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

All Saints, North Barsham

North Barsham after the rain

  All Saints, North Barsham
south side, truncated   I hope I can convey to you quite how fond I am of this little church. I first came across it about ten years ago. I had arrived at the National Shrine of Our Lady about an hour before the midday Pilgrim Mass, and decided to go for a walk in the spring sunshine. I wandered out of the shrine grounds, along a little lane that runs beside a field which always seems to be full of the most beautiful sheep. In the other direction was Walsingham itself; but I knew that walk better than almost any other. Instead, I headed southwards, and found the lane went under a disused railway bridge. I wandered on through high hedges full of Mary's Lace, and a hundred yards or so further on I came into a little hamlet, all flint houses and red roofs.A track led behind the farm into a field, and on the low hill sat All Saints. I had to look twice to make sure that it was not a domestic building.

I stepped inside, into silence. I had left behind the crowds at the National Shrine, which can be one of the busiest places in rural Norfolk in the pilgrimage season, and now as the door closed there was a deeper silence, the breeze and the birdsong also disappearing. Just for one moment I stood absolutely still, and all I could hear was the sound of my own breathing.

Coming back ten years later, I was pleased to find All Saints unchanged, although disappointed to discover that I had not signed the visitors book. Very unlike me, but I think I may have been distracted by the stillness and the silence.

Because of its position so close to the National Shrine of Our Lady, it is certain that the great majority of casual visitors the church gets are Catholic, which I thought beautiful and ecumenical.

More than this, buried in the churchyard is a prominent Greek Orthodox spiritual writer, who made himself a home in North Barsham, and judging by the visitors book there are many of his followers who come here simply to visit his grave - it is the white cross you can just make out at the end of the track in the top photograph. So this church is a meeting place of three traditions.

  new west end

The church is tiny, and truncated at both ends. When the tower collapsed, it took the west end of the nave with it. The east end of the chancel succumbed to decay, and the modern west and east walls have shortened the building. Bits of the tower can be found built into the west end, including one of the niches above the door.

Inside, everything is neat, seemly, obviously Anglo-catholic in flavour. The font is a curious thing - it is an arcaded Purbeck marble job, familiar from hundreds of other churches - but when you look closely, you notice that it is hexagonal.

Because of the simplicity, and the silence, there is an intense timelessness about this interior. You could sit here for minutes and feel that hours had passed, and vice versa. Light skews in; dust sparkles as it falls, there is a smell of earth and the sound of your own breathing. It is a sense of the eternal. Quite out of keeping with it is a vast, ugly early 17th century memorial to Phillip Russell on the north wall, which includes an egg-timer made out of bones and various other skulls and crossed bones. Honestly. Some people were just so full of a sense of their own mortality.

Simon Knott, May 2005

 

looking east... ...and looking west. hexagonal font
simplicity Phillip Russell makes sure he's not forgotten. egg-timer Phillip Russell, presumably.

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