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St Mary, Heacham
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When I was little, I had an aunt and uncle who were better off than the rest of us. They owned a caravan here at Heacham, and as they were my godparents and had no children of their own, I was sometimes taken here for a few days. In those times before dual carriageways and bypasses, the journey in itself would be an adventure. I had never been abroad, I had not even been outside of East Anglia, and so I thought Heacham quite the most exotic place in the world.
Even today, the church of St Mary has an exotic feel to it. You can see at a glance that this was once a vast cruciform church, probably of the 13th century, a rarity in East Anglia. The tower survives, although truncated, but the transepts and chancel are gone, and the lowered nave sits rather oddly against it. There is a new chancel, probably of the mid-19th century, with a delightful rectangular east window. The removal of the transepts necessitated the building of a simply enormous buttress. There are little holes towards the top of it which caused puzzlement to both Pevsner and Mortlock. They look a bit like pigeon holes. But why?
This is an area of Norfolk where you expect the churches to be open, and St Mary is one of several which are not only open, but stewarded. This does mean that it closes earlier than most, and we arrived just before 4pm to find the signboards being taken in. However, the man on duty was very welcoming and pleased to see us, and he was very happy to stay open a bit longer and let us have a look around.
Cruciform churches have a habit of looking cluttered, and that is certainly the case here. It would be far worse if the pews in the nave had not been replaced with quality modern chairs, which I thought looked very good. The area beneath the tower is less happy, as though there is some indecision about whether the nave altar or the drum kit should have pride of place, and this unfortunately obscures the fine screen and cuts the pretty chancel off from the rest of the church.
The great treasure of St Mary is its collection of 15th century glass, mainly fiures set in the upper lights of the nave windows. The best are St Catherine and St Margaret, but there are also some kings carrying different implements, including an intriguing one with a halberd, who I think may be St Olaf.
The nave benefits from its vast west window by being filled with light in the afternoon, although I can imagine that it is all a bit darker on a winter's morning. St Mary could not be more of a contrast with its neighbour at Hunstanton St Edmund just to the north; where the other is the very height of Anglo-catholic papalist grandeur, here is an enthusiastically evangelical community with a talent for banners. The two together are a sign of the sheer breadth of the Church of England, and a reminder that this troubled institution would be sadly diminished without the both of them.
Simon Knott, September 2006
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