has a fine setting, I do tend to go on a bit about it, reaching for the Oxford Book of Extravagant Adjectives; here, I will merely say that the view of St Mary across the river from the south is one of the finest of any church in East Anglia, and you should go and see it if you can.
But there is more. You will need to cross the river, and go into St Mary, for there are two features here that make it a visit essential. One of them is the seven sacraments font, one of 22 in Norfolk, one of less than 40 in the whole country. These fonts date from the 15th century, at a time when local landed families were trying to assert the official doctrine of the Catholic Church in the face of local superstitions and abuses. One way of doing this was to bequeath money in your will to pay for images in the Church of aspects of doctrine - the seven works of mercy, the seven deadly sins, the seven sacraments - in windows, and on walls, and on fonts.
On an octagonal font, of course, there are eight panels, so as well as the seven sacraments you get an eighth panel, which varies from place to place. Most commonly, it is the Baptism of Christ; also popular is the Crucifixion. There are one or two seven sacrament fonts in East Anglia with unique eighth panels - the martyrdom of St Andrew at Melton in Suffolk, the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin at Great Witchingham in Norfolk. Interestingly, here at Burgh-next-Aylsham there is some disagreement about exactly what the eighth panel is. It shows a figure kneeling at an altar before an object, and this has been interpreted as the Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. But the object looks to me to have human form, so I wondered if it was actually the Mass of St Gregory, as represented on the rood screen at Wyverstone in Suffolk: a doubting Priest, celebrating Mass, has his doubts cast away when the host turns into the human form of Christ.
The font is not in terribly good condition. The injunctions against images in the later years of the reign of Henry VIII, and especially under his son, the boy king Edward VI, would have left the parish here with a problem. Wall paintings were easily whitewashed; statues and sculptures smashed and burned. Stained glass was usually allowed to remain, since its replacement was not cheap or practical. The Anglicans were more pragmatic than the Puritans of a century later.
But what was to be done with a font? Many of the fonts were fairly new; seven sacrament fonts were less than a century old at the time of the Reformation. Anglicans may have thrown off Catholic teachings to do with Mary, Saints and the souls of the faithful departed, but they still believed in infant Baptism, and they still needed fonts for the purpose. In a few cases, for example Loddon, the font was completely excised of its images in the 1540s (not, as the guide book there suggests, a century later). But this seems a bit drastic, and the result is less than pleasing. Much better to use a hammer to knock the reliefs flush with the outer panelling (hence the loss of most of the heads) and then plaster the whole piece over. That, almost certainly, was what happened here at Burgh towards the middle years of the sixteenth century, as the new model Church of England was forged into being.
This font is more battered than most, principally, I suspect, because of the shallowness of the images; more needed to be knocked flush. But enough survives to identify every sacrament. It has a slimness and elegance that put me in mind of the one at Earsham, although the shaft is like that at nearby Sloley, with the four evangelistic symbols at the corner of the foot. It is set on a simple Maltese cross. The panels, clockwise from the east, are Mass (the Priest with his back to the viewer), the odd panel out (possibly the Mass of St Gregory), Last Rites, Matrimony, Confession (taking place at a shriving pew), Baptism, Confirmation (involving an infant) and ordination. You can see the font and its panels below; hover to read the captions, and click on the images to enlarge them.
Curiously, it is not for its font that Burgh is most famous. It is the view to the east. As Pevsner so eloquently puts it, unexpectedly, the finest Early English chancel in East Anglia. It is as if something from Lincoln Cathedral were shrunk down and transported across to the Bure valley. The basic plan here can be dated fairly accurately to the first decade of the 13th century. I say plan, because you will not be surprised to learn that a lot of what you see here today is, in fact, Victorian. We know that no less a person than George Gilbert Scott came and saw it before the restoration, and that what he saw was a smaller version of what you see today.
The restoration itself was by Richard Phipson, Diocesan architect, responsible for the restoration of St Peter Mancroft in Norwich and the complete rebuilding of St Mary le Tower in Ipswich. Phipson was not the most exciting architect of the 19th century, having an eye for the letter rather than the spirit, but this served St Mary well. The east wall is his, as, indeed, is everything east of the second lancet. You can see this more clearly from outside. He also built the north chapel, probably intending it as an organ chamber. Pevsner says this was a rebuilding, but it looks wholly Victorian in form to me. There's also a fair amount of recutting and harmonising, but it is good work of its kind and is, above all else, still very beautiful. The brick floors count for a lot, the clearing of clutter and the way you step down in to the chancel - it is an inspiring sight, in a special place.
Simon Knott, May 2005
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