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St Peter, Lingwood
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We came here at the end of a long, cold and often frustrating day. It was February, and we were in that wedge of Norfolk that fans out eastwards of Norwich where it seems that virtually all the churches are kept locked; a sharp contrast with Broadland to the north and the other side of the River Yare to the south, where they are pretty much all open. At 4.30 pm, the gloom of the late afternoon was beginning to close in, so rather than chase keyholders we decided to head for the one church in these parts that we knew to be open, St Peter at Lingwood.
Lingwood is one of those large, suburban villages you get along the Norwich to Yarmouth railway line, but the church is rather prettily placed on the northern edge, with open fields beyond. A car pulled out of the car park as we approached, and we joked that it must have been the keyholder locking up; but it wasn't, and the church was still open. Looking at it from the outside, there was obviously a building here before the 13th century, but what you see now apart from the base of the tower is all pretty much 14th century. It isn't huge, and the proportion of nave to chancel is rather pleasing.
We stepped inside. If anything, it was even colder than it was outside. Despite the large windows, the church was dull, as if the low February cloud had infiltrated the glass. We closed the outer grill, but left the door open to allow a little more light in.
I looked around. The building had obviously undergone a radical 19th century restoration, but it had a welcoming feel, the sense of a place much used and loved. Still in use are the Laudian communion rails of the 17th century, and there is a curious cut-out royal arms for George IV high above the tower arch.
As is so common in this corner of Norfolk, a large St Christopher bestrides the north wall - or, at least, the top half of him does. It isn't in very good condition, and a large crack runs through it. Pevsner says it was uncovered in 1965, and I was later told that the parish have no plans to spend money on preserving it. So, enjoy it while you can. What they do have plans for, however, is an extension of church rooms leading northwards from the north door. There was a display all about this, and it looked very fine, another sign that this was a lively community.
As well as the St Christopher, there are other reminders of the 14th century life of this place. Two bench ends, now in the chancel, depict a woman praying with a rosary and a seated Friar. They face each other, and I fancied that the second was hearing the first's confession. The east window contains a very simple design which is a fusion of the medieval and the modern: some 14th century canopy glass has been reset above three thin 20th century crosses. I thought this was very good indeed. Less successful is the font, a Victorian rehash of a 14th century-style (or is it real?) plain octagonal bowl set like a Norman font on an array of pillars. I was just pondering this when I glanced out of the doorway to see a deputation coming up the path.
There were three of them: an older woman, and with her a younger woman and her young son. They marched through the doorway, and the older woman walked right up to me and stood as close as it was possible to stand without actually touching me. "Who are you?" she demanded, in an aggressive manner.
Well, I suppose there were all sorts of things I could have said, like "no, who are you?" or "why do you want to know?" or "would you mind standing slightly further away from me please?"
Instead, I told her the truth, to which she answered, rather oddly, "well, that's all right then. Only I'm the churchwarden, and we get very suspicious when we see people in our church."
Well, this was breathtaking, and I realised straight away that, despite appearances, casual visitors were not welcomed at Lingwood. However, I was not in the mood for an argument - I never am, being rather peaceable and charming by nature - and so I tried to mollify her by observing how lovely it was to find her church open, and what a lovely church it was, too.
"We're the only church open round here", she replied. Obviously, I knew this, but I wondered why they bothered - not out loud, for by now she was darting very suspicious looks at my camera and at DD, who was grimly hauling his tripod about the polished nave. Please God, don't let him say anything, I prayed silently.
"Yes", I said. "Most of the others around here seem to be locked. Is there a particular reason for that?"
"Well, we're so remote out here", observed the other woman sadly.
This of course, is nonsense, though I didn't say so. The twenty or so churches south of the Yare are much more remote, and they are all open. I thought it more likely that they were all locked because these villages are so close to Norwich, and yet virtually all the village churches around Ipswich are kept open. Can crime really be so much higher in the Norwich area than around Ipswich?
While DD took his customary time to image everything, I managed to turn the conversation around to the building itself. The St Christopher had faded rapidly in the last few years, I discovered. The church is so cold because the heating is inefficient, and they have been going to visit other churches to decide what new system they should install. The new church rooms are necessary because of the increasing number of chidren in the congregation, but the plans have apparently proved very unpopular with a few people in the village, none of whom actually attend the church.
As I listened to this, I wondered if she thought that DD and I were here because of the extension, and that we were taking photographs to support the arguments of those against it, some sort of action task force if you like.
I wandered up towards the chancel, to take another look at the bench ends. As I glanced back, I saw something extraordinary. The churchwarden had taken the visitors book, which DD and I had already signed, to a table behind the screen, and she appeared to be carefully copying out our names and addresses onto a piece of paper.
We finished, said our goodbyes, and with some relief headed back to the A47. Thinking about what I had seen, it struck me as a terribly unpleasant thing to do. If DD and I had been taking photographs with a view to coming back to steal all the pitch-pine furnishings, I dare say we would not have filled in the visitors book at all, or at least given false names.
The rude attitude of the churchwarden reminded me of the bossy officialdom you met everywhere in the 1970s, in post offices, railway stations and the like. Today, that is mostly all gone, probably because everyone has been on a customer relations course, and the country is a more pleasant place for it. But at Lingwood, it seemed that there was still a tiny corner of England where someone was determined to make me feel small.
A few hours earlier, we had met the churchwarden at Salhouse. He was a lovely old gentleman. He gave up an hour or more of his time for us. He was knowledgeable about the building, and made sure we didn't miss anything. He showed us bits and pieces hidden away in the vestry, and even insisted I go up and take a look at the bells. But more than this, he was patient and trusting, conscious of the Christian Church's mission to welcome the stranger and pilgrim inside the gate. I have no doubt that if I turned up at Salhouse in future years for a service, I would be recognised and welcomed, and would feel very at home. At that point, I didn't really look forward to setting foot in Lingwood again.
Simon Knott, February 2005
What they said: Shortly
after this entry appeared, John Elgood,
one of the Lingwood Churchwardens, contacted me. He would
like me to pass on the following: "Every story has
two sides, and this is no exception. Accordingly, we hope
that anyone reading this entry on Simon Knott's web-site
will visit Lingwood Church and judge for themselves. It
is a loved and welcoming building as he himself says.
Thank you, and God Bless. John Elgood and Lily Sparkes,
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