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

St Mary, Gayton Thorpe

Gayton Thorpe

Gayton Thorpe Gayton Thorpe (2006) Gayton Thorpe (2006)

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  St Mary, Gayton Thorpe

The Hardwick interchange south of Kings Lynn is a bottleneck for heavy traffic coming into west Norfolk from the Midlands, spraying it out beyond into a network of busy roads. But you don't have to get far off of them to find a more peaceful landscape, with hamlets and small villages enjoying solitude, and among them is Gayton Thorpe. The name means that it is an outlying settlement of Gayton up on the top road, the name of which in turn probably means a goat farm. I didn't see any goats when I came back here in the spring of 2023, but there were several muntjac deer on the village green, and two more that I disturbed in the churchyard, sending them stumbling across the low stones with their strangely clumsy gait.

The setting of the church is a delight, raised above the green, the round tower a sentinel. The bulk of the tower is probably mid-11th Century, the top stage coming a century later, which is to say it is one of the earliest round towers in Norfolk. In fact it isn't really round, being more elliptical or, perhaps more accurately but less technically, a squidgy D-shape, the flatter side towards the nave which was built against it, replacing an earlier church as the 13th Century became the 14th Century. The chancel is now off-centre against the eastern wall of the nave, but it lines up with the tower, so at some point, probably during the 15th Century, the nave has been extended northwards. The north wall of the chancel has no windows, suggesting that it was also rebuilt at some time. The south side of the church is a neat textbook display of windows of different periods. All in all then, a most attractive exterior.

Stepping inside is at first a bit of a disappointment, because although the nave is as simple as it should be, with no coloured glass to spoil the effect, it is plain to the point of severity. The furnishings came with a restoration of 1900, but there is one survival which is of great significance, for Gayton Thorpe has one of East Anglia's thirty-odd Seven Sacrament fonts. As befits the setting, it is one of the plainest and most simple of them, and yet it has a number of idiosyncratic depictions that are found on no other font in the series. The reliefs are generally in good condition, suggesting that they were shallow enough to be plastered over at the time of the injunctions against images of the mid-16th Century, and that it wasn't necessary for anyone to take a hammer to them to knock them flush.

seven sacrament font: Blessed Virgin and Christchild (E) seven sacrament font: Last Rites seven sacrament font: Ordination
seven sacrament font: Mass (photographed 2006) seven sacrament font: Confession (photographed 2006) seven sacrament font: Matrimony (photographed 2006) seven sacrament font: Baptism (photographed 2006)

The Gayton Thorpe font is the only one of the seven sacrament series to have the Blessed Virgin and Christchild as their eighth panel. She is seated holding her son on a throne on the eastern side. Clockwise from there, the south eastern panel depicts the Last Rites, a busy scene with figures standing on both sides of the dying man's bed. The next panel, facing the south doorway, is an unusual Ordination scene. Three figures approach a bishop while another figure looks on from behind. I have seen this panel described as both Confirmation and Matrimony, but if you look closely you can see that all three figures have a stole crossed over their chest. In fact, Confirmation is the next panel, a typically crowded scene of confirmands, one holding up a child.

The westerly panel is the most unusual of all. It shows a man and a woman kneeling, with two standing figures holding plates or bowls. This represents Mass. The standing figures are dispensing the houseling bread which was shared with the people while the priest ate the host. The kneeling woman has a houseling cloth in front of her to catch any crumbs. This representation is unique in East Anglia I think. The next panel, to the north-west, is more conventional. It depicts Confession. The penitent kneels before the priest in a shriving pew, while the devil sneaks out behind her. Then comes an unconventional Matrimony scene on the north panel. The couple stand close together on the right (if you look closely you can see two pairs of legs). The priest in the centre joins their hands while behind him an acolyte stands with the chrismatory chest. Finally, another conventional scene, Baptism on the north-east panel, the priest fully immersing the child in the font as the godparents look on.

Up in the nave roof, a series of bosses appear to depict flowers seen from beneath, but surely that can't be right. I am assuming they came with the rebuilding of the roof when the nave was widened in the 15th Century. There are holes in them which may indicate where something else was attached. Turning east, two unmatched corbel heads support the chancel arch, and then beyond that sanctuary at last resolves into white light and a splash of colour, as seemly and fitting as it should be, a lovely sight on a sunny day.

Simon Knott, April 2023

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looking east sanctuary
seven sacrament font: looking west head of a king (photographed 2006)
boss your memory hallowed in the land you loved


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