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

St Mary, Gressenhall

Gressenhall: imposing

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     like a French abbey church east end from the south-west

    St Mary, Gressenhall
old door   Gressenhall is a large village, not far from Dereham. It sprawls along the gentle valley, merging into neighbouring Beetley, and is home to the Dereham Union workhouse building, which is today the magnificent Museum of Norfolk Rural Life. If Dereham has commuters, then Gressenhall and Beetley are exactly the kind of places that they would live, I suppose, but there is nothing suburban about Gressenhall. It is a pretty place with its village green and cottages, and I liked it a lot.

The parish church of St Mary is a good mile outside the village, set in the narrow sunken lanes to the south. Some churches like this seem to be hiding away, but St Mary is a large, impressive building, sitting boldly in the fields as if it was the church of some great French abbey.

The imposing central tower is perhaps a little over-restored, and this gives it an echo of Castle Rising church, but in fact Perpendicular is more in evidence here than Romanesque. The wide, sloping graveyard is a perfect setting. In the silence, apart from birdsong, there was a sense of remoteness.

Gressenhall church must be one of the largest churches in Norfolk to be kept locked, and the parish seems wary of visitors. However, thanks to the efforts of Chris Harrison, who had been here before, we tracked down a key on the edge of the village green and were able to see inside.

We stepped into a stillness to match the silence outside. As with all central-towered churches, there is a sense of rooms that open up off each of other, the aisles, chancel and the transepts forming separate spaces of their own. High above the tower arch, a double headed window reveals the Norman origins of the place, but otherwise this feels an early 20th century space in a medieval shell.

angels on the rood screen   The 15th century font has been enthusiastically vandalised; most of the panels feature hanging shields, but on one panel in particular the iconoclasts really went to town. I wonder what it depicted. Perhaps more interesting than the font are two other medieval survivals.

One is a relief of the martyrdom of St Stephen. He kneels, and is stoned to death. Such reliefs were once common, but few survived the 16th century Anglican enthusiasm for the destruction of images, and those that did were discarded to be found centuries later under floorboards and sealed up in walls.

Propped up against the south wall are some panels from the rood screen. They depict St Leonard, St Augustine, St Stephen and St Michael, all barely decipherable now thanks to vandalism, although the St Michael appears as if it was a good one. The restored roof of the south transept nearby is very beautiful.

There was once a west gallery. We know this, because on a ledger stone in the nave Robert Halcot is remembered. He died in 1640; in the primitive script of those puritan days his inscription reads HIM HAVE WEE FOR A TIME LOST WHO BILT THIS GALEREY ATT HIS OWNE COST.

The brass Latin inscription to Sarah Estmond, of some thirty years earlier, retains some of the elegance and erudition of earlier times, and reminds us quite how much educational standards were to drop during the first half of the 17th century.


Simon Knott, September 2006

looking east north door Sarah Estmond, 1609
tower arch chancel nave, looking east south aisle Romanesque survival
vandalised font Arthur Edward Martyr Ward at Galipolli Dame Ann Wodehouse St Leonard, St Augustine, St Stephen and St Michael door to the tower
 20th century royal arms 20th century reredos 20th century angel Good Samaritan
Good Samaritan stoning of Stephen Robert Halcot, 1640

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