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All Saints, Dickleburgh
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Be that as it may, my visits over the next few years, at differing times of the day and in various months of the year, found exactly the same situation, so when Peter and I learned that Dickleburgh church was taking part in the Norfolk Open Churches week in 2010, we headed on the first morning at a reasonably good speed up the A12 to check it out. You'll not be surprised to learn that we arrived to find the church locked.
It must be said that Peter partly blamed me. He had a point - he had seen inside already, because on one occasion he had found the church open, but every time he had come this way with me it had been locked, just as when I had attempted to see inside on my own. However, leaving Dickleburgh by a different route we found a roadside notice advertising a flower festival, due to begin that afternoon. So, after a few hours we headed back, and not even fate or circumstance could this time prevent us from finding the porch gates open.
I'm not a huge fan of flower festivals, but it is a useful way of seeing inside more reclusive churches, and in any case All Saints is such a vast barn of a building it would be difficult for the arrangements to be a distraction. Although considerably restored and renewed, the building is essentially a typical 15th Century great East Anglian church, with an earlier tower as is often the case. The porch, which I had got to know rather well, is spectacular, the very apotheosis of devotional craftsmanship on the eve of the Reformation. If the tower had been rebuilt it would no doubt have been much higher.
The kind man on duty gave us a leaflet and told us which was the best way to go round to see the flowers. It seemed churlish to say that we'd actually come to see the church rather than the flowers, especially as we were planning to take photographs. As we wandered up the aisle he pressed a cassette into the deck on the PA system behind him, and soon the building was filled with the rather unedifying sound of what appeared to be the London Symphony Orchestra's version of A Whiter Shade of Pale, probably from an album called something like Rock Goes Classical: the LSO Play the Hits, or something. I sighed, and decided that I would have to accept that my visit to Dickleburgh church was not going to be like my other visits elsewhere - which, as it turned out, was quite all right, because Dickleburgh church is not like other churches.
The most famous feature is probably the screen, of which only the dado survives, but it is intricately and beautifully carved, and, as Pevsner observed, very unusual. Restored sympathetically in red, green and cream, it features in its spandrels a cavalcade of mysterious beasts and people, of which the monk playing pipes and the dog catching a rabbit are among the most striking.
Turning back west, the early 19th Century gallery survived the Victorians, possibly because it was still so new. On the front of it there is a good set of royal arms for Charles II dated 1662, although Mortlock thought they might be a repainted earlier Stuart set from before the Commonwealth. It is interesting to see a set so soon after the Restoration of the Monarchy. Dickleburgh was plainly a solidly royalist parish, as can be seen from two splendid memorials up in the chancel, one to Dame Frances Playters, who died on the eve of the Restoration in 1659, and the other to Christopher Barnard, the Caroline Rector of this place. Dame Frances has one of the most memorable memorials in Norfolk - she is shown standing in her graveclothes looking out over the chancel for all the world as if she is surveying it from a window, or more precisely an opera box. The inscription below it notes that her husband William Players, deputy lieutenant and Vice Admiral of Suffolk, a Justice of the Peace and Colonel of the Regiment of Foot, was turned out of all by the then rebellious Parliam't and... out of the Hous of Parliam't whereof he had ye misfortune to be a member.
Barnard's inscription records an even more extraordinary story, telling that, after he was arrested by the Puritans, his parishioners... thought it a judgement upon them when ye soudyers drag'd him away to carry him to Norwich Castle; but his beloved flock follow'd him and resqued him and hid him a long time after. it is said that they hid his corn and threshed it secretly. You'll be pleased to know that Barnard survived the long Cromwellian night, and lived to see the Restoration. The puritan arrogance and stupidity against which the good parishioners of Dickleburgh positioned themselves has a much quieter presence here, its only relic being a most unusual ledger stone of the 1650s, which is scratched poorly with an image of a lady of substance. It is a gentle reminder of the glorification of ignorance which I am afraid has continued to run as a minor yet occasionally visible thread through certain sections of English culture ever since.
Simon Knott, February 2011
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