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

St Andrew, Great Ryburgh

Great Ryburgh

Great Ryburgh

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St Andrew, Great Ryburgh

The River Wensum rushes headlong towards Norwich separating Great and Little Ryburgh, and as if in sympathy Great Ryburgh itself is a busy village perhaps best known for its huge maltings complex, visible for miles around. Appropriately enough, the name Ryburgh means 'rye-town'. Its church seems a busy place too, and it is that unusual thing, a cruciform round-towered church. There's another one not far off at Stody, suggesting a local enthusiasm perhaps. As usual, the bulk of the tower is 12th Century with evidence of earlier work, and then in the 14th Century the octagonal bell stage was added. The second half of this latter century seems to be when the considerable rebuilding of the church began, to be completed before the Reformation. The church sits at the entrance to the village in a relatively small, tight churchyard, making of it something of a domestic and friendly place. To the south of the church sits a beautiful new flint and mortar structure, the William Martin Building, a conversion and extension of the former early 20th Century gas house which produced the gas to light and heat the church. It serves not only as a useful facility for the church but is also intended for use by pilgrims making their way to Walsingham.

You enter the church through the south porch, and step into a busy space which, thanks to its cruciform shape, seems to have rooms heading off in all directions. The glass is a large scheme by William Wailes which was installed over twenty years or so from 1860 onwards. At the west end of the nave is the grand Norman curve of the tower arch, a backdrop to the 19th Century font and the 1930s font cover which is believed to be the work of James and Lillian Dagless. The font carries the inscription Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. Above, the organ sits in an elegant west gallery. The view to the east confirms that Great Ryburgh has long been a star in the Anglo-Catholic firmament, and the most striking evidence of this is the chancel which Ninian Comper restored and refurnished just before the First World War. His is the decorative ceiling, and also the alabaster reredos. The central crucifixion with the Blessed Virgin and St John is flanked by St George dispatching a dragon, St Hugh of Lincoln with his swan, St Helen with the true cross, and St Edmund with a broodily prowling wolf. The grain of the cross is the same as that in Comper's contemporary glass at Ufford in Suffolk.

reredos (Ninian Comper, 1912) reredos: Crucifixion (Ninian Comper, 1912)
reredos: St George and St Hugh of Lincoln (Ninian Comper, 1912) reredos: St Helen and St Edmund (Ninian Comper, 1912)

The Comper restoration in general, and the reredos in particular, were commissioned by the Reverend Hugh Tatham, Rector of Great Ryburgh from 1910 to 1947. The story of Comper's involvement with Great Ryburgh is recounted in Tatham's somewhat exhaustive correspondence with the artist and his workshop assistants. The commission must have been one of his first acts as incumbent, but in fact he was no stranger to Great Ryburgh because he had been born in the rectory here in 1868, when his father was the rector. Peter Trent has pointed out to me that the saints on the reredos represent the names of Tatham's father George Edmund Tatham, his wife Helen and Hugh Tatham himself. It was Tatham's father who had overseen the first restoration of Great Ryburgh church in 1860 which brought the splendid scheme of William Wailes's glass, but one of the other results of it is a curiosity. This is the monument in the chancel which seems to be made up of parts of two different 16th Century memorials.

There are no aisles, and so the three arches that meet at the crossing create a powerful moment. The chancel arch is spanned by a great rood, also the work of James and Lilliam Dagless. The northern part of the north transept is screened off as a vestry, on the front of which there are lists of incumbents of Great Ryburgh church and a couple of others now lost to us. The south transept opposite is dedicated as the chapel of St Thomas. The entrance into the transept is divided off by a war memorial screen, the names of the men who went out from the Ryburghs and never came back inscribed on its dado. On the south side of the screen are saints, St Remigius, St Guthlac, St Etheldreda, St Andrew, St Thomas, St Withburga, St Walstan and St Felix.

war memorial screen war memorial screen

Across the Wensum from Great Ryburgh, the church of Little Ryburgh has been in ruins for centuries, and Great Ryburgh church has long served both villages. There's an interesting footnote in the return made by the Reverend AB Hemsworth, curate of the Ryburghs at the time of the 1851 National Census of Religious Worship. The two villages had a combined population of about eight hundred people, but only fifty-odd of them chose to attend morning worship on the day of the census. This figure, of about one in sixteen, is low even for rural Norfolk. An explanation might be that the Ryburghs between them had no fewer than five non-conformist congregations meeting either in chapels or private houses, and although they only managed about one hundred attenders between them, there must have been many more heading off to the fiery dissenting preaching houses of nearby Fakenham.

Certainly, it is clear there was little appetite for the Established Church in rural north Norfolk. The main reasons for the census were to find out the capacity of each church, how many people were actually attending it, and the income of the incumbent in each case. Not surprisingly, a fair number of incumbents were wary of making a return, and the main outcome of the census, that not many people in England attended their parish church, provided a shock for the Church of England, as did the sheer enthusiasm of the non-conformists. The Reverend Hemsworth, a pluralist who was also the Rector of Rockland All Saints near Attleborough, and whose income from the Ryburghs alone was about 100,000 a year in today's money, was in no mood to sympathise with them. From ignorance, dissent, poverty and diffidence from long neglect, but few attend the parish church of Great Ryburgh, he wrote. In my opinion it would be well to rebuild the church of Little Ryburgh. You can't help thinking that this suggestion was the triumph of hope over experience, but in any case he would soon be replaced by the Tatham dynasty, and the Anglican revival in Norfolk of the second half of the century would change everything.

Simon Knott, May 2022

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looking east looking west
font and tower arch south transept altar chancel Our Lady of Walsingham
monument panelling, 16th Century ('a jumble of parts' - Pevsner) high altar of such is the Kingdom of Heaven (William Wailes, 1868, restored 1970)
St Andrew

   
   
               
                 

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