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

St John the Baptist, Reedham

Reedham: a beacon for sailors

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    St John the Baptist, Reedham
Henry Berney and family   Reedham is one of those places known by people who have never visited it for an idiosyncracy, for here, halfway between Norwich and Yarmouth, is the only rural crossing of the River Yare, and it isn't a bridge. The Reedham Ferry is beloved of generations of Broads holidaymakers, wanting to avoid the hectic A47 and the misery of the Norwich rush hour on their way to and from their holiday boat. The chain ferry, and the pub beside it, are best crossed on a summer evening, as the light begins to fall. You can do this if you have time to enjoy it, because it only takes two cars at a time. It is like stepping back a century, into the pages of an Arthur Ransome novel.

Amazingly, this was a coastal village at the time the church was built. Indeed, the Romans built a lighthouse here, and there are fragments of Roman brick and stone built into the structure of St John the Baptist. But the land was drained for sheep grazing, and now Reedham sits beside the quiet river some five miles from the sea. Despite this, it attracts plenty of visitors, and seems to encourage the development of tourist attractions.

Anyone near the church one summer day in 1981 would certainly have seen a sight worth seeing, because a cigarette stub thrown by a workman from the roof of the tower set light to the thatched roof. The building was completely gutted. Since then, it has been enthusiastically restored to use, always a difficult job in a big church, and it has not been done without difficulty, as we will see.

The Yare Valley is full of tiny churches, but this is not one of them. The great 15th century Perpendicular tower lifts its head high above the trees to the east of the village, and the church is a long one, pointing like a ship towards the sea. The east end is rather curious, with, apparently, two separate chancel windows side by side, one a triple lancet, the other four light interlocking tracery.

Stepping into the broad nave and looking east, the mystery deepens, because there are apparently two chancels, side by side, one slightly wider than the other. Of course, that to the north is the real chancel, and the one on the south is a chancel aisle. There may well once have been an arcade dividing the south aisle from the nave, but no trace of it survives, and looking at the roofline it is hard to see that there ever might have been one. Perhaps the nave was simply widened southwards, and a chapel built on to the new east wall of the widened nave.

The modern glass in the two east windows is extremely good. It dates from 1999, and forms a continuous theme. In the chancel, a yellow cloud and a blue cloud approach each other, perhaps in representation of Redemption. The triple lancets next door host a looming crucifixion, the sombre purple crosses hovering above the blue. But what makes the windows remarkable is only visible close up, because etched into the glass are maps; behind the clouds, it is a perfectly reproduced Ordnance Survey map of the Yare Valley, while that behind the three crosses is of the Holy Land.

Holy Land Holy Land destroyed by fire Redemption marshes  

The chapel is sometimes referred to as St Anne's Chapel, but more often as the Berney Chapel. The Berneys were one of the great East Anglian families that crossed the divide from the late Middle Ages to the early Modern period. Their name is remembered at Berney Arms Station a few miles to the east in the marshes, which in all England is the railway station furthest from a public road. Several Berneys are remembered in this chapel, none more magnificently than Henry Berney and his family. Henry died in 1584, and his tomb is an early example of that puritan piety which would become the norm over the next century. He and his wife kneel at a prayer desk, their children arrayed in gendered ranks behind them. It has been toasted to a beautiful deep terracotta.

men family women

It is, of course, an ill wind which blows nobody any good, and one result of the fire is that all the Victorian trappings that resulted from the 19th century have been removed. The floor is beautiful, wide pamment bricks stretching in all directions. I particularly love the way they set off the font.

I said that the new restoration was not entirely happy, and try as I might I could not love the furnishings. The wide bleached wood benches seemed unnecessarily bulky and unsympathetic to the organic feel of the floor, especially the choir stalls, which create a kind of tunnel effect. I couldn't help thinking that simple, modern wooden chairs would have been much better all round. But this is a personal feeling, and you must decide for yourself, of course. What is not in doubt is that this venerable building has benefited from the love and energy of a supportive parish community. The ones we met on Bike Ride day in 2007 were full of enthusiasm for their building, and certainly knew plenty about it. Even more than this, they were at pains to reassure us that, unlike most churches in the Yare Valley, St John the Baptist is open every day.


Simon Knott, December 2007

looking east chancel curious capital west end 
royal arms looking west Peter Ashley Miller

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