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

St Mary, Pulham St Mary

Pulham St Mary: grand, dominating

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    St Mary, Pulham St Mary
gorgeous porch   As at neighbouring Pulham Market, Pulham St Mary is dominated by its grand, mostly Perpendicular church, this one set on a rise above the village street in a wide graveyard. There are similarities between the two churches, but big differences too; St Mary's porch is much earlier than the rest of the two churches, and the tower here is rather more feminine, with its pretty pinnacles and large bell openings. And, of course, there is the most famous feature of either church, St Mary's gorgeous late 15th century porch, perhaps the best in Norfolk and the equal of many of Suffolk's finest. Tower and porch work together to create a sense of grandeur, but in fact this is not a huge church, and there is no aisle on the north side.

The porch is magnificent. Actually not as huge as it appears, its two stories are flanked by ranges of flushwork panelling, which become, from the top on the front, ranks of stone niches, angels holding shields, angels with musical instruments and then more niches. Pride of place, in the spandrels of the doorway, is the Annunciation, of the highest artistic quality and in lovely condition. You can see some of these details in the images below.

magnificent angel holding shield with instruments of the passion not as huge as it appears faces on a porch niche canopy
angel musicians Gabriel of the Annunciation Mary of the Annunciation angel musicians

The porch had one further detail that I liked very much, a big sign saying CHURCH OPEN. And so, we went inside. At first the interior disappoints a little, because the north side of the nave is stark, climbing as it does to the heights of the clerestory opposite.

Pevsner records that Bodley's restoration cost an astonishing 5,000, around a cool million in today's money, and it is rather hard to see what they got for their cash. The painting and gilding of the 15th century font is an example; it is rich and opulent now, and you aren't half glad this didn't happen more often, but it seems to have been coloured to match Bodley's font cover, as if he was looking for jobs to do.

However, we can't know what state such a large church might have been in by the late 19th century, and turning east, the picture is more pleasing, for Pulham St Mary still has ranks of low key 15th century benches, which it must have been tempting to replace. They face a magnificent rood screen, partly medieval and partly the work of Mr Bodley.

  font: Bodley was here

Thanks be to God that he didn't repaint the panels, for they are large and filled with 15th century images of the Apostles. St John is particularly striking, the little dragon in his chalice seemingly about to take flight. St James is fine too.

north side apostles Bodley again, the coving above the roodscreen doorway south side apostles
St John St James St Simon St Jude

There is some excellent 15th century glass, with whole figures surviving, including an earnest looking St Peter. The 19th century chancel glass is also good (and so it should be, at that price!) and includes Old Testament scenes, images of St Anne and St Margaret flanking the Blessed Virgin, and a lively sequence in the east window of scenes in the life of Christ; the Visitation, Presentation and Deposition are particularly good.

Visitation Presentation Deposition OT: Moses OT: bring on the dancing girls 
OT: the story of Esther St Anne, Blessed Virgin, St Margaret 

Bodley had the chancel roof repainted in reds and greens, with sacred monograms. Some of these monograms are more elaborate than others, and I wondered for a moment if the simpler ones were actually 15th century originals.

To be honest, the most beautiful objects here are the simpler ones; the little Marian triptych above a side altar, the little floriated bench ends, some of the glass. I was also taken by a rather cute skull and crossed bones on a ledger stone in the aisle, its occupant reminding me that Hodie Mihi, Cras Tibi - 'today this is mine, tomorrow it's yours'. Turning east, I was struck by the extraordinary stairway up to the ringers' floor of the tower; it starts in the most south-easterly corner of the aisle, and rises with just a single rail to reach a precipitous platform, dangled nightmarishly at the top of the tower arch. It must have replaced a ladder. I, who have no head for heights, would not have dared walk up it for all Mr Bodley's thousands, and it spooked me so much it appeared in my dreams for several nights to come.   today it's mine, tomorrow it's yours

Simon Knott, March 2006


looking east through the screen looking west to that precipitous stairway face in a poppyhead St Peter
royal arms Bodley's chancel roof simple and beautiful  

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