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St Catherine, Fritton
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Despite the grim old weather, I was having a happy time. I was exploring the Hempnall group of parishes, one of the most welcoming collection of churches I have visited, all of them well looked after and open every day. The seven churches include two that, if not quite in the top rank of Norfolk churches, certainly feature in many top 50s. These are the grand, perpendicular St Mary at Shelton, the next village, and here, St Catherine in Fritton.
At first sight, St Catherine was a bit of a disappointment. A round towered church set romantically among misty ploughed fields, it seemed little different to nearby Topcroft, Woodton and Bedingham. From the churchyard gate the Decorated tracery of the east window looked suspiciously restored, and there are no aisles, no clerestory, barely even a separate chancel.
But Fritton's reason for glory is exactly the opposite of Shelton's. Simply, it was not rebuilt in the late medieval period, and so retains its wall-paintings, as well as other medieval fixtures and fittings in a simple, rustic space. The great red-brick buttresses to the chancel are like echoes of Shelton; but are almost admonitory, as if to say that the rebuilding there was a vanity on the part of Sir Ralph Shelton, when all that was needed was a bit of propping up.
Inside, the St Christopher is unimpressive, and we are in a part of East Anglia where there are scores of them. But it is more interesting than it first appears, because the ribbon along the bottom is a dedicatory inscription, and the two figures kneeling before a cross that you can just make out in the foreground are John Alward and his wife, the donors themselves. Further along the wall are a restored St George, and just before the rood loft entrance a disarmingly young bishop. Mortlock deduced that his 13th century mitre meant it was St Edmund Rich, a canonised former Archbishop of Canterbury.
More impressive, I thought, were the 15th century panel paintings on the screen under the modern rood. Eight of them survive, six on the north and two on the south. The best are the first two, which feature the donors of the screen, John Bacon and his wife, their fourteen children arranged piously behind them. The azure blue above them is stunning. They face the four Latin Doctors, Saints Augustine, Jerome, Gregory and Ambrose. Gregory's papal tiara has been scratched out, presumably by 16th century Anglican reformers. Curiously, Jerome's cardinal's hat has not. Two disciples across the gap are St Simon and St Jude. St Simon is exquisite, but his face has been scratched out. The earthier St Jude retains his. In the spandrels are unicorns, and St George facing up to the dragon. Wonderful stuff.
For all these treasures, don't miss the font. It is nothing special, just a conventional East Anglian font with lions and angels. But they are all grinning wildly, quite the friendliest medieval lions since Salthouse, six months earlier.
Simon Knott, March 2005
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