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

St Giles, Houghton St Giles

Houghton St Giles

Houghton St Giles church and old rectory

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St Giles, Houghton St Giles

People must have often passed this church with a sense of impending excitement, for it sits a mile from Walsingham on the old road from Fakenham. It is the last place you pass through before you reach 'England's Nazareth', and in fact the parish played a significant role in the history of Walsingham, for just across the lively River Stiffkey from the church is the medieval chapel known today as the Slipper Chapel, the last staging post for those making the long pilgrimage to remote Walsingham in the Middle Ages. Today the chapel forms part of the National Catholic Shrine of Our Lady. The tiny lanes that lead down from the top road cross the Stiffkey through fords which even in summer are surprisingly deep. No problem of course for locals with their 4x4s and tractors, but they must come as a surprise to visitors not used to such things.

The church sits with the old rectory and a few cottages for company. Another road runs off over the ridge to Great Snoring, so it seems likely this was once a much busier and more important place. Today it is idyllic, and I have sometimes wondered what it must be like for pilgrims who wander across the Stiffkey from the National Shrine. Arriving after a long coach journey along motorways from bleak post-industrial inner city parishes in Middlesbrough, Glasgow or Liverpool, they step out into a gently rolling landscape of high-hedged fields and lanes, of bubbling brooks and ancient flinty buildings, of birdsong and clear sunlight. Perhaps it is like a vision of heaven. They must often think of afterwards, daydreaming of this place and imagining their return one day.

The church is a neat, shipshape building, thoroughly done up in the 1870s by the enthusiastic William Eden Nesfield who pretty much rebuilt it reusing the old materials. As Pevsner notes wrily, the exterior is dull, as one would expect. Stepping inside comes as no surprise, for this long aisleless church speaks mostly of Nesfield's work, although the Perpendicular unity is pleasing. Perhaps Pevsner is harsh. And there are some interesting survivals, the best of which is the 15th Century roodscreen.

Norfolk has no shortage of roodscreens, but no other is quite like Houghton's. It must be said that both Cautley and Mortlock got themselves in a real muddle over identifying the figures on the panels of the screen. Pevsner, perhaps wisely having pronounced on the exterior, kept his counsel. There are twelve figures set in pairs, which is to say there are three lights either side of the entrance. On the north side is a sequence of the Holy Kinship, the only other on a screen in Norfolk being on one of the side screens at Ranworth. Each panel depicts one of the women associated with Christ and the disciples. On the south side six bishops are depicted, including the four Latin Doctors.

the Houghton screen

Holy Kinship: St  Emeria? St Servitus?, St Mary Salome with the young St John and St James Holy Kinship: Blessed Virgin with the young Christ, St Mary Cleophas with the young St Philip, St James the Less, St Simon and St Jude Holy Kinship: St Elizabeth and the young St John the Baptist, St Anne and the young Blessed Virgin
St Gregory and St Jerome Latin Doctors: St Augustine and St Ambrose St Silvester and St Clement with donors

The first panel on the north side is labelled Sancta Anna, and appears to show the upper part of a scene of St Anne showing the scriptures to the young Blessed Virgin. However, the lower half of the scene is largely missing, and it is tempting to think that it was never completed. There's another reason for thinking this, as we'll see in a minute. The figure is paired with St Mary Salome with the young St John and St James. The next pair of panels depicts the Blessed Virgin with the young Christ, and St Mary Cleophas with the young St Philip, St James the Less, St Simon and St Jude. The third pair begins with St Elizabeth and the young St John the Baptist, and then, surprisingly, here are St Anne and the young Blessed Virgin again examining the scriptures! It is almost a mirror image of the first panel, although the colours of St Anne's clothes are reversed. Cautley tried to convince himself that the second iteration of the pair was St Emona presenting an open book to a damsel which seems bizarre to say the least given that there is no St Emona. Mortlock reduced the number of figures from twelve to eight, and favoured St Emeria, an obscure Irish saint, for the first panel. The answer is, I think, the obvious one. Both panels depicted St Anne and the young Blessed Virgin, but before the screen was completed an altar was placed against the north wall largely obscuring panel one, which was replaced by panel six.

The south side of the screen begins with the Latin Doctors, St Gregory, St Jerome, St Augustine and St Ambrose, and concludes with two popes, St Silvester and St Clement. Both have a figure kneeling at their feet, presumably the donors of the screen. The kneeling figure on the St Silvester panel holds a scroll which in the 1930s Cautley decoded as Silvestere sancti me tua silva prece, which appears to mean 'Silvester pray for me in your holy forest'. However, given Cautley's bizarre analysis of other parts of the screen, and given that he decided this kneeling figure was a leper being healed by the saint, perhaps we should not read too much into it.

As you'd expect in this area, the overwhelming feel at the east end of the church is of the Anglo-Catholic tradition, with statues of the Blessed Virgin and St Giles and six candlesticks on the altar. And there is a puzzle too, one I have often wondered about in the thirty years I've been coming here. The glass on the south side of the chancel, which looks as if it might be by Powell & Sons, depicts Christ as the Good Shepherd, carrying a lamb in a familiar pose. There is an identical image across the county at Alburgh. However, it is the inscription which intrigues. In Memory of Dec 30 1876, it reads. He shall gather the lambs in his arm. And that is all - no names, no other details. The obvious deduction is that the window commemorates the death or loss of a child, or children. The incident was obviously well-known enough to require no further explanation, but here we are a century and a half on, and it is lost to us. What can have happened on that midwinter night, out here in this wild and remote vale? Was the snow deep on the ground, and the temperature descending towards freezing? Was the River Stiffkey in full spate? It would be interesting to know the answer.

Simon Knott, May 2022

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looking east sanctuary looking west
Blessed Virgin and child in memory of December 30 1876 St Giles St Giles


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