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

All Saints, Litcham

Litcham: like stepping back into the past

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this must be a hard church to photograph in summer  strange east window

    All Saints, Litcham

We came here on a late afternoon in April. It was Holy Week, although you wouldn't have known this from many of the Anglican churches we'd visited during the day. A sombre Eucharist was in progress at Dereham, and there were covered statues at Brisley, with news of evening liturgies at a couple of other churches in that benefice. But generally, it was business as usual, which often meant nothing was happening at all.

tower: I liked it   The Church of England has changed since I was a sweet little choirboy thirty-odd years ago. It no longer holds a central place in the lives of the communities to which it ministers. Perhaps this is a result of an increasingly diverse and fragmented society, resulting in a loss of confidence, or a change of priorities. But perhaps it is something that has changed in the nature of the Church itself. In many places that day, it seemed that Holy Week had become nothing more than a time to decorate the church for Easter, and at some churches the flowers were already in place, which seemed faintly obscene, given that Good Friday hadn't happened yet.

At one church near Fakenham I saw a sign asking all flower arrangers to 'meet up to get the church ready for Easter on Easter Saturday', which seemed a breathtaking ignorance of the liturgical calendar. All this was making me a bit maudlin, I must admit. And then, we came to Litcham.

Even the village had an air of the past about it. I am not generally a nostalgic person, but Litcham reminded me of the busy, self-contained villages that were common when I was young. A shop, a school, a pub, a post office if you were lucky, and everything focused on a proud, confident village church. An air of activity, of people going about their business, making the village more than a mere dormitory for nearby towns. Today, so many villages are either dead during the day, or are being torn apart by people rushing through on their way to somewhere else.

The centre of Litcham is tangled enough to slow traffic down, and even to confuse, which I liked a lot. We had to get a map out to find out where to go. As it turned out, we were close to the church, but deceived by the ivy-clad birches that line the street. All Saints, which sits close to the village street with a long graveyard behind, is not a typical village church at all, because its west tower was replaced in the 17th century with a rather disjointed affair in red brick and flint. The date on it says 1669, and above are the remains of the name of the donor, Matthew Halcott. Again, I liked it; it doesn't have the harmony of similar towers built a hundred years later, but it felt practical, as if this was a place where people got things done. Beyond, the body of the church is Perpendicular, aisled but without clerestories, probably early 15th century. The east window is most odd, set within a large blind arch as if a smaller window had been reset in place of a bigger one.   Matthew Halcott, 1699

Someone had written to me a few weeks previously to say that Litcham had the most High Church Rector in Norfolk, and so I didn't quite know what to expect. I wondered if they meant a spiky Anglo-catholic, which seemed a little unlikely, given that Norfolk's spiky hotspots are well-known. But we stepped inside, and I saw that my correspondent had meant something quite different. In here, it was as if time had stood still. The brick floors stretched into the shadows, and the box pews faced the beautiful painted screen, beyond which the chancel had pastel-coloured walls. The lack of a clerestory means that light slants sideways through the nave. Here was a very traditional space, not particularly rural in character, but with a great presence, as if of that certain kind of self-confidence which suggests authority. This was a place to be still and know. The old font sits quietly at the west end, shields set within tracery on each side. The altars were dressed, but otherwise bare. There was a simple crucifix in the south aisle chapel, uncovered. That was all, pretty much. Everything was neat and seemly, plain and ordered.

beautiful and simple   A gorgeous, creamy light filled the west end of the church, an uncluttered space around the font. It was made beautiful by being so simple, its bareness speaking of both familiarity and a mystical sense of otherness, as if this was something beyond our comprehension, outside of our everyday existence, a place where there was room for us to be more than we ever could in our daily lives. It reminded me of churches when I was young.

I looked at the noticeboard, and there were photographs of All Saints' robed choir, with a suggestion that children from the village might like to join - not because the choir was foundering, I hasten to add, but simply because it was a worthwhile thing to do.

We looked at the services, and there was a hearty mix of BCP and CW, and it seemed mostly to be choral, and there were introits and canticles. I began to see that this was one of the last refuges of what most of the Church of England used to be like - properly High Church, with ceremony and gravitas and style. This was the Church of England that had been important in most people's lives once, not for being inclusive and comprehensible, but for seeming permanent and essential, of being mystical, something other than that which we would find in our ordinary lives. And I thought how rare this was nowadays.

At the west end, a boxy gallery overhangs the font, with a fine royal arms on the front. To the east is Litcham's greatest treasure, the magnificent rood screen. The gates are still in situ, and each of them has three panels in the dado rather than two. I don't think I have ever seen this before. There are eight more panels on either side, to north and south, making 22 altogether, a curious number. They contain figures. Although the screen has been substantially restored, the figures have been less so. This means that some are rather hard to decipher, particularly on the gates, but generally the sequence is of the highest interest. There are echoes of the screen nearby at North Elmham, which may help with identification.   the screen in full

Each figure has a demi-angel above its head. The first four panels are very indistinct. The first is clearly a nun. Mortlock says that the next is St Cecilia or St Margaret, but she appears to be holding a bow, and I wondered if it is actually St Christina, as at North Elmham. The stance is similar. Mortlock suggests St Dorothy and St Juliana for the other two, but I really couldn't say. The next four are clearer, and can be positively identified as St Agnes with her lamb, St Petronilla with her large key and book as at North Elmham, St Helena with her cross, and a beautiful St Ursula holding arrows while some of her eleven thousand virgins hide in her skirts.

The figures on the doors are very indistinct. It is not really possible to tell if they are male or female, although the sixth figure is holding three money bags suspended on strings, and may well be St Nicholas. The south side of the screen, however, is the clearest, and has several intriguing features. The first four figures are St Gregory in a papal tiara, St Edmund holding three arrows, a figure leading a dragon on a halter that Mortlock identifies as St Armel (curiously, St Juliana on the screen at North Elmham does the same thing) and St Geron with his falcon as at North Tuddenham.

The last four figures are the most interesting of all. Firstly, St Walstan, Norfolk's farmworker Saint, in what I think is his best medieval representation of all. He wears a crown and holds a sceptre, but he has a doleful expression and carries his scythe in the other hand. Beside him is St Hubert, an extraordinary representation; the stag with the crucifix in its horns approaches from behind, and St Hubert stands with his back to us, his face in profile, to meet it. The third figure in this set is St William of Norwich, a boy martyr whose cult is usually taken as evidence of medieval anti-semitism, although the representation here is less bloodthirsty than at Loddon. Lastly, St Louis of France with his three thorns.

north side I-IV north side V-VIII doors IX-XIV south side XV-XVIII south side XIX-XXII 
detail: St Ursula (VIII) detail: St Walstan of Bawburgh (XIX) detail: St Hubert (XX)

I wandered around, sensing ghosts of my own past. I had been a choirboy in a church just like this, not in a quiet Norfolk village but in the busy working class suburbs of north Cambridge. The church had been at the centre of our lives - we played football for the choir team, we played hide and seek in the graveyard, we helped out at jumble sales, we went to fetes in the walled gardens of the huge Georgian Vicarage. Most of our parents were blue collar workers, apart from the occasional teacher or office worker. Many mums worked on the production lines of the Pye Telecom factory. Blocks of flats shadowed the Vicarage walls. There was even a squire, of sorts; Lord Thorneycroft had a house in the parish, and was often there, sitting alone at evensong. We blessed him and his relations, and kept in our proper stations. Some of the boys in the choir were not even Anglicans, but from Catholic or non-conformist families, or even from families of no faith at all.

The parish church was at the centre of all our lives, the touchstone that ordered them. It had a sense of the eternal about it - but this was nonsense, of course. The robed choir and intoned services were Victorian inventions, based on what was thought traditional Cathedral worship. They were a mid-19th century response to the teachings of the Oxford Movement. Like Christmas, the High Church CofE was an invented tradition. But it was a comforting one. It wasn't even religion really.

We never presumed to understand much of what we were singing. The English was solid Cranmer. Grammar school boys like me could unravel some of the Latin, but the theology was probably beyond any of us. But what touched the heart was the mystery, and what captured the soul was the sense of permanence and belonging.

And I saw it again, here. I thought how lucky the people of Litcham were to have this still in their midst. All Saints is a place to come to see what the Church of England used to be like, before it frittered away its confidence, its congregations and its money, and was still the centre of so many people's worlds.

  royal arms

Simon Knott, May 2006

   

looking west in the chancel sanctuary south aisle looking west in the nave 
south aisle looking east great chest

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