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St Mary, Diss
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If I was asked which town out of all of those I have visited is most typical of Norfolk, then 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.
Betjeman loved Diss above all East Anglian towns, and often said he was more proud of being president of the Diss Society than of being Poet Laureate. His friend Mary Wilson, a minor poet and 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 became a backwater in the 17th and 18th centuries, and no major fire led to its rebuilding like 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 has 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 is also taking part in CittaSlow, a European-led project for small towns which aims to keep fast cars and fast food out, making the streets safe for pedestrians, pavement cafes and good food. It is no longer true to say, as the Specials did on their number one hit single in 1981, Diss town is coming like a ghost town...
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; every one 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, and like that church this one also has a wooden fleche turret surmounting the tower, 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; there is constant pedestrian traffic. Like all great urban churches (burghers of Mildenhall, Thetford and Haverhill take note!) St Mary is open all day, everyday, and is well-used. Not once was I alone inside, and when I first arrived at 10.30 on a Wednesday, 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. A Madonna and child, so faded as to be transparent, to be barely there. They are the ghosts of medieval Diss.
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; 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 some of the most garish and mawkish you can imagine. Pevsner thought it was terrible, but actually there are a few details that are worth selecting; taken in isolation they look like illustrations in a Victorian children's book, and are quite charming. I found the one of the ten wise virgins the most interesting. I imagine that seats near to it must have been quite popular with frustrated Victorian men, keen to have something to gaze at during the sermon. I like the one wearing a hair band best.
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.
A couple of curiosities. There are an unusually large number of 19th century brasses around the walls, as if 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; basically, it says that 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 fifteen years has left plenty of scope for naming new roads. The aforementioned Betjeman, Wilson, Manning and Burton have all been immortalised; 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; Keats and Auden both claimed debts. He was Catholic parish priest here for thirty years in pre-Reformation days; he once stood in the pulpit and held 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, June 2005
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