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

St Mary, Feltwell


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aisle and clerestory from his sisters

    St Mary, Feltwell
Three Marys meet the angel at the empty tomb (Didron of Paris, 1863)   Feltwell is a fen edge village on rising ground, and as such then the size of St Mary should come as no surprise to us. Before the 17th Century, the undrained fen spread westwards of here towards Peterborough, and southwards towards Ely and Cambridge, making transport of goods and people much easier than going by land. The Ouse headed up towards the Wash, as it still does of course, and until the Fens were drained it was possible for ocean-going ships to tie up at Feltwell. This, then, was a prosperous port, and in common with many other fen edge villages it has a church to match. In fact, it has two churches, as there is also St Nicholas, a pretty little thing about half a mile off, and now in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust. But if you were to come to Feltwell for the first time, the structures that would strike you as most remarkable would probably not include the churches. Three large communications domes rise from RAF Feltwell, now part of the United States Air Force's East Anglian operation. They look like nothing so much as giant golf balls, and are visible for miles.

St Mary seems tightly shoehorned into its long, narrow churchyard, an effect accentuated by the wide north aisle added by enthusiastic Victorians. The view from the south is almost urban in its appearance, without the luxury of a wide and ambling graveyard, and emphasises the sheer size of the building. But the grandest touch of all is south-west Norfolk's best tower. The sumptuous parapet and pinnacles date right from the eve of the Reformation, as probably does much of the nave, for a money-raising campain of 1494 was used for a massive reconstruction after a fire. The chancel is earlier, probably 14th Century, and overall the effect of aisles and clerestory beneath the great tower is a happy one.

The church is open every day, and you step inside to a wide, open interior, the smell of old wood and fresh-cut flowers,the sight of dust falling silently in summer sunlight. The benches to the west are almost entirely medieval, and if the fire mentioned in 1494 affected the nave then they are probably early 16th Century. The bench ends are mostly vandalised, but the best represent the Works of Mercy, including Feed the Hungry, Welcome the Stranger, Bury the Dead and Visit the Prisoner.

Works of Mercy: Feed the Hungry. A woman with braided hair and a rosary gives bread to a poor man (15th Century) Works of Mercy: Welcome the Stranger. A man with a pilgrim purse has a door opened to him (15th Century) Works of Mercy: Bury the Dead. A priest and two acolytes with thurifers bury a corpse wrapped in a shroud (15th Century) Works of mercy: Visit the Prisoner. A figure approaches a lock-up from which a man looks out (15th Century)

Beyond the rood screen, the chancel beckons, glowing and jewel-like. You step through to find East Anglia's largest expanse of 19th Century French cathedral glass, both here and in the 19th Century south aisle which extends up to the east wall of the chancel. It is by the Didron and Oudinot workshops of Paris, and was installed in several campaigns between 1859 and 1863. You wouldn't want every church to have had this visited upon them, but here it is magnificent. I like the Didron window telling the story of the Prodigal Son best.

The Prodigal Son sent into the fields to feed swine (Didron of Paris, 1863) The Prodigal Son gambles away his garments (Didron of Paris, 1863) The Prodigal Son wastes his substance in riotous living (Didron of Paris, 1863)
Annunciation (Eugene Oudinot of Paris, 1859) Visitation (Eugene Oudinot of Paris, 1859) Presentation in the Temple (Eugene Oudinot of Paris, 1859)
Christ heals a blind man (Didron of Paris, 1863) Three Marys meet the angel at the empty tomb (Didron of Paris, 1863) Miracle at Cana (Didron of Paris, 1863)

The size of the chancel is accentuated by those great walls of glass, and the floral altar frontal complements them perfectly, although it must be said that the near-life size figures of the Holy Family stepping down the chancel steps are a little bizarre.

Stepping out of the chancel again, you see there is a two-light window beneath the tower by Didron depicting the story of Adam and Eve. This is interesting, because the rest of the glass in the nave is clear, but the French glass in the chancel begins at the opening of the New Testament and then heads east. Was there a plan to fill the nave windows with Cathedral glass as well, telling the story of the Old Testament? I'm glad they didn't, though it would have been interesting to see.

I went into the wide open space of the 19th Century north aisle, bigger than many churches on its own. The architect was Frederick Preedy, who did lots of work in this part of East Anglia, and it was completed as part of the same scheme as the glass, in 1863. Pevsner gives the cost of the aisle as 1,500, about 300,000 in today's money, which seems about right given that labour was cheaper.

The east end of the aisle forms a war memorial chapel, and the rest is given over to a kitchen and tables and chairs, a sensible arrangement - a lovely medieval church, with 21st Century amenities attached! But for all the medieval glories of Feltwell, and for all its 21st Century life, it is the 19th Century which shaped it and which leaves upon it its lasting impression. As if to ensure this, memorials to 19th Century worthies punctuate the walls, including that to Edward George Hibbert, late Lieutenant Colonel of the Grenadier Guards. Hibbert died in 1901,after having served throughout the Crimean Campaign with the 50th (Queen's Own) Regiment, and was present at the Battles of Alma and Inkerman and the Siege and Fall of Sevastapol.

  man vomiting (15th Century)

Simon Knott, August 2016

looking east sanctuary looking west
Saints Peter, John and James above scenes of Mary Magdalene anointing the feet of Christ, the Transfiguration of Christ and the Raising of Lazarus (Eugene Oudinot of Paris, 1859) Scenes after the Resurrection of Christ (Didron of Paris, 1863) Scenes from the Life of Christ (Didron of Paris, 1863) The Christmas story (Eugene Oudinot of Paris, 1859) east window by Didron of Paris, 1860
Resurrection of Christ (below) and Mary Magdalene mistakes the Risen Christ for the gardener (above) by Didron of Paris, 1863 Feltwell Saint Mary Feltwell Junior Church Soyes Loyall Et Foyall: Osbert Moundeford, 1580
Present at the Battles of Alma and Inkerman and the Siege and Fall of Sevastapol


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