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St Mary, Hemsby
The heart of Hemsby village is about a mile from the sea, and here's where the parish church is, a tall, rather stark structure of the early 14th Century which was substantially rebuilt in the 1860s and underwent another major and necessary restoration in the 1970s. The most striking external feature is the tall south porch, which we will come back to in a moment. St Mary is not a famous or important church, and is probably not on many church explorers' wish-lists, so it is with some delight that I can tell you that this church is open every day to pilgrims, strangers and locals in need of a prayerful space. It is everything a local parish church should be.
Access to the church is through the north side, and you step into a long hall of a church, entirely in keeping with its 14th Century origins. Even on this dull day it was full of light, because the only coloured glass is up in the chancel, and it is a good collection of decent 20th Century glass from before and after the Wars. William Aikman's window of 1908 depicts St George and Dorcas as the virtues of Fortitude and Charity. The excellent east window of 1985 is by Caroline Swash, probably best known for the Herbert Howells memorial window in Gloucester Cathedral, and uses a variety of Christian symbols set in the imagery of Creation.
Hemsby church has two great secrets. One of them is the beautiful little prayer chapel in the parvise of the south porch, which you reach by climbing the steps in the south-west corner of the nave. It is very similar to the one at Blythburgh in Suffolk. It is wonderful to think of this lovely space being accessible to the people of Hemsby every day. The other secret is immediately below it, and it is here, I am afraid, that I must have a little moan. The vaulting of the south porch is decorated with bosses, and the most significant of them is a representation of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin. Such a boss survives elsewhere in Norfolk only at Walpole St Peter, Wymondham and Norwich Cathedral. The Assumption was the most popular feast of the East Anglian medieval church. On the 15th of August, the height of the harvest, a great celebration of thanksgiving took place, and the Assumption was the most popular dedication of Norfolk and Suffolk churches. But unfortunately the porch is kept locked from both inside and out, and although you can make out the boss through the grill, you can't see it properly.
St Mary was my 909th Norfolk church. Now, I only have two medieval Norfolk churches still to visit, Fakenham and Shingham. But there are plenty of post-Reformation churches left to keep me busy and make that total up to a round thousand. St Mary is not, perhaps, an important building when compared with most of that number, and no one could accuse Hemsby of being an attractive place, so the welcoming interior in general, and the prayer chapel above the porch in particular, seem all the more important, especially as the church is open every day.
Simon Knott, October 2016
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