home I index I latest I glossary I introductions I e-mail I about this site

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

St Mary, Hemsby


    St Mary, Hemsby
parvise chapel altar   Hemsby is a large village a few miles to the north of Great Yarmouth, best known for its miles of sandy beaches which are better than Yarmouth's, and certainly a lot cleaner. The front is lined with the usual souvenir shops and fish bars, which Pevsner snobbishly refers to as having been thrown up for the popular side of the holiday market, but Hemsby is the kind of place whose seediness is a part of its charm. I like it a lot.

Hemsby has struggled in recent years after the closure of the Pontins holiday camp, its largest employer, in 2009, and it also suffered badly from the incursions of the sea in the great storm of 2013, when half a dozen houses were lost. All in all it is like much of the east coast - forgotten, neglected, needy, run down, and a million miles from the middle class intellectuals of London who still can't understand why this part of the world voted so strongly to leave the European Union.

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.

St George by William Aikman, 1908 Dorcas by William Aikman, 1908 Creation by Caroline Swash, 1985 shields St George and Dorcas by William Aikman, 1908

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

looking east St Mary the Virgin Hemsby Mothers Union Died of his wounds in France
agnus dei antiphoner

Amazon commission helps cover the running costs of this site.

home I index I latest I introductions I e-mail I about this site I glossary
links I small print I www.simonknott.co.uk I www.suffolkchurches.co.uk
ruined churches I round tower churches

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