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St Mary, Moulton St Mary
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Moulton St Mary
The Norfolk sky was so low you could almost touch it, or at least feel its weight. We were out in the wilds, where the Bure and the Yare and the Waveney carve south-east Norfolk up into marsh-hemmed peninsulas. Nowhere here is on the way to anywhere else; only the Norwich to Lowestoft and Yarmouth railway lines rush through, threading over the reeds and the water. Berney Arms station, on the Yarmouth line, is more than two miles from the nearest road, accessible only by river or footpath across the marsh. Barely a hundred miles from central London, it is the most remote railway station in England.
Moulton St Mary church is also remote, although the setting is pastoral rather than bleak. A hilly paddock of sheep separates the graveyard from the lonely road, and a farmhouse, presumably once a wing of the hall, keeps the church company. The village itself is over a mile away, and it is not surprising that St Mary has been declared redundant. Because it is so significant, it has fallen into the care of the Churches Conservation Trust.
We drove off the road into the field to get to the church, DD being wary of the low body of the Elise. The sheep were very interested; I suppose that they don't get too many visitors, particularly not in sports cars. They gathered at the fence to stare, one with grass still sticking out of its mouth. DD observed that some breeds of sheep seem to be more inquisitive than others - presumably, the most inquisitive ones of all become the rare breeds:
First young sheep: What's
that over there with the grey fur and slavering fangs? He
And so on. Anyway, the high pitched roof of the church reaches almost to the top of the sturdy round tower, and was instantly recognisable to me. On the day I had turned forty a couple of years previously, I had miserably hauled myself around the churches of Woodbridge before ending up at a pub where a friend had given me, as a present, a sketch of Moulton St Mary. It had cheered me up then, and it did so now, for even on this dull day it was a super place to be. I wandered around to the north side, and the wide graveyard was a sea of snowdrops, thousands and thousands of them. Stunning. I noted a gravestone to Alfred Wright, who died on board the Lusitania. The sinking of this ship six years later would be the event that brought the United States into World War One.
The pitch of the tower is a recent development; the former dripcourse of the thatch disappears beneath it, and the change in pitch creates a hunchback appearance. It accentuates the divide between nave and chancel, although inside it is rounded off by the beams of the nave. The windows suggest a date of earlier than the 14th century for nave and chancel, and although the chancel was rebuilt by the Victorians, don't miss the elegant reset early wooden east window tracery.
As with all CCT churches, all the clutter has been cleared to reveal the interior in all its simple beauty. The octagonal Purbeck marble font on its 19th century legs is probably of a date with the building of the current church. High above is the 17th century decalogue board, which once hung directly opposite in the tympanum to the chancel arch.
Moulton St Mary has relics in particular of two historical periods - the late 14th century, and, even rarer, the early 17th century.
The first of these two periods left a superb sequence of wall paintings on the south wall showing the Seven Works of Mercy. This sequence was, in part, an attempt by the Catholic Church in the two centuries after the Black Death to reassert orthodox Catholic doctrine in the face of local superstitions and abuses. The works of mercy were presented as a Christian duty, derived from Christ's instruction to give water to the thirsty, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, visit the prisoner, comfort the sick, and bury the dead. They were at the heart of late medieval notions of hospitality, mercy and service.
The sequence here has been disrupted by later enlargement of the windows, but the surviving panels are very clear, with clothing the naked and burying the dead being particularly striking. In the middle is Christ, blessing these endeavours. Works of Mercy sequences always makes me think of the modern hymn When I Needed a Neighbour, which is drawn from the same event in the Gospels, and is sung so fondly in primary schools despite inevitable sniggers at the naked line.
On the north wall is a good St Christopher, and other medieval survivals include a series of brasses to the wonderfully named Anguish family - judging by the indents, there were once many more, but the best is that of Thomasina Palmer, 1544, one of the last pre-Reformation brasses in East Anglia.
The chancel is perhaps the most beautiful feature of the church, still almost entirely in its Laudian integrity. The woodwork is all roughly contemporary, dated on the readers desk as 1619, although the pulpit is probably several decades earlier. Edmund Anguish, who probably paid for all this, has his 1628 memorial on the south side of the sanctuary. As a whole, it is a delight.
Opposite Edmund Anguish is a curiosity. The window splay stops a metre or so above the sill, as if a monument, probably an Easter sepulchre, has been removed. On one side is the head of a lion - Mee claims to have seen two of these in the 1930s, one on each side, so they were probably corbels to support wooden coving. Was he misreading his notes? Or where has one gone since?
Beautiful Moulton St Mary is in an area of locked churches. How ironic that, being redundant, it should be virtually the only one that is kept open.
Simon Knott, March 2005
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