GREAT WITCHINGHAM LITTLE WITCHINGHAM
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The Assumption, Great Witchingham
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Assumption, Great Witchingham
The church sits in a round graveyard surrounded by stately lime trees. On this day in early June they were vast and threshing, their sticky leaves pungent, their branches interlocking. We had to duck down to enter the gate, and if they were left then they would, in a very few years, completely hide this church. The building fits snugly into the space, not large, but with the aisles and clerestory that reflect the money lavished on it in the 15th century. The tower is 14th century, the chancel 13th century with evidence of earlier work; all in all, a typical East Anglian church. Brick details enliven the clerestory, and the most westerly window on each side is false, the tracery filled with flint. It would never have been a window.
The dedication of the church is to the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, which may well have been its medieval dedication; after all, it was the most common dedication in East Anglia. Its reintroduction here seems to have been based on its appearance on the font (of which, more in a moment) and the enthusiasms of a century ago. However, they might just as well have used the porch as evidence, and called it the Annunciation, for in the spandrels are two excellent carvings depicting Mary at her prayer desk and the announcing angel with his scroll. The angel looks medieval, but I think Mary has been recut. Certainly, it is of a quality with the spandrel carvings at neighbouring Salle and Cawston. Also worth a look is the headstone set against the west side of the porch; it includes a portrait of the dead man.
Stepping inside, the most striking feature is, of course, the font. It is one of the finest in England, and not only because it retains so much medieval colour. Although the Sacrament reliefs themselves are a little characterless, the attention to detail, and the symbols of Saints below the bowl, make this very special, and, of course, there is that relief of the Assumption, such a rare survival. It faces north-west, and anti-clockwise around the font from it are the panels for Mass (seen sideways, the Priest kneeling at the altar, the acolyte behind with a taper), Ordination (the ordinand kneeling), Baptism (the Priest lowering the baby into the water), Confirmation (the confirmee standing), Penance (the Priest sits in a chair, the confessor on a bench, an angel guards them while the devil sneaks out the back way), Matrimony and the Last Rites (the sick man apparently on the floor covered in blankets). To see all these enlarged, click on the images below.
Also below you can see enlargements of the Saints symbols beneath the bowl. The four Evangelists alternate with the four Doctors of the church - these last four seem to have been a popular subject locally, as they are on the roodscreen doors at both Cawston and Salle. The eagle of St John is under the Assumption panel, and then anti-clockwise they are St Ambrose, the lion of St Mark, St Gregory, St Matthew, St Augustine, the bull of St Luke, and St Jerome. Between the eight Saints are the heads of kings.
The interior is a little disappointing after such wonder, the victim of a middle-brow Victorian restoration. It is hard to imagine that altar ablaze today. However, there are a number of other medieval survivals; bench ends of an angel and devil on the north side of the nave are very characterful, and high in the nave roof are some splendid angels, wingless but unrestored. Several carry shields that appear blank, which is a curiosity, since others carry a scroll, a cross and a heart, suggesting that these were once instruments of the passion. But why bother to climb into the roof to erase the shields but not remove the angels? Perhaps they were never finished, or perhaps my lens simply couldn't make out the details. The most easterly bay is ceilured, and would have carried the canopy of honour to the rood, but this has long since been lost.
The parish contained some people of importance in the century or so after the Reformation. There are a couple of interesting brass inscriptions, but best of all is the early 17th century memorial to George and Alice Meares, erected by their daughter Susan Birde. Its puritan sentiments deserve repeating:
Stay (Gentle reader) stay, and lend us
Another memorial has been reset in a filled-in window embrasure on the north side of the chancel. Perhaps the most striking object here other than the font is the remarkably big lectern, quite out of scale with the rest of the furnishings. It is an eagle, but what a bird! You'd soon run if you saw this fellow coming in to land. It came from New College Oxford in the 19th century, and was used as the pulpit before the present simple one was brought here in 1974 from St Matthias, Colindale. It seemed a pity to see it now redundant in the south aisle.
Also in this aisle are a couple of chests, one with apparently far eastern designs burned into it. Above are a good set of Charles II royal arms with a donor inscription along the bottom.
All in all, a seemly, homely little building. We found it locked, but a key is available a few doors away - or, at least, it is if the keyholder isn't out. Luckily, I had the telephone number of a churchwarden, and they kindly offered me the key. I could see no reason why this building shouldn't be open, though.
Simon Knott, June 2004
You can also read: an introduction to the churches of the Witchinghams
The Evangelists and
Inside the church:
an introduction to the churches of the Witchinghams
GREAT WITCHINGHAM LITTLE WITCHINGHAM
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