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

St Peter, Corpusty

new life

Corpusty in late afternoon light Corpusty Corpusty
Corpusty Corpusty Corpusty
inventor of the marine chronometer Blessed are they that mourn for they SHALL by comforted shepherd


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St Peter, Corpusty

Norfolk is nowhere near as flat as Sir Noel Coward liked to make out, but it has few dramatic vistas. One of the grandest is the sight of Corpusty and Saxthorpe as you come over the hill along the Norwich to Holt road. The valley drops away below you, the villages scattered down the opposing slopes. At the highest point is the church of St Peter, Corpusty. This must be an ancient place, and the tower of St Peter is a landmark for miles around. But it was almost lost to us, for this church was abandoned more than half a century ago, and lay derelict for decades after.

The placename Corpusty comes from the Old Norse korpr-stigr, meaning a rising path where ravens live, a suitably dramatic name for the setting. The village is a joint one, with Saxthorpe on the other side of the bridge and mill over the Bure, and has been for centuries, and it has also long been a joint parish. Corpusty is the larger of the two villages, but Saxthorpe church is the larger of the two churches and sits in the heart of its village, whereas Corpusty church is a mile to the south, which explains why it was this one that was abandoned. It is a small church, as I say, without aisles or clerestories.The nave and chancel are continuous under a single roof, and the window tracery makes this a good example of the way in which the Decorated style morphed into Perpendicular over the course of the 14th Century and into the 15th, although there was a considerable restoration here in the 1890s to muddle the issue somewhat.

Corpusty church fell out of use in the 1960s, the joint parish deciding to hold all its services down in Saxthorpe. Soon the church was prey to vandalism and break-ins. Fires were set inside, and the font was toppled from its plinth and broken. The floors were broken up, the old stone stolen. But even in its long years of abandonment Corpusty church has not been without its friends. In 1974, local resident Roger Last wrote a letter to the Eastern Daily Press expressing his concern about the state of the church and its descent into vulnerability and vandalism. It so happened that a few miles away at Holt Rectory someone else was girding her loins for the battle to save churches. Lady Billa Harrod, who had seen off the Brooke Report which advocated the demolition of redundant churches, saw the letter, contacted Roger, and their meeting led to the formation of the Committee for Country Churches, which developed into the Norfolk Churches Trust. The BBC came and filmed Roger showing Sir Roy and Lady Harrod around Corpusty. Roger has kindly allowed me to share some of the photographs of that occasion.

1974: Lady Harrod visits Corpusty church (c) Roger Last 1974: Lady Harrod visits Corpusty church (c) Roger Last
1974: Lady Harrod visits Corpusty church (c) Roger Last 1974: Lady Harrod visits Corpusty church (c) Roger Last

That same year, when the BBC was filming John Betjeman's A Passion for Churches, they came to Corpusty. Betjeman was shocked and appalled by what he saw here. And should we let the poor old churches die? ran his poetic commentary. Do the stones speak? My word, of course they do. Here in the midst of life they cry aloud: ’you’ve used us to build houses for your prayer; you’ve left us here to die beside the road.’ Christ, son of God, come down to me and save: how fearful and how final seems the grave.

Given its state it is no surprise that the Diocese applied for and obtained a demolition order for Corpusty church, but before any action could be taken the Friends of Friendless Churches stepped in and bought the building in 1982. A major scheme of repairs was put in motion. I remember coming here about twenty years ago, when I had to fight my way through the undergrowth of the churchyard to reach the church. However, when I got there it was to find that the porch had been repaired, and the tower restored. The bell windows were repointed and secured, and the keys of St Peter placed in a prominent position.The roof was sound, covered with striking new red pantiles. The nave and the chancel still had a way to go. Corrugated iron sheets filled the windows rather than glass, and a tree grew out of the east window. But one of the delights of Norfolk church-visiting over the last twenty years has been watching Corpusty church come back to life again. The churchyard is now beautifully cared for, and of course the windows are now filled of glass. You can sense the loving care, and equally the hundreds of thousands of pounds that have been laboriously attracted to pay for the repairs. In 2009 the Friends of Friendless Churches conveyed the lease back to the Norfolk Churches Trust, who have overseen its development since. And, even better, you can go inside. The church is open on Fridays and Saturdays, but at other times a key is available at the Spar shop down in Corpusty village.

You step into an understandably plain interior. The font that Lady Harrod saw smashed and on the floor is now restored proudly to its proper place. Turning to the east there is a simple screen and a modern altar in the sanctuary beyond. There is no chancel arch, and only the screen separates nave from chancel. Almost all the 19th Century glass was lost apart from the decorative glass in a few upper lights in one of the south side windows. The nave floors have been renewed, but those in the chancel are still earth. The walls still bear their marks of arson and water ingress, but of course the walls will be the last part of the church to be dealt with after the floor to the chancel is completed. Yes, there is still work to do, but it is clear quite how many people care about this poor little church which was nearly lost to us.

In 2019, the church became one of seven sites across Britain displaying the Lettering Arts Trust’s national collection of memorials. There are seventeen of them in the churchyard, and a permanent exhibition inside the church describing the work of the Trust. These are a fascinating pleasure to wander around. And, beyond the east end of the church there is the view out over the young Bure Valley, strikingly dramatic in this East Anglian setting. On a sunny day it will take your breath away.

Simon Knott, November 2022

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looking east chancel
font font and tower arch north chancel wall and floor
surviving decorative glass 1974/2022


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