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

St John the Baptist, Hellington


south porch Hellington Hellington
Norman doorway south porch beyond the round tower up the churchyard path south doorway

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  St John the Baptist, Hellington

This church sits on its own on a rise not far from the Yare, in that area south of Norwich which has the largest concentration of medieval churches in northern Europe. This is partly because it was the most densely populated area of England at Domesday, but also because of the very nature of this area between the Yare and the Waveney, with rivers and creeks which had given the Anglo-Saxons a landscape for farming, for trade and to live in. The result was a large number of smaller settlements, and those settlements developed into the parish system, each with its own church. Under the circumstances it is not surprising that some of the churches have been declared redundant. Perhaps the only surprise is quite how many are still in use.

Hellington's church is in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust (CCT), a tribute to the fact that it is architecturally more significant than many of its neighbours. As Paul Cattermole's rigorous church guide observes, this was firstly due to the amount of money lavished on it by the de Kerdiston family in the 14th Century, and then in the following century, a period of major church rebuilding elsewhere in East Anglia, it was barely touched. This may be because the manor was by then in the hands of the fabulously wealthy de la Pole family, and these absentee landlords had their priorities elsewhere. Major repairs and restructuring are recorded in the late 17th Century after the dark night of the Civil War and Commonwealth. The Manor had been in the ownership of the puritan Gaudy family during those years, and expenditure on church buildings would have been looked on with some suspicion. Curiosities arise as a result of these repairs, even puzzles.

Hellington benefited from an early 19th Century restoration, a reasonably thoughtful one of about 1840, and then an extremely late one that removed the more objectionable features of the first. So it is a building of some character, and yet the most striking sight as you enter the churchyard is the south porch. It is so unusual that it has made church historians wary. Cautley thought it interesting, Pevsner wrote that it was spectacular. Decorated period porches are not unknown in this part of Norfolk, but they are unusual, and the sheer proportions of this porch, particularly against that Norman doorway and the great round tower beyond, give pause for thought. Those angled image niches either side of the entrance, for example. Not only are they completely out of proportion, but they also appear to have broken springings for vaulting at their tops. Further, the springing points forward, suggesting that originally these niches were inside a vaulted structure. Also curious of proportion are the large ogee-headed arches in the side walls of the porch, their depth making the thick walls quite out of proportion. Surely they are six old window lancets! And finally, given that the structure is so big, why is it too narrow for the Norman doorway? It cuts into it on either side. Surely no 14th Century mason would have done such a thing. Pevsner wondered if it had been moved from elsewhere, but if so it was moved before either of the 19th Century restorations. Ladbroke drew it in situ in the 1820s, and Higham ten years earlier, so it was certainly here before the 19th Century enthusiasm for recreating the medieval. Higham found it lined with stone benches, and yet, it is so wildly open to the elements.

The whole thing looks as if it is the product of an enthusiastic and yet architecturally inarticulate designer. Perhaps the front face of the porch is the original from the 14th Century, but the east and west walls of the porch are a later rebuilding at some point using medieval tracery collected from elsewhere. It is a fairly plain, simple frontage, and there is no reason to think that the other two original walls of the porch would have been thicker or more elaborate. If they were replaced by the six Decorated openings there today, three on each side, and the stonework was thicker than the original walls, they would have had to be cut into the Norman doorway to fit the porch frontage. At the same time, the angled niches, which like the openings came from another building - nearby Langley Abbey perhaps? - were perhaps stuck at angles onto the front of the porch, wholly out of keeping and proportion. Intriguing.

Like all CCT churches, the interior is simple, clean, well-kept. The great Decorated east window with its 1860s glass by J & J King of Norwich fills the chancel with light even on a gloomy day thanks to their customary use of light pastel-coloured glass. As if echoing the grandeur of the porch outside, the chancel arch capitals are elaborate. Before it there is an interesting brass of 1642 to Sir Anthony Gaudy which features his symbol of a tortoise.His inscription tells us that Vertue, Justice, Goodnes, Race are all interd wthin this place, with this good knight so good whose fame that now in heaven most glorious is his name, wheather he is gon to Christ his rocke to singe Haileuiahs with his celestial flocke. You step into the light of the chancel, and look back into the nave. It seems older than where you are standing now, and is probably essentially the Norman church, its walls extended upwards - you can see the blocked 14th Century clerestory from outside. The chancel is quite different, a creamy, sophisticated place, as long and wide and tall as the nave against which it stands.

The enquiry into the state of the chancel that preceded the restoration of the late 17th Century throws up another curious detail. The Bishop wanted to know who would be responsible for the upkeep of the western part of the chancel, was it the parish or the rectory? This was because at some point the roodscreen had been moved eastwards from the chancel arch to about halfway up the chancel. Why was this done? We know it was originally in the arch, because the fitting holes are still there today. Paul Cattermole suggests that it was moved in the late 15th Century to accommodate a larger congregation as a cheaper alternative to rebuilding the nave with aisles. Instead, the parishioners would be allowed to take over the western part of the chancel.

This sounds convincing, but perhaps it isn't quite right. Firstly, the rural population of Norfolk was smaller in the 15th Century than it had been 150 years previously when the chancel was built. If it followed the common pattern, it would probably not return to its pre-Black Death levels until well into the 17th Century, reaching a peak for the 1851 census, before fading away. Secondly, it would be an unusual thing to do. I have not come across a screen moved eastwards in the 15th Century anywhere in East Anglia - indeed, the opposite is sometimes the case. And further, late medieval aisles were not added to churches to accommodate larger congregations, but to allow the full panoply of the processions required by the late medieval liturgy.

At the time of the Anglican Reformation in the mid-16th Century, chancels fell into disuse as the new liturgy demanded a holy table lengthways within the nave. Archbishop Laud, in the early 17th Century, reinstated them in the chancel, insisting that altars should be placed sideways against the east wall, and hemmed in by his innovation, altar rails. After the Restoration of the Crown in 1660 the Anglicans were back in charge, but there was never a wide scale return to Laud's reforms and chancel use. Indeed, for the next 150 years the focus of Anglican worship would still be the pulpit, not the altar. And yet, many chancels survived. The main reason, of course, is that they had a number of other possible uses. Some became schools, others vestries, others meeting rooms.

Laud had not required the return of screens where they had been lost, but most parishes found them a useful way of dividing off the chancel, which is why so many had survived the Reformation. Because the Church of England retained many of the administrative structures from the Catholic Church that had preceded it, there was a difference in funding arrangements for upkeep of nave and chancel. The nave was the responsibility of the parish, and its repairs were funded by the parish rates. Care of the chancel came from the rectory, which is to say the income derived from tithes. This was what the Bishop of Norwich was querying - in the years after the Commonwealth, when church records were in a state of disarray, what was the position at Hellington? Historically, where had responsibility been demarcated? All in all it seems probable that the screen was not moved during the 15th Century at all, but in the late 16th or early 17th Century, to partition off a smaller room in this big chancel for secular uses.

At the time of the 1851 Census of Religious Worship, Hellington, or Hillington as it was usually recorded had a population of just eighty-seven people. The parish had been combined with that of nearby Claxton, and the two were in the care of a curate, Clement Gilbert, who gave his address as Ashby Hall, Bergh Apton. Curiously, White's Directory of Norfolk in 1844 gave the incumbent as a Reverend J Gilbert of nearby Chedgrave who, White reported, has an estate and neat mansion here. Perhaps Clement was his son. Morning and afternoon service alternated at Hellington and Claxton, and Gilbert claimed an average attendance at Hellington of thirty in the morning and forty-five in the afternoon. Even accounting for the one hundred and eighty-six people in Claxton, this was pretty good going for south-east Norfolk. Not least, because Claxton Particular Baptist Chapel claimed an attendance of five hundred in the morning and six hundred in the evening. David Pegg, the Baptist minister, emphasised that with six hundred seats there was standing room only, and that in the aisles. If those totals do not seem wholly credible, they are a reminder of the lack of appetite for the Established Church that persisted almost into living memory in rural Norfolk.

Simon Knott, December 2022

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looking east chancel chancel
font looking west Crucifixion and scenes (J&J King, c1860) war memorial (Miller, 1919)
The Empty Tomb (J&J King, c1860) The Good Shepherd (J&J King, c1860) agnus dei Nativity (J&J King, c1860)
Sir Anthony Gaudy (1642) Sir Anthony Gaudy's tortoise (1642)


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