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

St Mary, Diss

Diss St Mary

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    St Mary, Diss

If anyone was to ask me which town is the most typical of Norfolk,  I would certainly say Diss. It is ancient, quirky, predominantly working class. Its people are friendly yet reticent, politically conservative, socially liberal, welcoming but uncompromising. Its architecture is utilitarian, with glimpses of sudden loveliness that make you gasp.

Sir John Betjeman loved Diss above all East Anglian towns, and often said he was more proud of being president of the Diss Society than he was of being Poet Laureate. His friend Mary Wilson, a minor poet and the wife of the Prime Minister of the day, had been brought up in Diss. He wrote to her: Dear Mary, yes, it will be bliss, to go with you by train to Diss...

In the 1970s there was a local lobby for Diss to be the centre of regional government in the east of England, sitting as it does exactly halfway between Norwich and Ipswich. Whitehall smiled and nodded, and then sensibly opted for Cambridge, reasonably considering that one shouldn't allow such things as regional government to get too far out of ones grasp.

Diss had become a backwater in the 17th and 18th centuries, and no major fire led to its rebuilding as at Bungay, Beccles and other places in the Waveney valley. Because of this, Diss is second only to Sudbury in having more surviving medieval houses than any other town in East Anglia of its size. The other feel of the place is 19th century, because Diss was a railway town, and still is. Tudor and Victorian architecture is a happy combination, and Diss retains narrow streets and cobbled yards that have been bulldozed elsewhere.

More recently, European money funded a major refurbishing of the Mere area (did I mention that Diss is the only market town in England built around a large lake?) and the town took part in CittaSlow, a European-led project for small towns which aimed to keep fast cars and fast food out, making the streets safe for pedestrians, pavement cafes and good food. And right in the heart of the town, hemmed in by narrow streets and leaning 16th century buildings, is the great church of St Mary.

The massive rebuilt Victorian chancel detracts from the nave, but this is also huge, and largely the product of the late 15th century. The attention to detail on the buttresses is remarkable, for every one of them has a pedestal in the form of an animal that once supported an image of a Saint. It must have been quite a sight. The 14th century tower has a processional archway through the base as at St Peter Mancroft in Norwich or St Lawrence in Ipswich, and the tower has a  wooden fleche turret dating from 1906.

This, then, is a grand, urban church, central and essential to the townscape. Its churchyard is crossed by pathways that lead between the market square and the houses beyond the church, so there is constant pedestrian traffic. Like all great urban churches (burghers of Thetford and Haverhill take note!) St Mary is open all day, everyday, and is well-used. Not once on my visits have I ever been alone inside, and when I first came here at 10.30 on a Wednesday morning back in 2005 a mid-week eucharist was just beginning. There were about thirty people in the congregation, and I could not think of many small town Anglican churches that could attract such a large congregation on a weekday. I might have imagined myself in a Catholic church.

Being a grand, urban church, I am afraid that St Mary is almost entirely Victorian inside. I do not know who the architect was, but I thought I detected the hand of Richard Phipson, responsible for the refurbishment of St Peter Mancroft and the complete rebuilding of St Mary le Tower in Ipswich. He would have been diocesan architect at the time, so whatever plans were made here would have passed through his hands in any case. There are a few medieval survivals - but very few. They are exquisite little panels of 14th and 15th century glass, handily set in the west window of the south aisle so you can get them out the way before you enter into the Victorianism of it all. A pretty girl wears a garland of flowers. A bearded man sits in a chair. A crowned woman in a kennel headdress gazes up piously. St John the Baptist points, a king looks wise, a tonsured priest scowls. Mary Magdalene holds her pot of ointment, and a Blessed Virgin and child, so faded as to be transparent, seem to be barely there. They are the ghosts of medieval Diss.

Blessed Virgin and Christchild (15th Century) bearded king (15th Century) girl in a garland (15th Century) Coronation of the Blessed Virgin (15th Century)
tonsured priest (15th Century) Salvator Mundi (15th Century) St John the Baptist (15th Century) St Mary Magdalene (16th Century)

There are two piscinas in the south aisle, one of them 13th century, about four metres short of the east end, and a 15th century one further east. The first piscina obviously marks the end of the original aisle before the 15th century extension. Everything else is post-Reformation, so this is essentially an Anglican church. There is a remarkable decalogue board on the west wall which I take to be 18th century, but the overwhelming impression here is of the 1860s and 1870s, which brought the grand sanctuary and east window, the furnishings and, most of all, the glass.

Virtually every window in the church is filled, the nave with run of the mill stuff by Ward & Hughes, glass that is fairly typical of any urban church enthusiastically restored in the 19th Century. Taken in isolation they are like illustrations in a Victorian child's manual of religious instruction, and perhaps the more charming for that. I imagine that seats near to the one of the wise and foolish virgins must have been popular with late-Victorian men keen to have something to gaze at during the sermon.

The glass in the chancel is quite something else. It is by Francis Oliphant, and Pevsner considered it an important work. The scenes of the nativity and the entombment in particular are worth a look. There are a couple of other very interesting 19th century windows in the chancel and south aisle chapel, but unfortunately some of the best, including another Oliphant, were removed in 1980 in an attempt to make the chancel lighter.

Deposition from the cross (Francis Oliphant, 1853) east window (Francis Oliphant, 1853)

A couple of curiosities. There are an unusually large number of 19th century brasses around the walls, so perhaps this was a significant local industry in those days. Most are to the Manning family, who provided rectors for most of the 18th and all of the 19th centuries. One of them was the first Englishman into Tibet. There is a large early 18th century tombchest in the north aisle to one Richard Burton. The lengthy inscription is worth a read. He left a hundred pounds, and the interest of this was to go to the parish for the work of maintaining his tomb. Any money left over was to be given to the poor of Diss. However, if his executors felt that the tomb was not being maintained, then the job and the money were to default to the parish and poor of neighbouring Roydon instead. Hedging his bets still further, Burton's inscription then goes on to say that if Roydon isn't up to the job, then the benefit will fall to Bressingham, the next parish out. I have to say that the tomb is in a splendid state, but it isn't clear whether this is the work of Diss, or Roydon, or Bressingham.

To finish, it is worth saying that Diss is as proud as any small town is of its famous son and daughters. An expansion in housing around the town in the last thirty years has left plenty of scope for naming new roads. The aforementioned Betjeman, Wilson, Manning and Burton have all been immortalised, and other commemorated Diss people include another Poet Laureate, John Skelton, probably the most idiosyncratic voice of 16th century poetry. He was remarkable for his compassion, and his enthusiasm for inventing words, for which Keats and Auden both claimed debts. He was the Catholic parish priest here for thirty years in pre-Reformation days, and once stood in the pulpit holding up what the church guide charmingly calls a 'love-child', claiming it as his own, and defying the congregation to find fault with it, its mother or with him.

John Wilbye, the Elizabethan composer of madrigals, came from Diss. Thomas Paine is more usually associated with Thetford where he was born, but he lived in Diss for twenty years, and perhaps learned his radical politics here, for Diss in the 18th century was a hotbed of non-conformism.

A mark of how civilised this town is can be seen even out in the anonymous roads of the new estates, where many of the street signs include a brief explanation of the person or event the road is named after. Living in Diss must be an education in itself.

Simon Knott, September 2018

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looking east

Christ blessing war memorial chapel Nativity (Francis Oliphant, 1853) portrait memorial brass (Weyer & Co, Norwich, 1890s) The Sower, the Good Samaritan, Christ with Martha and Mary at Bethany (Lavers & Barraud, 1858)
Sissie Smith, Sunday School teacher, endowed the fabric of this church 1979 three lions (15th Century) memorial brass, 1890s (J Wipple & Co?)
I go to prepare a place for you (William Wailes, 1860s) God spake all these words Lamb of God

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