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

St Clement, Outwell


Outwell jolly eagle war memorial

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    St Clement, Outwell

Here we are out on the edge of Norfolk, most often the place where it fades before disappearing completely. All along the border are the marshes, the fens, the Breckland forests and the Waveney river plain, a cordon sanitaire protecting the county from the rest of civilisation. So it comes as a surprise, in the south-west of the county, to find three large settlements, Emneth, Outwell and Upwell. They merge into each other and all but join to the Cambridgeshire town of Wisbech. They line a stretch of the Nene cut. The road that links them runs for just a few miles across this corner of Norfolk, as it heads from Wisbech to another Cambridgeshire town, Ely. The fenland wastes cut them off from Norfolk proper, and it is as if they are hiding from the rest of the county.

To visit Outwell and Upwell in particular, you might think they belonged entirely to Cambridgeshire. The long straight road that lines the long straight river is their joint high street, and is so much like that of typical Cambridgeshire fenland towns. Until recently it formed the border between the two counties. Some fellow church explorers I once met in Upwell church were sure that they were still in Cambridgeshire, and were not completely convinced by my Ordnance Survey map.

And Outwell and Upwell are quite unlike other Norfolk villages. Their expansion dates from the time of the draining of the Fens by Dutch engineers, and they are wholly urban in character, but it is a Flemish urbanity rather than an English one. The low terraces lead to little bridges over the canals. St Clement sits where two rivers join, and you must cross them to reach it. The terraced houses, of pink brick, are also quite un-East Anglian - you really could imagine yourself in the backstreets of a Belgian town.
The tower appears clumsy, as if a confection. The lower part is thirteenth century, the former bell window now performing a pleasant if useless lighting duty half way up, the louvred 14th century replacement above. A hundred years later, the vast west window below was punched through on the eve of the Reformation, and there you have it, a tower quite unlike any other.

The capped stair turret of the tower is also unlike any other, for it must have originally reached to the top of the 13th century tower, and now falls just short of the top of that stage. The ridged roof of the south aisle beside it creates an illusion that the tower is offset. All around the building, the windows are vast, and you know before you enter that this church will be full of light, although things will not turn out exactly as you might imagine.

The large two storey porch has a brick-and-moulded rib vaulted ceiling, a pointer that you are about to enter a church that is a bit out of the ordinary. This is a big church, although not as big as its two neighbours, and the interior is redolent of its age, the dust in the air falling slowly in the spilled light. As you stand in the doorway, devotional statues, icons and the odd burning candle catch the eye, scattered at corners and on walls.

A rather more startling featue is the garish glass in the east window. As at Wiggenhall St Mary, the use of coloured quarries in what is the main focus for the congregation is hard to fathom - what were they thinking of? These are a murky acid yellow, and if Wiggenhall makes you feel that you are underwater, here it seems as if you have entered a sulphurous fog. However, this does mean that here is a church which does not give up its magic lightly.

Both aisles extend to flank the chancel, and in the north chancel aisle glass is a large early 16th century figure. He would not be out of place in Kings College Chapel. He appears to be one of the wise men from an otherwise lost Adoration of the Magi scene. Whoever he is, he gives us a hint of what is the great glory of Outwell church, for in the chancel and the south chancel aisle is a good collection of late 15th and early 16th Century glass, much of it not typically East Anglian in character.

St John the Evangelist (top)/St John the Baptist (bottom) nativity of Christ Magus
probably St Agatha St Faith St Ursula St Stephen
St Lawrence God St Edward the Confessor St Walstan

The glas was restored by King & Son in the 20th Century. The best of the earlier glass is a nativity scene with the midwife and St Joseph standing in the foreground, Blessed Virgin and child behind. This may not have been the original configuration, and Joseph's head is an interloper. Otherwise, the 16th Century figures of saints, mostly martyrs, is memorable. Set on red and light blue backgrounds they include St Agatha holding her breast, St Faith with a saw, St Ursula with an arrow, St Stephen holding stones, St Lawrence with a grid iron, a figure who is either God the Father or Christ at the Coronation of the Blessed Virgin, St Edward the Confessor and East Anglia's own St Walstan.

On the north side of the crossing there is a large transeptual chapel. This chapel is one of the great treasures of Norfolk churches. Above the simple fittings is an exquisite hammer-beam roof, tiny and perfect. Stepping back into the aisles and the nave you can see that the roofs here are also medieval, probably by the same hands as those at Emneth, and feature angels holding instruments of the passion. There is also a wall plate with carvings of what appear to be mythological beasts.

After the seemliness of the chapel and north chancel aisle, the south chancel aisle is a contrast, full of tables and junk, but I thought perhaps not unsuited a building which is hardly the county's tidiest church anyway, and at least it shows that the place was being used. If anything, the untidiness contributed to a continental feel. The roof here is particularly interesting, because here are the best of the angels and the wall plate. The roof in this aisle has been restored at some point, because there is a 17th century date carved near the entrance from the south porch. On a shield it says '1624 RB RP', presumably the initials of the two churchwardens.

In the south aisle chapel there is a 16th century monument to Nicholas and Edmund de Beaupré (the latter as an addition to the former's tomb) and a tomb recess set back from the black and white tiled floor. The chancel aisle is cut off from that of the nave by a wrought iron screen, suggesting that by the 18th century this chapel was used exclusively as the Beaupré mausoleum. An earlier local family is remembered by the brass to Richard Quadryng in the north aisle. As often around here, there is a medieval latten lectern.

All in all then a quirky place, full of character and interest. And in the largely treeless surroundings of the Fens, St Clement's churchyard is an oasis. On a sunny summer day it is a lovely place, the idiosyncratic and slightly ramshackle building with its brick battlements and grinning gargoyles shaded and dappled by green.

Simon Knott, May 2020

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Outwell north transept chapel Outwell
St Clement (Lawrence King?) in memory of twelve children who died in their infancy banner


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