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

St Margaret, Old Catton, Norwich

Old Catton

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Old Catton
face door St Margaret face

    St Margaret, Old Catton, Norwich
bvzxxc   The centre of Norwich sprawls into its suburbs like a ripe fruit which has burst open, but carries with it very little of the character of the heart of the city, which is, after all, one of the most important city centres of its size in Europe as far as historical architecture goes. The medieval walls defined the city until well into the 19th Century, but unlike Ipswich, which expanded rapidly onto largely uninhabited heathland, Norwich expanded to engulf villages which in some cases had grown up fairly close to its walls.

Because of this, there are pockets of interesting pre-Victorian buildings out in the suburbs; although, as Pevsner observes, none of the perambulations of outer Norwich lend themselves to coherent walks, such are the distances involved, and, it should be admitted, the paucity of worthwhile buildings other than in a few places. Generally, suburban Norwich is more interesting to the south and west than to the north and east. But there are exceptions, and here to the north of the city centre is one of them.

The old village of Catton has been taken into the urban area, and the 19th Century suburb of New Catton has grown up beside it, but the old village is still discernible amogst the moden estates, and the two main village streets still have a rural feel, despite (or perhaps because of) the way that the old village high street now becomes the airport perimeter backroad as it leaves Norwich to the north. At right angles to this, not far from the main road out of Norwich, is the church lane, and St Margaret sits in its pretty graveyard lifting its entirely rural round tower above the suburbs, a saving remnant. Seen from the south, the huge north transept and aisle are hidden, and in fact St Margaret is an excellent example of the way in which a rustic, ancient building was reinvented in the 19th century to served the needs of an expanding industrial city.

There are some fine 18th Century headstones to the south of the church, and a massively overblown memorial of the following century to the north-east. The short nave and south aisle are hunched attractively against the round tower with its elegant octagonal bell turret. There is a clerestory of just three windows. The south porch has a good sundial, and a modern statue of St Margaret sits in the niche between the parvise windows.

The south side of St Margaret gives the impression that this is a tall, narrow church, and it was therefore slightly disorientating to step into a space with a very different character. The south door leads under the low west gallery, and an enormous north aisle spread out before me, an arcade separating it from the former north transept. It is as if a larger, newer, squarer church had been grafted on to the side of the old one. Walking eastwards, I turned back to see the 18th century gallery decorated in a curious Gothick style. This may well have been part of an eccentric 19th Century restoration by that maverick architect Thomas Jekyll. There are reminders of this in several parts of the church, as well as more conventional 19th century work. Dark benches are shoehorned into the short nave, and either side of the three arcades. If you stand in the far north-west corner, the impression is of looking through a forest of stone and woodwork, illuminated by the colours of 19th century glass.

The rich, intimate character of St Margaret is partly a result of this wood and the glass, but also of an exceptionally good collection of memorials. As ever when we are within ten miles or so of Norwich, we are reminded that until the 18th Century Norwich was still the second most important city in England; the memorials that survive demonstrate the wealth and significance of some of its citizens. Old Catton's church is similar in this respect to the much larger medieval parish church at Sprowston, a mile or so off.The most important of the memorials here Is Richard Westmacott's 1820 memorial to a former mayor of Norwich, Jeremiah Ives, but more spectacular is that of a century earlier to the Green family, signed by the Norwich mason Robert Page. There are several other good wall tablets of the 18th, 19th and 20th Centuries.

in caelo quies grief cherubs put your foot down
Edward Gurney Buxton Annie grief Samuel Gurney Buxton entered into rest Richard Westmacott

Otherwise, the character of St Margaret is entirely Victorian. There is some good glass in the north aisle by the King workshop, and a curious range of Saints in a medieval style in the south aisle, probably dating from the Jekyll restoration.The best of the glass is Clayton & Bell's Faith, Hope and Charity. The new south south aisle, north aisle and north transept were all added under the influence of Richard Hart, who was Vicar here for forty years in the middle decades of the 19th Century. The work was largely bankrolled by the Buxton and Gurney families, and the gallery shields and rose window at the east end of the south aisle demonstrate the freedom which was given to Hart's imagination and Jekyll's pre-ecclesiological sympathies.

Apart from a small surviving piece of roodscreen, hardly anything survives from the medieval life of the church. There is another good modern statue of the church's patron sitting in a pretty little 14th Century niche partway down the north arcade; the niche is exactly the kind of thing which you might find it some tiny, remote church out in the Norfolk fields. Roughly contemporary with it, but speaking of a quite different kind of building, is the wholly urban 16th Century pulpit. It actually came here from St George Colegate, bought by Richard Hart at the time of the restoration there, and is of the quality you would expect to find in a large church in a major city.

St Margaret is a pleasing combination of the old and new, and although the interior leaves you in no doubt that this is not a backwater, the building is mindful of its rural past. And of the recent past of its parishioners, too: a moving little brass plate by the south door recalls that the heating apparatus in this church was installed by WRC Howlett... as a thank offering to Almighty God for the preservation of his three sons during the Great War, and his own recovery from a serious accident, Autumn AD 1919. How fortunate he was.

  your eyes have their silence

Simon Knott, February 2009

arcades looking east sanctuary looking west font
St Withburga suffer the children Charles Campbell Hart visit the prisoner comfort the dying 
Hope Faith Charity Christ in the Garden Mary Magdalene
rose window light and shadow pulpit war memorial Old Catton St Margaret
the preservation of his three sons during the great war the preservation of his three sons during the great war gratitude

face on a cloth James Adams memorial an honest, faithful and industrious man  scroll and last trump


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