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

All Saints, Hilgay

Hilgay: harmonious

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entrance beneath the tower from the north-east west end east end

    All Saints, Hilgay
lych gate   Hilgay is one of those large, independent south-west Norfolk fen villages that feel as if they really ought to be in Cambridgeshire. The church is set away from the village centre, and you'd be unlikely to find it without a map if it wasn't for the handily named Church Street.

I was born ten miles away from here in Ely, and Hilgay was just about the outer limits of the residential area of my considerable number of cousins. I was pleased to see that it was such a civilised place. I hadn't visited All Saints since a wedding almost twenty years ago, and there's been a lot of fenland water under the bridge since then. You can never tell what places will be like when you go back to them.

Under the circumstances, it was surprising that I had forgotten the walk up to the church. All Saints is set about a hundred metres back from the road, and the avenue of limes that lead up to it must be the longest in East Anglia. It certainly seemed so on this leaden morning of heavy drizzle. We had spent the previous evening drinking long into the night with Mark and Ben of the Cambridgeshire Churches site. Now, nobody ever got a hangover from decent beer, but I have to admit to feeling a bit sluggish as I hauled myself up the path.

The walk is well worth it, and would be if it was three times as long. There's a nice set of gates up on the road, and when you get to the graveyard itself there is that unusual thing in East Anglia, a roofed lych gate. You reach a churchyard that feels entirely surrounded by nature, and there was a dripping wet silence which obscured all sound of the outside world. The church is long and apparently low, although this is in fact an illusion caused by the squatness of the tower. It appears very un-East Anglian, the nave and chancel in layered carstone and the tower in white brick, a combination I can't remember seeing anywhere else in the region. The carstone of the south aisle is not layered but ragged, and this creates a very primitive, rugged effect, like a marbled gingerbread cake.

The large gravestone with an anchor and heart on this side of the graveyard is striking, and you might think at first it is the memorial to Hilgay's most famous son, Captain Thomas Manby. Manby was the inventor of the Manby cradle, a device for rescuing sailors from stranded ships at sea (I hope you're taking notes, there will be a test at the end) but in fact it isn't. His memorial is inside the church.

George Street undertook the considerable restoration of All Saints in the 1860s, although the tower predates this by about seventy years, replacing one which collapsed in the 1790s. The roof is now high-pitched, but there is still a medieval feel to the building, particularly from the south.

Hilgay was one of Anglo-catholicism's fenland outposts, and this tradition is preserved to the extent that it is still open every day. A word of warning: the entrance is at the base of the tower, and there are no windows. You need to leave the outer door open before you open the inner door, otherwise you'll never find it.

bench end   bench end   The interior is wide and open, and at first appears almost entirely 19th century. The aisle is as wide as the nave, and the aisle chapel altar is as grand and dressed as the main altar. It feels a little like two churches side by side. Just inside the door is a very rare beast, a glass-walled funeral bier. The font is a grand Victorian marble job, and matches the not quite so successful pulpit. They do seem a little outof place here, a reminder that Street's urban, sophisiticated style is sometimes a little uncomfortable in East Anglia.

There is a good set of 15th century benches with animals on some of the ends, including a rather disturbing anthropomorphic creature that I suppose must be something from a bestiary. From a century or so later comes the memorial to Henry and Ursula Hawe in the south aisle chapel.

All Saints is not the most exciting of churches, but it has a lovely harmonious feel, from the stations of the cross to the good late 19th century glass by Ward and Hughes, from the screen brought from the redundant St Mary Beswick in Manchester to the jaunty little gallery shoehorned under the tower which Pevsner, unaccountably, thought dull.

Captain Danby's memorial is in the south aisle chapel, and records that his is a name to be remembered as long as there is a stranded ship. Poignantly, the memorial also remembers four of his eight brothers and sisters who died in infancy. It is a fairly typical sentimental memorial of the mid-19th century, but has a striking addition that you only notice after a moment. In another hand along the bottom, someone has inscribed carefully The public should have paid this tribute. How curious! There must be a story there somewhere.

Simon Knott, May 2006


looking east looking west font by Street pulpit by Street 
Good Samaritan chancel south aisle chapel marian I marian II
gallery glass covered bier memorial Presentation in the Temple
gravestone gravestone entrance to hell - no, not really, the boiler house. no thoroughfare

view back up the path


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