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

St Nicholas, North Walsham

North Walsham

North Walsham North Walsham St Nicholas Blessed Virgin and child

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St Nicholas, North Walsham

North Walsham feels a larger place than its population of just over 12,000 might suggest, but the small market towns of Norfolk punch above their weight by virtue of their distance from each other, and in fact North Walsham is the seventh largest town in the county. It has one of the biggest churches too, the main streets pleasingly wrapped around it and separated from it by shops and houses, so that you reach the great building through an alleyway. Pevsner makes the point that North Walsham has long been an industrial centre rather than an agricultural one. The Flemish weavers arrived in the 14th Century, and by 1379 sixty-eight of the hundred-odd families in the town were engaged in cloth production. This was the time that the church was rebuilt on a grand scale, fifty metres long and with a tower that was one of the tallest in Norfolk.

However, the most memorable thing about St Nicholas today is that the tower is in ruins. The drama of this is emphasised by the way the churchyard drops quickly away from the tower on the western side. It partially collapsed in the early 18th Century, and then in 1836 it was reduced to its current state. As Pevsner observes, it looks decorative enough as a consolidated crag dominating the town. The great barn of a building that stretches away from the tower has aisles which continue right up to the east wall, but there is no clerestory. It is served by a splendid flushworked late 14th Century porch, imposing in its width as much as its height. You step through it into a wide, long building. Although the dado of the screen survives, albeit substantially restored, the overwhelming impression inside this church is of one large single space. It is, as Sam Mortlock observed, a grand town church. The font by the south doorway has a tall canopied Perpendicular cover with a pelican at the top, reminiscent of the one at Ufford in Suffolk.

That the screen dado has twenty panels on it gives some idea of the width of the nave, for it does not extend into the aisles. Two of them are blank. At the north end there is St Catherine and then an Annunciation scene over two panels, unusual on a Norfolk screen. In the next twelve panels are the Apostles, including St Paul, and then three more female saints, St Barbara, St Mary Magdalene and St Margaret. It is not an easy screen to examine, because the pulpit and lectern obscure parts of it, but highlights include the Annunciation and the three female saints at the end.

screen: Blessed Virgin and St Gabriel at the Annunciation screen: St Barbara and St Mary Magdalene screen: St Philip and St Thomas screen: St Margaret
screen: St John and St Peter parclose screen screen: St Bartholomew and St James the Less

In the north aisle is part of another screen that probably was once associated with a shrine of St Thomas of Canterbury in the south chancel aisle, visited by pilgrims on their way to the relic of the Holy Rood at Bromholm Priory. In his article Texts and Detexting on Late Medieval English Church Screens, David Griffiths points out that the part of the inscription giving the saint's name has been defaced, most likely in the 1530s or 1540s. There is no date on either screen, and nor do any bequests survive directly towards them, but as Simon Cotton notes, there was a flurry of bequests for internal furnishings here in the period from 1460 to 1480, and so they probably date from around that time.

The south chancel aisle contains some good misericord carvings including a woodwose, an East Anglian wild man, about to set off to hunt for lions with his rough-hewn club. From here, there is a view beneath an open canopy to the grand memorial on the north side of the sanctuary, where one of North Walsham's most famous residents sleeps. He is William Paston of the famous Paston family, the founder of the local grammar school, who died in 1608. He rests in full armour on his side. Mortlock points out that, as a sign of Paston's meticulous nature, he designed the memorial himself before he died. The earliest glass in the tall south aisle windows is a sequence of Old Testament scenes that Birkin Haward thought were probably the work of J&J King of Norwich, dating from about 1860. He credited much of the rest of the glass to Horace Wilkinson and his son Alfred Wilkinson, working here over the course of the first half of the 20th Century. The best of it is probably Harold Wilkinson's depiction of Faith, Hope and Charity of about 1900.

Unusually for East Norfolk they seem to have been an enthusiastic church-attending lot in North Walsham at the time of the 1851 census of Religious Worship. Out of a parish population of just under three thousand, more than four hundred people attended the morning service here, and there were almost six hundred present for the Sunday afternoon sermon, always more popular in East Anglia. Another six hundred-odd attended one or other of the three non-conformist chapels in the town. Thomas Dry, the curate in charge at St Nicholas, even went so far as to claim that the congregation during the summer months is much larger than in the winter months, the census being taken in March, although why this should be so in North Walsham rather than in other places he did not say.

I started by suggesting how intimately this church is integrated into its town, and one effect of this is that it is both welcoming and well-used. It would be difficult to be in this church for very long on your own, for there always seems to be people popping in and out, as if this were some provincial cathedral city rather than a small market town, which is just as it should be.

Simon Knott, November 2022

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looking east looking east sanctuary
font looking west north chancel chapel
Old Testament scenes (probably J&J King, c1860) Good Shepherd (Horace Wilkinson? c1900) Faith, Charity, Hope (Horace Wilkinson c1900) St Nicholas, St Edmund, St Brice (Horace Wilkinson, 1910) St Peter, St Matthew, St Paul (Alfred Wilkinson, 1947) St John (J&J King? c1880)
Sir William Paston, 1610 Sir William Paston, 1610 south chancel chapel
St Nicholas woodwose rood loft stairway door and exit
Lubbock, 1816 war memorial 'I was glad when they said unto me...', 1920
Faith, Charity, Hope (Horace Wilkinson, c1900) five Cooper children died 1778-1782


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