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

St Mary, Redenhall

Redenhall: a mighty tower looms

Read the captions by hovering over the images, and click on them to see them enlarged.
from the east from the churchyard gate first sight from the footpath sheer western face chancel, sanctus turret, tower
farrier's implements I farrier's implements II tortoise green man 

    St Mary, Redenhall

St Mary is a tremendous sight, rearing its vast tower out of the rolling hills to the north of the Waveney. Although this is a tiny village, the church serves the pretty market town of Harleston, from which it is separated by the horrible Diss to Yarmouth road. Harleston has a 19th century chapel of ease in its centre, but when you see St Mary even from a distance you know that this is the one that means business.

I'd come here from the Catholic church in the southern outskirts of Harleston, and rather than cycle along the main road I had used a footpath across the fields. This was rather wonderful on an all terrain bike, because the path doglegged along the edges of fields slightly downhill for a couple of miles, before dipping suddenly through a copse so that I hurtled at speed under the chestnut trees, emerging, slightly breathless, in the south-west corner of the churchyard.

The mighty tower loomed above me. It is very reminiscent of the towers at Eye and Laxfield over the Suffolk border, and was almost certainly the work of the same masons. It was bankrolled by the De la Poles, one of the richest families on East Anglia in the 15th century. They were beneficiaries of the pestilences of the previous century, when the deaths of roughly half the people of Norfolk and Suffolk resulted in the break-up of the old estates and the rising of wages and prices. The emergence of a property-owning independent middle class would lead to the two great ideologies of the second half of the millennium, Protestantism and Capitalism.

But that was in the future when the De la Poles' and fellow proto-capitalists the Brothertons' bequests were rebuilding St Mary. Around the base of the tower you can see their lepard and wild man symbols. You might also spot tortoises, for this was the symbol of the Gawdy family.

One curious detail is the carving of farriers' implements on the west door. These have been taken to mean that the door was paid for by the local farriers' guild, but I see no reason to suppose that the carving is contemporary, and I think it is as likely to be the work of an idle 18th century hand.

Inevitably, the interior of the church was not going to live up to the exterior. St Mary is kept locked, which I took to be a symptom of its proximity to the suspicious churches of the Waveney valley, but is probably because the one major item of medieval interest inside is so spectacular. This is the double-headed eagle lectern, the glorious product of a 15th century East Anglian workshop. There is another in one of the Kings Lynn churches, and also one at St Mark's, in Venice. I loved the little lions on the pedestals best of all.

double headed eagle lectern jolly lion at the foot

The lectern sits in the vast, echoey interior. The inside of St Mary has been thoroughly Victorianised, and it is really hard to summon up any sense of the medieval. The benches are urban and without character, the roodscreen entirely repainted, as recently as the 1920s and possibly the worst in Norfolk; the chancel is sombre and lifeless, full of Victorian anglo-catholic nonsense, now relegated to looking foolish. The 19th century font is particularly hideous. Apart from the Gawdy chapel in the north aisle, it has to be said that the inside of this church is dull. I suppose that it is only on the rare occasions St Mary fills up that it has much of an atmosphere.

Once you look beyond the medieval, it is the organ that is most worthy of note. David Drinkell, a regular correspondent of this site and organist of St John's Cathedral in Newfoundland (he charmingly describes himself as an organ anorak) tells me that it is of the highest importance. It was built by G.M. Holdich in 1843 and has not been altered. David says that Holdich was one of the most important builders of his time, and one of the last to stick to the old style of English organ, before they started raising wind pressures and introducing orchestral colours. Norfolk has quite a few Holdich organs, but Redenhall is the biggest one by him still standing as it was built and is a national treasure. As David observes, if it was in France there would be a preservation order on it, and pistols at dawn between opposing parties when it came up for restoration.

The north aisle chapel, to the Gawdy family, includes a spirited classical altar tomb of the late 18th century, a hint of Strawberry Hill Gothick about it, rather unusual but very well done. The heraldic glass is from Gawdy Hall, demolished in the early years of WWII. An intriguing detail in the chapel is a linen chest which is also said to come from Gawdy Hall. If you open the chest, you will find a depiction of the Annunciation with sailing ships above on the inside of the lid, which is very curious, to say the least.

inside the chest Mary of the Annunciation

You can walk under the great organ to beneath the tower, an impressive space as large as some churches. Though no longer used, you get an impression of the great processional entrance this must once have been, and perhaps an inkling of what St Mary was like in its late medieval heyday. This is one of those few churches where the difficulty of getting inside is no loss, and you may even prefer standing outside and reflecting on the glory that once was here.

Simon Knott, July 2005


look east sombre 19th century chancel roodscreen north roodscreen south
Gawdy chapel memorial look west  Victorian chancel nonsense
glass from Gawdy Hall west door (inside) hideous 19th century font

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