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St Nicholas, North Walsham
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Nicholas, North Walsham
The thing you always remember the church for, and perhaps the town, is the collapsed west tower of St Nicholas. It is not unique in Norfolk by any means, but no other ruin of a tower is on such a huge church. And this is a great barn of a building, the chancel and nave running under one continuous roof with aisles right to the east wall. The tower came down in successive collapses in the 18th and 19th century, and there is a functional vestry built into the base. I have a vivid memory of standing under this ruin at the age of about twelve, and being completely awed by it.
The vast 14th century porch is in proportion, and you step through it into the vastness. The width of the interior is accentuated by the elegance of the arcades, and also by there being no clerestory, which makes the roof seem almost oppressive in its lowness. Fortunately, the building is full of light, because the Perpendicular windows to south and north have mostly clear glass surrounding coloured images of good quality. This is, as Sam Mortlock observed, a grand town church, with much of interest.
The great treasure of St Nicholas is the rood screen dado with its painted Saints. That there are twenty panels between the arcades gives some idea of the width of the nave. Some are Apostles, and some are female martyrs, but the two best and most interesting panels depict the Annunciation, an unusual feature on a rood screen; there are only about half a dozen of them in East Anglia. On one panel, St Gabriel bends his knee, and lifts his hand in an elegant gesture, while in the other the Blessed Virgin looks on and listens demurely. Among the women are St Catherine, St Barbara, St Margaret and St Mary Magdalene. I liked St Jude with his boat very much - he seems a jolly character.
In the north chancel aisle there are parts of another screen, presumably once a parclose. It is not as beautiful, but is perhaps more interesting, not least for being later. This time, the Apostles are carved into the spandrels, and the dedicatory inscription that runs along it has been vandalised by iconoclasts, probably in the 1540s, which would have been not long after it was made. In the other chancel aisle there are some good misericords, including a magnificent woodwose, an East Anglian wild man, setting off to hunt lions with his rough-hewn club.
One of North Walsham's most famous residents sleeps on up in the chancel. He is William Paston, founder of the grammar school, who died in 1608, and he rests in full armour on his side within an elegant and not overwhelming monument. Mortlock points out that, as a sign of Paston's meticulous nature, he designed the memorial himself before he died. Well, it's best to know what you're getting.
Simon Knott, November 2008
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