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St Margaret, Hales
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St Margaret is extraordinary because so much of its original Norman fabric survives. Indeed, apart from some 13th century windows punched into the apse (a rare example of transitional vandalism!) you wouldn't know anything had happened here since the 1100s. The blank arcading on the apse is superb, and once went all the way around it. Most famous of all, the north doorway, its six orders so similar to the five at Heckingham that they must be by the same mason.
I had read several accounts of visits to this church, but all appeared to have been made in summer. Today, in deepest winter, I found it a stark, rather bleak place, overwhelmed by the noise from the nearby Norwich to Beccles road. Perhaps summer foliage absorbs the sound. Some churches, of course, are at their best in the bleak mid-winter, nearby Heckingham for example. But I longed for summer sunshine on those honeyed walls. A good excuse to go back in the summer.
Inside, the air was that of the previous day's sub-zero temperatures - it caught your breath as you went in. The interior has the prescribed simplicity of all CCT churches, a neatness and cleanness that is to be admired and imitated. Ahead is the great St Christopher, which is very faded, but the heads of the two figures are very characterful. The figure in the splay of a south wall window is probably St James with his staff. High above, two angels blowing trumpets are tucked into the eaves above where the rood loft once was.
There is a good view of the interior from the gallery, and you can also go into the base of the tower itself. The splays of the round windows still have the impress of the basketwork of 900 years ago - an astounding thought. Also ancient is the wooden shelf inside the aumbry on the north chancel wall.
The font is relatively modern, only 500 years old! The snooty little lions reminded me of their cousins at Salthouse, although the smiles here are nowhere near as friendly. There is a famous 17th century font cover associated with it - it has the silhouette of the Rector of the day on its base. It is now in safe keeping at Booton, where I had seen it a few months previously, but had omitted to photograph it. A good excuse to go back there, too.
Simon Knott, December 2004
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