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

St Andrew, Metton

Metton

Metton

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    St Andrew, Metton

Metton is a church that I keep coming back to. It's handily placed for revisits, being set just south of Cromer, one of my regular starting points for bike rides. But there is something else too, something that seems to call me back to experience its quiet, dim stillness above the lonely road of the village.

I first came here with the late Tom Muckley in the summer of 2005, if you could call it a summer that year. Long, sultry days in June gave a promise of things to come, but the promise was never really fulfilled. July was not a particularly wet one, but neither was it very sunny. In East Anglia, we awoke again and again to gloomy cloud and a kind of ineffectual drizzle that eventually petered out, the clouds breaking. But the days never warmed up, and all too soon evening closed in. By early August, the hedgerows were still as green as they had been six weeks previously, and the conservation areas of graveyards had become jungles.

There was an illusion that the summer was still held in a fitful suspense. But already, the barley and wheat fields were being harvested, the lanes clogged by mud from combines and tractors, the signs all around of everything being safely gathered in. The evenings became cooler, the horse chestnuts threatened to turn. Soon, it would be time for back-to-school promotions in the town shops, and the excitement of posters for harvest suppers on village noticeboards. Soon, it would be autumn.

But all that was in the future. In the first few days of August, the low cloud began to retreat, and there were high skeins of it dissolving above the rolling hills south of Cromer. Too early in the day to take advantage of it, we headed under overcast skies through tiny lanes banked up with green hedges. All the roads were narrow, and it seemed impossible that we were less than two miles from the nearest A road, less than six miles from Cromer, less than two hundred miles from central London. The fields were silent, the stillness in the air timeless.

Through the high banks we twisted, eventually coming out into the deep cut village of Metton, barely a hamlet really. A few council houses straggled beside the church. There were some larger, older houses to the east, and a farmer had cut a maze through his crops for children to run wild and freely in. We could hear their shouts from the churchyard. It was a lovely place to be, at once ancient and yet full of young life.

Most recently I returned to Metton in June 2019. The weather forecast had promised sunshine, but I'd got out at Roughton Road station under heavy cloud, and my bike ride to Felbrigg, my first port of call, had been into the chill of a wind carrying the occasional misty shreds of a sea fret from the coast, invisible beyond the northern horizon. But as I came into Metton, the clouds parted, and I felt the warmth of the sun for the first time that day like a benediction, and I pushed my bike through the awkward gate into the narrow churchyard.

St Andrew is a simple, aisleless 14th century church, heavily Victorianised with the introduction of late medieval-style window tracery. The high pitched nave roof rather overwhelms it all. As often in this part of Norfolk, refurbishing of the flint has been a cheap option, and that seems to have happened on the tower here. The most interesting feature is at the foot of the tower, for there is a processional way running from north to south, the western face of the tower being hard against the churchyard boundary. The northern side of the chancel is windowless now, but the prospect from the south, away from the village street, is gentle and timeless.

It must be said that this is always a gloomy interior to step into. This is mostly the fault of the Victorian restoration, which ceilured the roof, leaving nothing but a functionless wallplate with fascinating grotesques on it. The restoration here was fairly middle-of-the-road. The town church benches must have seemed the very thing in the 1870s, but today they are characterless and dull, out of keeping with the peace outside. You can't help thinking that the nave would be improved if they were replaced with modern wooden chairs. But the chancel recalls earlier days, rustic and simple, with a pammented floor and bare furnishings. The flowers make it feel a place at once well-loved and well-used, a delight. There are roundels of Flemish glass in the east window, set here by the Dennis King workshop in the early 1960s. A bishop stands and a monk kneels before the crucifixion. Another monk, a donor perhaps, kneels before St Jerome in the desert. An angel holds a chalice and a crucifix.

two priests at the crucifixion a monk prays before St Jerome in the desert an angel holding a chalice and a crucifix
two angels hold a shield of an oak tree a man holds a shield of a fleur-de-lys

By the south door, hidden under the table, is a fine civilian brass to Robert and Matilda Doughty. Robert died in 1493, and presumably the brass was put in place before the death of his wife, because the place for her dates has been left blank. There are also a couple of brass inscriptions in the nave. One is directly beside the jolly Norman tub font, a pleasing moment at the west end of the nave.

A curiosity is the setting of the piscina up in the sanctuary, now only inches above the floor which has been raised almost to meet it. Another curiosity is welded to the north wall, beside the door. This is the old parish truncheon, a fascinating survival. These objects were symbols of authority rather than implements of aggression, but all the same I couldn't help wondering if it had cracked a few parish heads, and quite what the 18th century parishioners would say if they could come back and see it so fondly displayed.

I stood for a while, breathing in the silence. A bird started up in the churchyard, but it seemed distant. It was time to go. It struck me, not for the first time, that there is something sad about this church. Not exactly oppressive, for it calls me back again and again, but a feeling that this Victorian interior which had seemed so bright and earnest a century and a half ago has faded. It has seen its congregation shrink, as if they were leaving one by one, leaving only an echoing emptiness, except for services. The patina of the varnish and the tiles has dulled, and the whole place broods beneath the ceilure. Only the chancel still seems alive.

And there was something else, of course. As I signed the visitors' book, I noticed that several recent visitors mentioned their prayers for April. I thought that this was a lovely thing, that they remembered. I remembered too. Thirteen year old April Fabb's disappearance on the edge of this tiny village in the spring of 1969 haunted me as a little boy at the time, and still haunts East Anglia today. It regularly reappears in the news, most recently because of the event's fiftieth anniversary. I stepped out into the sunshine, and paused for a moment to look at the headstone beside the porch. The inscription reads Will you of your charity remember in your prayers APRIL FABB a child who disappeared from this parish in April 1969 of whom nothing has since been heard.
As I stood there, the bird I'd heard inside began to sing again, louder this time as if it were nagging me, and then another, until at last the sunlight and the clamour in the richly-leaved trees above me became an overwhelming affirmation of life going on, a transfiguration if you like. So I got on my bike, and headed east towards Roughton.

Simon Knott, August 2019

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looking east chancel
Robert Doughty c1500 font piscina Matilda Doughty c1500
orate pro anima Margarete Doughty

a child who disappeared

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