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All Saints, Letton
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Mid-January, and the first bright, sunny day of the year. You might almost think that Spring was on its way, but Norfolk was in for a long haul yet. Now, in the late afternoon, we had one more task before heading back to Norwich; to locate the site of the church of All Saints, Letton.
We knew that it was in the former grounds of Letton Hall. The Gurdons, who lived at the Hall, were great patrons of the church at Cranworth, which became their parish church after the demise of All Saints, and they also paid for the rebuilding of Southburgh. It did occur to me that All Saints might have been demolished because it was on private ground, and the Big Family hadn't wanted the ordinary folk on their land. In which case, it might be still be private land, and awkward for us to explore it.
Given that fieldwork might not be an option, we used the Ordnance Survey map to locate what appeared to be the site, and it seemed as if it would be visible from the Cranworth road. There was a rectangular copse of trees set at an angle to the road, with the parkland of the Letton Hall estate around it. However, when we got there we found that to the west of the site was an open field, with no fence or ditch between it and the road. There was no sign telling us to keep out, but there is also no designated public access and so I cannot really encourage you to follow in our footsteps.
I gazed across at the trees. Near to the boundary, a fallow deer lazily lifted its head from where it was cropping the close grass. I raised my camera and flicked the shutter on, but it saw us, and wandered off quickly into the copse.
The air was cold, a mist beginning to rise as the sun sunk behind us. Letton Hall, now an evangelical Christian retreat centre, shone on its rise, and all about was the thump! thump! of shotguns. The shooting party appeared to be the woods to the north, about a quarter of a mile away; I hoped that they wouldn't be in the copse we hoped to explore. A 4x4 stood sentry at the entrance to the field, suggesting that this was where they had started.
All Saints was there at the end of the 11th century, when the Domesday Book recorded the presence of a church in the parish. Then, Letton consisted of half a carucate of land. A carucate is the amount of ground a single ploughing team could manage in an annual cycle - that is, Letton was not a large place. There was woodland for eight pigs, and meadowland of 8 acres. Looking back across the meadow, it was hard to think that anything had changed much, except that the church was gone.
After the Reformation, the church seems to have fallen into disuse. By the early 19th century, the living had been combined with that of Cranworth. In 1844, Whites noted that the church of All Saints had been dilapidated many years ago, and its site marked by a plantation. Dilapidated is a polite way of saying that the Gurdons demolished it.
Pevsner recorded in the late 1950s that the foundations of the church could still be discerned above ground level. It is possible that he never saw this for himself, but is repeating someone else's observation. Bill Wilson repeats the description in the 1999 revision; but again, he usually says if he has been to check an observation of a ruin, and in this entry he doesn't. In which case, the foundations may have been lost to sight for a half century or more. We peered under the thickets, hoping for a glimpse of a flint wall or a pile of stone, but there was nothing.
It was only as we were leaving, and stepping back into the open field, that I looked back and saw what I should have noticed earlier. To the south of the rhododendron clusters were overgrown thickets of yew trees; straggling, tangled with later wild growth, but immediately recognisable as the familiar residents of many Norfolk graveyards. Suddenly, it all fell into place; the beeches marked the boundary of the plantation that had replaced the churchyard, the yew trees showed where the yard was to the south of the church, and the church itself had been where the rhododendrons are now. They were the only recent growth, but even they had been there for a hundred years or more.
Quietly satisfied, we wandered back down to the road. The 4x4 was still there, the guns still thumping down in the woods.
Simon Knott, January 2006
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