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St Giles, Colby
St Giles, Colby, is a great case in point. Set awkwardly north of its village along a lane going nowhere in particular, an indeterminate number of miles south of Sheringham, it is interesting to look at, it is beautiful inside, and it has several extremely interesting features. I doubt that it will be found in many people's top fifty Norfolk churches - it is certainly in mine.
it is rather odd. The tower is pencil thin, which in East
Anglia always starts you humming and hawing about the
Normans, but that is not the case here, I think, for it
looks all of its late 13th century origins. Then, there
is a massive late 15th century south porch, with image
niches and wonderfully carved spandrels. That on the east
side is clearly St Michael dispatching a dragon. Another
dragon is being dispatched on the west side, and this is
claimed by the guide books as St George. I wonder. He
carries no shield - St George usually carries a shield.
He is on foot - St George is usually shown on horse back.
There is something very similar on the porch at St
Michael at Plea in the centre of Norwich. Perhaps he is a
wild man, albeit a civilised one. Perhaps, more likely,
he is the donor of the porch, emulating his saintly hero
in the other spandrel by dispatching evil.
The most significant panel, and most
important, is that to the ENE. It shows the Madonna and
Child set in what I believe is known as the Seat of
Wisdom. Now, this is an extraordinarily rare image to
find on a font. It is undamaged by Anglican or Puritan
iconoclasts. The panels either side are also extremely
unusual. That two the south shows two kneeling figures in
15th century dress. They are paying homage, and are
almost certainly the two donors of the font. To the
north, another figure, a huntsman, kneels with an axe. In
front of him is what appears to be a small dog. This is
the figure of St Giles, who saved the life of a hind that
turned out to be Christ. We know that this church owned a
relic of St Giles before the Reformation - his finger, in
a silver reliquary.
There is more of interest in this immaculately well-kept church, including the inscription to the 17th century Richard Snelling. He left one pound to be distributed on every Christmas Day among the aged poor of Colby, and ten shillings on every Easter Day to cloath four poor children of the said parish. The altar cloth in exquisite needlework set in a frame on the east wall has an inscription recording that it was worked by Miss Charlotte Coleby (1797-1869), elder daughter of the Reverend George Coleby... by some means the frontal passed into the custody of the Royal School of Needlework, and it lay more or less forgotten until the School moved to new premises in 1962, when it was returned to this church. It is a rare and poignant reminder of the Oxford Movement-inspired revival in the Church of England as it was actually carried out by people on the ground - it was, perhaps, the first altar frontal that the parishioners of Colby had seen for several centuries, and it is still here, in the place where it was made and fondly used.
Simon Knott, August 2005, updated August 2018
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