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St Mary, North Creake
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The Creakes stand out in gentle north-west Norfolk because their two parish churches are so huge; this in a part of the county where there are so many sleepy little near-ruins set on their own among the high-hedged narrow lanes. Externally, the two churches are grand; but where South Creake's has a magical interior that is at once wholly rural and numinous, North Creake church is a vast urban Anglo-catholic temple that could as easily be in the centre of Bristol or Norwich. This is testament to its late 19th century Tractarian makeover, and also something about the austerity of that vast, aisle-less south side. This is a church to be impressed by, but not one to easily fall in love with.
The tower abuts the busy Fakenham to Burnham Market road; it is so wide that you can't sense at first quite how big it is, a solid, square block that seeks to impose itself. This and the nave were the work of the 15th century, and, as so often in Norfolk, the chancel is the work of a century earlier.
Inside, the sheer size of the place is again apparent. High above the nave is a fine 15th century roof, with wingless angels carrying instruments of the passion. It is curious that the 19th century restoration which did so much here did not get as far as repainting and rewinging them. Indeed, although it was by no means restrained, the restoration, by Hicks and Charlewood, was intelligent, and has left some delights. The 1897 Norman-style font tub, for example, surmounted by a gothic font cover that opens to reveal beautiful painted panels of Christ and the children. Three completely different styles of design, and yet they work together beautifully. And there is the fine rood screen, from the early years of the 20th century, and so delicate that it is barely there.
The screen leads through to their outstanding chancel interior, pretty much all the work of the 1890s. Wood, gilt and coloured glass work together on the altar, reredos, angel roof and east window to produce a Victorian vision of heaven, while still retaining the 14th century Easter sepulchre and a fine brass to a later Sir William Calthorpe than his ancestor in the chancel next door at Burnham Thorpe. He holds a church, and it may well be that the brass came from Creake Abbey at the time of the Reformation. Incidentally, pretty much all the Victorian furnishings are also by Hicks and Charlewood, and hardly a trace at all remains of the dead hand of Frederick Preedy, responsible for so much mediocrity in this part of Norfolk, and at work here in North Creake in the 1870s.
Curiously, there may very well be the hand of a greater architect here at work before Preedy. We know that in 1845, Thomas Keppel, the wealthy rector of North Creake, commissioned the young Samuel Teulon to design his rectory. This building survives, and is one of Teulon's earliest works. Is it fanciful to imagine that Keppel might also have asked Teulon to work on the church? The Keppels bank-rolled the work here throughout the 19th century; the screen is, in fact, a memorial to the last of them.
High above the chancel arch there are the remains of a doom painting. These are rare enough in this part of Norfolk, as all wall paintings are, but really it is so indistinct, and looks so much like damp, that I think it might be better whitewashed.
In the north aisle chapel, screened off by a parclose screen that appears to be medieval, there is a very curious reredos. It is made of four panels that probably came from a rood screen. They have been repainted, probably in the 19th century, to show figures representing the virtues of Fortitude, Temperance, Mercy and Justice. However, the Mercy panel is clearly St Veronica, and if the other repaintings are anything like what was there before, they probably featured St Barbara, St Mary of Magdala and St Michael.
Not least of the virtues of this place is the most extensive display of home-made jam for sale that I think I have ever seen in a church. When the Keppels have died out on you, you have to find other ways to raise funds, and this friendly church deserves all the support it can get.
Simon Knott, May 2005
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