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

St Mary, Burnham Deepdale

Burnham Deepdale: an unassuming treasure house

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  St Mary, Burnham Deepdale

There are differences between the coasts of Norfolk and Suffolk, and one of them is that Norfolk has a coast road, which Suffolk doesn't. This means that many of Norfolk's coastal villages tend to straggle and merge a bit, which can rob them of their individuality. Brancaster Staithe runs directly into Burnham Deepdale, and St Mary sits on the border between the two directly beside the busy Wells to Hunstanton road. This is a bit of a disappointment when you first see it, because Burnham Deepdale is such a lovely name, and this church is so often mentioned among those of the first rank, that you would hope for a kinder setting.

The Saxon round tower is primitive and austere; but again, it is rather robbed of its mystique by the entirely Victorianised body of the church beside it. You wonder if, after everything you've read, this church will disappoint you.

Well, I don't think it will. True, this church is nothing remarkable, apart from the tower. It is what it contains that attracts so many visitors, and gives it such a good reputation.

The first of its treasures is on show before you even go inside. This is the medieval glass reset in panels either side of the south porch. It wasn't placed here originally - the porch is Victorian. It may not even have come from this church originally, as we shall see.

It is quite a jumble, and of itself nothing remarkable except for the two roundels placed at the top of each window. One shows the moon, with a human face. Almost certainly, it originally came from a crucifixion scene, like the one on the font at Honington in Suffolk, the sun and the moon being placed conventionally either side of the cross. The sun has been lost, and in its place is a handsome angel head. The moon is a jolly, round faced fellow looking very like an illustration to the old nursery rhyme The man in the moon came down too soon and asked the way to Norwich... which is very appropriate really.

the man in the moon west side east side not the man in the sun

St Mary underwent three massive restorations, rebuildings really; one at the end of the 18th century, one in the middle of the 19th and one towards the end. It is perhaps surprising that it was robbed of so little of its character, but as I have observed elsewhere the feel of church buildings in this part of Norfolk is enhanced by the overwhelmingly Anglo-catholic flavour of their more recent use, especially in the first half of the 20th century. But much of St Mary's ambience comes from its most famous possession, one of the greatest medieval art objects in Norfolk, the 'Labours of the Months' font.

It is a large, square stone block, the bowl quite deep, with a wide lip carved with foliage and a lion. The body of the font is carved on three sides, each with four panels, making a total of twelve in all. The blank fourth side of the font shows that it probably stood against a wall originally.

The panels each represent a month of the year, and show an activity necessary or particular to that month. They run clockwise around the three sides, which means that you have to read them from right to left, which is intuitively wrong but easy enough once you get the hang of it. It also suggests, as you'd expect, that it was created by and for people who had little experience of written texts.

The sequence starts on the north side, with the first four months of the year, and continues onto the east and then south sides. Each panel, except for the twelfth, features a single figure, who may well be the same person in each panel.

Starting at the right hand end of the north side, then, the panels are as follows.

North side:
I: January. Drinking from a horn.
II: February. Sitting in a chair.
III: March. Digging with a long-handled spade.
IV: April. Pruning a vine.

East side:
V: May. Waving a banner in a Rogationtide festival (as in the bench end at Blythburgh in Suffolk).
VI: June. Weeding out thistles with two implements.
VII: July. Mowing hay with a scythe.
VIII: August. Binding a sheaf of corn.

South side:
IX: September. Corn-threshing.
X: October. Filling a wine barrel.
XI: November. Pig-slaughtering.
XII: December. Four men sitting at a table, feasting.

Immediately below, you will find an image of each of the three sides, and then images of each of its panels, in the order in which they are found. Click on them to enlarge them.

Burnham Deepdale font
north side (I-IV) IV: April. Pruning a vine III: March. Digging with a long-handled spade II: February. Sitting in a chair I: January. Drinking from a horn
east side (V-VIII) VIII: August. Binding a sheaf of corn VII: July. Mowing hay with a scythe VI: June. Weeding out thistles with two implements V: May. Waving a banner in a Rogationtide festival
south side (IX-XII) XII: December. Four men sitting at a table, feasting XI: November. Pig-slaughtering X: October. Filling a wine barrel. IX: September. Corn-threshing

It is interesting that three of the panels, January, February, and December, show leisure activities. That the font has survived in such good condition is fortunate. During the late 18th century, at the time of the first great restoration, it was moved out of an aisle which was to be demolished. In being moved, it was dropped, and broken into several pieces. The bits were discarded, ending up in a rockery at Fincham, thirty miles away. An elegantly classical birdbath font took its place; you can see it today in the sanctuary at nearby Titchwell.

It was only when the aisles were rebuilt some seventy years later at the time of a renewed fascination with anything medieval that the pieces were returned here, stuck back together, and the font given its current home at the west end of the south aisle. It was mended very well - you can just make out that the lower part of the October panel is a modern restoration.

And there are more wonders to come. If the glass in the porch is fascinating, that reset in the west window of the north aisle is even more so. This collection of glass, clearly the work of different artists and periods, includes a rare Holy Trinity, as well as a number of angel faces. Under the tower are two larger medieval survivals, one a censing angel (who I think may be upside down) and the other a beautiful Mary of Magdala holding her pot of ointment.

west end window in the north aisle Queen of Heaven censing angel (upside-down?) Mary of Magdala 
Holy Trinity angel heads grumpy angel

Where do all these stained glass fragments come from? They may well originate from this church itself. Or perhaps, some of them do not. For there are several other features here that clearly came from elsewhere. One is a late medieval chasuble, on display in an alarmed case in the north aisle. In an earlier version of this entry I described it as a cope, but Father David Peters, of Holy Trinity in Reading, came to my rescue. As Father David says, is is a rather fine fiddleback chasuble at that and, if it cannot be used, as well to be in an alarmed case to be looked at than hidden away in a bank vault.

Another is a collection of fragments of alabaster, that probably came from a smashed altar piece in a large church or cathedral. They appear to show part of a nativity. The anglo-Catholic history of this church suggests to me that, if these were collected from elsewhere, so might other things have been brought here and put in place by an enthusiast.

Of course, we can rarely be certain that any medieval features came from their current church originally, such was the lively market for medieval survivals in the late 19th century. Ironically, we know enough of the history of the Burnham Deepdale font to be sure that it really is in its original home. If it was in the Victoria and Albert Museum, we would all willingly travel to London and pay handsomely for the privilege of seeing it, but here it is in a remote corner of Norfolk in a building that is open every day. How wonderful!

Simon Knott, May 2005


very Victorian after all... font and tower arch triangular headed window above tower arch looking west
sanctuary Victorian glass fragments of old glass to make something new (inside) fragments of old glass to make something new (outside) fiddle-back chasuble
alabaster nativity time flies

The Burnhams
Deepdale I Norton I Overy I Priory I St Henry I Sutton I Thorpe I Ulph I Westgate

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