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

St Michael, Great Moulton

Moulton St Michael: crispness, everything to scale

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    St Michael, Great Moulton

Great Moulton, or Moulton St Michael as it is sometimes known to distingush it from Norfolk's two other Moultons, neither of which is particularly near, is one of those parishes that straggles around lanes, clustering into groups of houses, with a shop, a hall and a couple of churches. You get the feeling you could live here without having to leave it very often.

The village was home to one of the last surviving tin churches in East Anglia, Great Moulton Congregational. The building is now on display at the museum of East Anglian Life in Stowmarket. Its former near-neighbour, St Michael, sits fairly close to the Norwich to London railway line, which cuts through the middle of the village, which is itself only just off of the main A140 Ipswich to Norwich road.

nave and chancel almost the same size   But, as Mortlock observed, St Michael is easier seen from a distance than close up, and I'm glad I had an OS map with me. The towering, stuccoed former rectory next door is a better landmark; Pevsner notes that it is important, an early appearance in 1831 of what would later become a popular form.

You approach the church up a narrow lane, and as the small graveyard opens up the little church presents itself to you, tower end first. Everything is small and to scale, and there is a crispness to the bright flint and red brick of the tower that is reminiscent of 19th century village churches on the south coast of England, or in the north of Ireland. This is because the tower was completely rebuilt in the late 1880s, along with the north aisle.

As you walk up to the church, there is an ancient tombchest in the churchyard beside the path. The panels cannot be any later than the early 16th century, which would make this one of the earliest graveyard memorials in East Anglia. However, the top does not match, and the panels almost certainly came from elsewhere, probably inside a church, and it is unlikely to have been this one. Most likely, they were reused for their current purpose in the 17th or 18th century.

Continuing eastwards, you can look back at the church and see that the chancel is earlier than the nave, and is nearly as big. This is a juxtaposition that is repeated at several larger churches around here, including nearby Carleton Rode.

15th century panels  

Great Moulton is one of the Pilgrim Group of parishes, which are all very welcoming, and a pleasure to visit. However, one thing that everybody seems to notice about St Michael is quite how dark it is inside. We came here on a bright day in late winter, the white light slanting across the graveyard, but very little of it seems to get inside the church.

  stencilling in the chancel: low side window This is largely because of the lack of windows in the western part of the nave. There is just one window in the south wall, at the east end. It is a truncated three-light 14th century one, which creates a pool of light before the chancel arch, but not much else. As your eyes become accustomed to the light, you see that St Michael underwent a dramatic redecoration in the early years of the 20th century.

The walls are painted in pastel shades, and those in the chancel are stencilled with flowers, fleurs de lys and portraits of the four Evangelists. The window splays are full of intricate vinework, and scrolls containing Biblical quotations run along the walls. The scheme was topped off by a gorgeous large scale St Michael killing a dragon over the chancel arch, completed in 1909. Pevsner thought it was terrible, and you wouldn't want to find it in every church, but I am glad it has survived here.

Once, many churches had late 19th and early 20th century stencilling - you can see something on a much larger scale nearby at North Tuddenham - but virtually all of them had their walls whitewashed in the 1950s and 1960s when this kind of decoration fell from favour.

Their survival here gives St Michael a most pleasing atmosphere that cries out for the flickering of oil lamps and smoky candles. The walls are matched by floor tiling in the nave, which is less successful, or perhaps it is only more familiar.

  stencilling in the chancel: south side   stencilling in the chancel: evangelists

The war memorial window features St Michael and St George, both in rather martial poses. A curiosity nearby is a Norman pillar, perhaps part of an old cross. When Mortlock came this way he found it outside the church, but now it is in the sanctuary.

Just as the darkness acts as a counterpoint to the decoration, so it must have suited the seriousness of the 17th and 18th century English Church. There are some fascinating survivals of those centuries at the west end of the church, high up in the darkness so that you probably won't even notice them unless you know they are there.

Firstly, either side of the tower arch are the two decalogue boards moved from the chancel by the Victorians. As is often the case with earlier sets, they include depictions of the two law-bringers, Moses and Aaron, one at the top of each board.

royal arms: Charles I? Moses Aaron George III

Secondly, there are two sets of royal arms, one above the north door and one above the south. Neither has endured the passage of time without damage, but both are interesting. Those above the south door, on canvas, are to George III, and carry the names of churchwardens Edward Wiseman and George Borrett, and the date 1762. Those above the north door, painted on board, are not clear at all, but appear to be a rare set to Charles I.

There is an 18th century charity board in the north aisle, and it must be said that this aisle feels thoroughly rustic, without the urban patina so much Victorian work has. It could almost be medieval, if you didn't know. The font is a grand 15th century one with lions and fleurons on the bowl. The stem has been vandalised, and when Mortlock came this way the lions around the base had been replaced with plaster ones. But these are now gone.

The oldest thing inside the church is actually the original 14th century chancel arch, which was not rebuilt. It has little heads at 30cm intervals. I wonder how many are portraits of parishioners of the time? This is a lovely church, quite unlike any other in this part of Norfolk, with a special character and atmosphere all of its own. It won't be long before I return, I hope.

  chancel arch head

Simon Knott, February 2006

stencilled nave looking east looking west font north aisle
chancel arch detail charity board Norman pillar St Michael and St George

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