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All Saints, Gresham
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If it wasn't for one particular feature of this church, there is little that would make All Saints stand out from the rest of Norfolk's lesser churches. The setting is undeniably attractive in this pleasant village in the hills south of Cromer, but the exterior is just a little too neat - you can see that most of it is the work of successive Victorian restorations in the 1850s and 1860s - even the bell windows and battlements of the tower were renewed and the porch rebuilt. The south side is saved from mundanity by a deliciously crisp late Perpendicular window set between two earlier ones - how dull it would have been if the Victorians had replaced them to make them uniform!
The church was open, and welcoming. We came here on a bright summer day, but stepping inside was a bit like entering the chill and dull of an October evening. To be honest, I felt sorry for the place. There was little in the way of decoration, nothing much to leaven the ambience. A severe cross hangs above the chancel arch, the chancel beyond as austere as the nave. This is a world away from the nearby Anglo-catholic bright lights of Erpingham and Calthorpe.
But Gresham is still a Mecca for church explorers, because it contains one of the best of the East Anglian seven sacrament fonts series. This is one where the panels are crammed with features, the people almost jostling for position, and the figures are so expressive - look at the Priest and dying man in the Last Rites panel! There are intriguing little details, like the sacring bell and rope in the Mass panel. The condition also puts it among the best of the series. The eighth panel depicts the Baptism of Christ in the Jordan, including God the Father in Heaven releasing the dove of the Holy Spirit. You can see them all enlarged below.
A little bit of 19th century sentiment can be found in the south chancel windows, where two of the favourite mass-produced subjects of the Victorians, The Good Shepherd and Holman Hunt's The Light of the World, are set. To be honest, they aren't great. More striking is the triple memorial to three sons of the Batt family, all killed in World War II. A display below gives the stories of their lives and of the Batt families, and is very moving. The memorial itself is among the best of its kind in Norfolk, in a part of the county where there are some excellent 20th century memorials -at Hanworth and Felbrigg, for example. Often, it is in quiet places like this that you find such things, as if such a simple church has more room to remember.
I later discovered, rather curiously, that the reason Gresham is so plain and white is because of the very Lt Col Batt whose sons are memorialised here. A correspondent tells me that Batt was an ardent Protestant at a time when the Vicar was wildly Anglo-Catholic. The Colonel demanded that all the popish decorations and ornaments in the church be removed. When the Vicar refused, Batt took the church to a Consistory Court and won, and so all the decorations were taken away or whitewashed. My correspondent reflects that this was one of the last wholescale battles of the kind. Locals think that Batt became unhinged by the deaths of his sons and took it out on the church; one of them remembers that he even tried to have the font boarded up because of the figures on it.
Before WWII, I am told, Gresham was as bright an Anglo-Catholic light as Erpingham and Calthorpe. Indeed, the Patron of the Living is still The Guild of All Souls, although they must take their turn appointing with the other parishes in the group these days. My correspondent also says that Colonel Batt would have been quite outraged by the bit of lace on the altar coyly peeping through in the picture of the east end below.
Simon Knott, September 2005
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