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

St John the Baptist, Mileham

Mileham: one of Norfolk's more interesting churches, and a lovely one

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    St John the Baptist, Mileham
north side   Mileham is one of those relatively large, remote villages in the rolling green fields between Swaffham and Dereham, where the Breckland merges into high Norfolk. St John the Baptist is set back from the village street, and the houses in front of it and the slightly obscured entrance way mean that you could easily drive through the village without noticing it. This would be a pity, because St John the Baptist is one of Norfolk's more interesting churches, and a lovely one as well. Perhaps it is also the proximity of more famous neighbours Brisley and Beeston that puts Mileham a little in the shade.

There was probably a Norman church here once; some evidence survives in the chancel. However, St John the Baptist is largely an Early English-becoming-Decorated confection, in two stages. It is a rather curious shape, and takes a little unpicking.

The tower is set, most unusually, against the north side of the nave, cutting into the aisle. This suggests what turns out to be the truth: the tower is the youngest part of this assemblage. The aisles are 13th century additions, the tower early 14th century. Obviously, there was some reason for not building the tower at the west end, most probably because that end of the church is so close to the graveyard boundary.

On the north side, the conjunction looks rather awkward, although the tower does serve as a room porch. On the south side, there is no porch. Instead, the door lets straight into the south aisle. Unusually, both doors are kept open daily for visitors, a thorough welcome for pilgrims and strangers.

Again, on the south side, there is a slight awkwardness to the arrangement, especially as you walk away from the church and the tower's crown of pinnacles appears above the line of the nave roof. Perhaps the church looks its best from the west.

  west end

The four windows of the clerestory are large and pleasing, and you may not even notice the large buttresses on this side. In fact, they are modern, and conceal concrete beams, because until a rescue operation in the 1970s, this church was in real danger of falling down.

We entered the church from the south, into a beautiful space of light and shadow, serene old wood furnishings and brick floors. The box pews engulf the arcades, which on the south side leans out most alarmingly. Interestingly, this arcade has proper pillars, while the north arcade is just arches cut in a wall.

I was pleased to discover what I had not known - Mileham has a super collection of medieval glass. The west window is remarkable, because it appears to be pretty well intact, filled with 14th and 15th century figures. There has been some repair and resetting, but it is still a wonder, and the top half in particular is almost complete. Under canopies, there are large 14th century figures of St Catherine, St John the Baptist and St Margaret. The lower half is more of a composite, and features two superb 15th century Norwich School figures, St Dorothy and another St Margaret, barleycorns spread across the floor beneath them, beautifully delicate, almost translucent. Between them a figure with a fork-bearded head which must be a composite (the head is probably God the Father from a Holy Trinity) is gaudy by comparison.

St Catherine (west window) St John the Baptist (west window) St Margaret (west window)
St Dorothy (west window) St Margaret (west window) west window

There is another collection of medieval glass in the east window of the south aisle. There are three more Saint figures here, a fine St Agatha with her name scroll beneath, an unnamed Bishop, and St John the Evangelist. Perhaps the two most curious figures are down in the bottom right hand corner. Two travellers wrapped in cloaks, described in the guide as pedlars, perhaps from the narrative of a Saint's life. Or perhaps they are pilgrims, although I did wonder if they might be intended as donors.

St Agnes (south aisle east window) Bishop (south aisle east window) pedlars? pilgrims? donors? (south aisle east window) 

The height of the pews, and the lowness of the arcades, create a sense that the interior is rising out of a wooden sea, which accentuates the elegance of the clerestories. As at nearby Litcham, the west end of the church is clear by comparison, and again the stone font rising from a sea of brick pamments is very pleasing. The roofs in the aisles are probably original.

There are a couple of interesting brasses, and my favourite is the five elegant virgins in a row, set adrift from some memorial to their parents. In the other aisle, Christopher Cowle and his wife lie in full expectation of our prayers for their souls. Interestingly, their inscription is written in English and has suffered no vandalism, despite the fact that it includes the two prayer clauses so often excised from brasses elsewhere. We are asked Of Your Charite P(ra)y for the Soul of Xrofer Cowle which deceased the VII day of Decemb(er) Ann Dm MDXXIII + Cathrin hys wyfe on whose Soul Jhu Have Mercy A M D G.

Mileham is one of those churches where the Millennium project was new glass for the east window. It is curiously old-fashioned, like something from the 1960s, and depicts John the Baptist baptising Christ. The river runs down from the top, and is overshadowed by a dove. John is black, Christ is white, and there is a pleasing child-like naivety to the composition.

The attitude of Christ's arms echoes the crucifixion. The countryside around the two figures is naturalistic, but more reminiscent of the Lake District than of Norfolk or the Holy Land. I considered the window for a while, and I thought it was quite good; but such scenes should really be greater than the sum of their parts, and this one isn't, I thought. On the other hand, it was always going to be a difficult job to compete with a small but beautiful collection of some of the finest medieval glass in Norfolk.

  John baptising Christ

Simon Knott, June 2006


the view east looking east in the south aisle - look at that lean arcades
font at the pleasingly bare west end lean of the south arcade image niche north doorway under the tower Christopher and Catherin Cowle
five elegant virgins painting in the north aisle north aisle window

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