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St Mary, East Ruston

East Ruston

East Ruston East Ruston the East Ruston dead

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    St Mary, East Ruston

If you came to East Ruston to visit the church without a map, you'd probably never find it. it sits a couple of miles from the village centre on the main road between Stalham and Bacton, a rough and mighty tower rising above the fields. From the south, it is the tower which dominates. Approaching from the north, you see the curiosity of what is apparently an entirely red brick church, in fact an 18th Century rebuilding of the north wall after an aisle was demolished. The cars rush past, and it is easy to see why this sprawling church, so far from its nominal village and with no parking, was declared redundant.

As ever, the Churches Conservation Trust prove to be wonderful custodians, and this building was in real danger in the years before they took it over in the early eighties. Largely a construction of the immediate post-Black Death period, it had been a big church before the demolition of the north aisle, still feels a rambling structure, sprawling on its rise. You step into a wide, light space, cleared of clutter and an oasis of stillness and silence after the traffic outside. The most striking feature is the rather remarkable font. The base is surrounded by wicked looking demons, who stand out all the more because of the rather stark column that rises from among them. The images on the panels range from odd to fantastic. A bearded head with long curly hair surrounded by a jagged nimbus may be intended as God the Father, but looks like nothing so much as a Greek god. Pevsner decided that the font had been 'much recut' by the 1880s restorers, but it is hard to see how the reliefs can possibly replicate anything that was there before.

font: winged bull of St Luke, curly-haired head (John the Baptist?), winged lion of St Mark font eagle of St John, man with tripartite beard and flash nimbus (God the Father?), winged man of St Matthew
font devils font devils font devils
font devils font devils font devils

The great survival here is the rood screen. I wonder how many times I have written that sentence on this site, but the screen here really is quite extraordinary. Its oddness is first apparent in that, although it survives to loft floor level, all the tracery above the dado has been removed. But what makes it strangest of all is the width of the opening - in proportion to the size of the screen, the widest in East Anglia, and the two lions on pillars which flank the entrance. I do not think there is another screen at all like it anywhere in Norfolk or Suffolk. There are just eight figures - the four Evangelists, with an angel representing St Matthew, and the four Latin Doctors. The arrangement is similar to that at Morston. The painting is not good, though perhaps not as bad as that at Southwold, the style of which it much resembles, so presumably it was the work of a local artist.

Four Evangelists: St Matthew, St Mark, St Luke, St John Four Latin Doctors: St Gregory, St Augustine, St Ambrose, St Jerome
St Matthew St Mark St Luke St John
St Gregory St Augustine St Ambrose St Jerome

The lightness and simplicity of the interior are perfect foils to font and screen, although there is a relatively unexciting Presentation of the Temple by AL Moore in the south aisle east window. The five light east window of the chancel is surprisingly wide for what is a relatively small chancel, the tracery seeming impossibly slight. The nave roof is hidden by a ceiling, presumably constructed in the 18th century when the north aisle was removed, but the south aisle and chancel are exposed, simple 19th century work with medieval elements, beautiful and rustic. On my most recent visit in August 2019 the aisle was home to a very large sculpture, For the Love of Rose by Bill Cordaroy, a local sculptor.

There is no West Ruston, and the apparently unnecessary compass direction in the parish name is there to distinguish it from Ryston in west Norfolk - East Ruston is sometimes referred to as East Riston in old documents. The most famous son of the parish was the Classical scholar Richard Porson. His father was the parish clerk, and the education of the young Porson was taken on by the local Rector, who was impressed by his abilities. Porson went on to play a defining role in the development of philology, and his use of primary texts to prepare new translations, revolutionary in its day, has become the central basis of Classical Greek scholarship. He was one of the first scholars to apply mathematical analysis to sources. The rigour with which he approached his research and writing was learned young: it is said that, each evening, when he returned home from his lessons with the Rector, his father made him repeat them in their entirety.

Simon Knott, December 2019

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view east sanctuary
south aisle south aisle east window: Presentation in the Temple (AL Moore, 1913) Presentation in the Temple (AL Moore, 1913) address to Mr Edward Gaze (1909) rood screen lion
cowled head corbel For the Love of Rose (Bill Cordaroy) Pray for the soule of Roger Skynnar (1534)


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