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

St Nicholas, Dersingham


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    St Nicholas, Dersingham
St Agnes by Christopher Powell, 1932   It was about four o'clock in the afternoon on one of those drowsy days in the summer of 2006. We arrived at Dersingham only to find them locking it up for the day, taking the signboard in and bolting the doors. The man apologised, but he couldn't hang around as he had an appointment elsewhere. Oh well, we thought, we'll come back.

Ten years passed. And now I was cycling around the lanes to the north-east of King's Lynn, ticking off the last few Norfolk churches I still had to visit, and St Nicholas at Dersingham was one of them. I always think that there's a kind of listlessness to this part of Norfolk, almost a malaise. I can't really explain it. It seems to rise from the marshlands and settle over Kings Lynn and the woods of the Sandringham estate. I would escape it very quickly as I cycled up the steep hill towards Shernborne, but here at Dersingham the clouds were leaden and there was a heaviness in the air. It might also be the Sandringham effect, something that holds these towns and villages in the past, as if it might still be the 20th Century here. This, I hasten to add, is no bad thing. Dersingham is the largest of the villages that straggle along the Wash between Lynn and Hunstanton, and I remember travelling through them as a child on the way from Cambridge to the beaches of Heacham and Hunstanton in the 1960s. Dersingham reminded me of my childhood.

St Nicholas is a big church, sitting just to the north of the Sandringham estate. There's pleasing harmony about the juxtaposition between the early 14th Century chancel and the late medieval nave and aisles, all overlooked by the Perpendicular tower. Everything is in happy proportion. There was a good restoration of the church in the 1870s which maintained this unity but also celebrated its individual parts. In fact, you don't really see quite how big the church is until you step inside - as Pevsner notes, the nave is remarkably wide. The glass in the south aisle is not intrusive in this great space, and it is good of its kind, apart from one oddity. It is by Christopher Powell, and there are two windows, one from the 1920s, the other from the 1930s. The earlier window is in memory of Edwin and Agnes Woodward, and depicts Christ flanked by St Agnes and St Luke, suggesting that Edwin Woodward was a doctor. The two outer figures are beautiful, but at some time the central figure has been damaged and repaired. Christ's replacement head is very badly done, poorly drawn and out of proportion. It seemed a shame.

St Felix, St Nicholas, St Augustine, St Christopher (Christopher Powell, 1932) four angels (Christopher Powell, 1932)
Christ flanked by St Agnes and St Luke by Christopher Powell, 1932 St Agnes by Christopher Powell, 1932 Christ by Christopher Powell, 1932 (oh dear!) St Luke by Christopher Powell, 1932

There is more glass in the chancel, mostly by Kempe & Co. The low side window is curiously and beautifully carved as four quatrefoils. On the north side of the chancel there is another curiosity, the early 17th Century incised tomb chest featuring the figures of John and Joanna Pell. As Mortlock observes, it is exactly as if they had been cast in brass. Their sons and daughters kneel piously around the sides. It seems likely that the tomb was moved by the Victorians, as originally all four sides were probably intended to be seen.

There are more Pell memorials on the south side of the chancel, and beneath them is probably the most famous thing about Dersingham church. This is the ancient parish chest, dating from the middle of the 14th Century in the years of the Black Death. It is as big as a tomb, and carved elaborately with the symbols of the four Evangelists. On top, there is part of the inscription Jesus Nazarenus Crucifixus Judaeorum ('Jesus of Nazareth crucified by the Jews'). A remarkable thing to see.

14th Century chest: St Matthew and St Mark 14th Century chest: St Luke and St John

The Victorian restoration of the rood screen revealed six figures on the north side dado. St Apollonia holds her tooth in a pair of pincers. She was that most essential of figures in the medieval economy of grace, being invoked in prayers against toothache. In East Anglia she was often paired with St Lawrence, invoked in prayers against fires, and he may well have matched her on the south side. Beside her, St Denys holds his whole head, as if holding a mere tooth were nothing to show off about. The next figure is probably St Withburga, and then a very heavily circumscribed chap who is probably St Giles given the hind at his feet. The other two figures are St Juliana leading a little devil on a chain, and a bishop, who may be St Cyprian.

The rood group on top of the screen was given in 1917 by Frederick Rolfe in memory of Dersingham men killed in the war - Mortlock notes that they were carved by a craftsman from the woodcarving school on the nearby Sandringham estate. A more substantial memorial to the Dersingham lads is the chapel in the north aisle, the boards featuring a shocking number of names for such a small place.

Above the north doorway is a set of royal arms curiously split into three separate parts, the supporters not connected to the shield. Mortlock says that it originally came from a shopfront where the owners had held the royal warrant. Can that be true? I do like to think so, and such a thing seems so much more likely here in the hinterland of Sandringham.

And so, that was that. I'd finally come back to Dersingham. I stood in the churchyard and thought about the past for a moment, both the recent and the distant, and then I headed north and east, climbing into the rolling barley fields and hidden villages of the most secretive part of Norfolk.

  St Apollonia and St Denis

Simon Knott, August 2016

looking east sanctuary font
Six weeping sons for John Pell, 1607war memorial 14th Century chest
Adoration of the Shepherds (Kempe & Co) Glory to God in the Highest (Kempe & Co, 1912) and on earth peace, good will (Kempe & Co, 1912) toward men (Kempe & Co, 1912)
Annunciation (Kempe & Co) three-part cast iron royal arms for Victoria Christ preaching in the Temple by Christopher Powell, 1932
A Lady worthy of Imitation adorn'd with all the ornaments of virtue four quatrefoils in the low side window John and Margaret Pell, 1607
in memory of Dersingham men killed in the war


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