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

St Swithin, Norwich

S Swithin: born again

Read the captions by hovering over the images, and click on them to see them enlarged.
modern entrance in the south-east corner south west end St Swithin's Alley, where the tower was, with Hampshire Hog Yard beyond from the north, the parish rooms on the left and nave on the right

    St Swithin, Norwich
the tall, elegant tower, with the porch built directly into its south side   St Benedict Street has four medieval churches within 250 metres of each other, and there are three more on adjacent Pottergate, so it is no surprise that some of them are surplus to requirements; in fact, all seven are now redundant. St Swithin is one of the smallest, but it was already derelict in the 19th century. The tall, elegant tower, with the porch built directly into its south side, was taken down as unsafe in the 1880s, and the church was closed shortly afterwards. You can see the church before the tower was demolished in the image on the left.
There obviously was a 19th century interior, because above the large west gallery the west window had been filled in, and scriptural texts painted in ribbons, suggesting an evangelical temper to the worship here. It can only have fallen into disuse because of the proximity of so many other churches - there are four others in St Benedict's Street alone.

However, this area was the toughest and grimiest part of industrial Norwich, and in 1905, a young clergyman, John Sawbridge, saw a need for an evangelical presence, probably because of the high Anglo-catholic character of nearby St Lawrence, and he raised the funds for St Swithin to be repaired and restored to use.

  looking west, towards the modern Arts Centre stage
Herbert green's interior - looking west (c) George Plunkett   Herbert green's interior - looking east (c) George Plunkett   Diocesan architect Herbert Green did the job, and built parish mission and school rooms at the east end that still survive today, as we shall see. The ornate bell turret in the 15th century style is also his. He took out the large gallery, replacing it with a smaller one, and opened up the west window. The benches were replaced with modern chairs, a screen being put in to contain the tiny chancel.

However, it couldn't last, and by the Second World War St Swithin was redundant again. It escaped the blitz, despite St Benedict, 200m away, being destroyed. After the war, as with many Norwich churches, St Swithin was left to rot, being used as a furniture warehouse, until it was born again in the 1980s as the Norwich Arts Centre.

A new entrance hall was built in the south-east corner, and the parish rooms have become an exhibition space and restaurant. The church itself is the auditorium. It is all done so well that from the inside that it is hard to tell you are not in a modern building. Inside, very little survives of the Reverend Sawbridge's incarnation, and obviously hardly anything medieval. There are pictures of the modern interior at the bottom of this page.

Unfortunately, the revised edition of Pevsner uses the notes of the first edition to record the screen and a pair of medieval stalls, but in fact nothing remains at all of the internal furnishings.

  St Swithin in 1939 - redundant again (c) George Plunkett
a pair of medieval stalls (c) George Plunkett   Norwich Arts Centre is a pleasure to visit, and it is open every day. The staff here are very friendly, and you will be able to step into the auditorium. There is an illusion, as you look towards the stage, that you are facing east, as in the conversion of St Mary-at-the-Wall in Colchester as the Colchester Arts Centre; but here in St Swithin you enter the auditorium through what would have been the sanctuary, and look towards the site of the demolished tower. Looking up above the lighting rig, a Victorian roof survives, a reminder with a scattering of memorials that this was once a church.
In church explorer terms, it is not as well done as Colchester Arts Centre, in the sense that there is little regard for the former incarnation of the building, but this is a good venue for seeing smaller bands (I had been to see The Wedding Present a few days before I took these photos) and in any case, the plaque on the wall at Colchester applies here as well:

This building was intended as a church.
Deconsecrated, it is a church no longer.
One day it will become a ruin.
When it does, it will be the ruin of a church.

  parish rooms, now the cafe and exhibition space

When you leave, it is worth wandering down the lane to the west of the church, where the tower used to be. Amazingly, here is a totally rural 16th century cottage, for all the world as if we were in deepest Norfolk, and the ancient street sign Hampshire Hog Yard.

Simon Knott, November 2005


looking west in the auditorium the roof, looking west Edward Temple detail on Temple memorial 
the modern entrance area from inside the mission rooms inside the mission rooms looking into the former school

Hampshire Hog Yard


You can see thousands of George Plunkett's other old photographs of Norwich on the Plunkett website

You can also visit the website of Norwich Arts Centre

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