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

St John the Baptist, Reedham


Reedham Reedham

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St John the Baptist, Reedham

The Rivers Bure, Yare and Waveney carve up the south-eastern corner of Norfolk as they head towards the sea, bringing with them the wild flat marshes what were once a great estuary. This means that Reedham was a coastal village at the time this church was built, its tall tower a landmark. The Romans had built a lighthouse here, and there are fragments of Roman brick and stone in the structure of St John the Baptist. The church is a long one, pointing like a ship towards the sea. As often in this part of Norfolk there was an early 14th Century rebuilding, and in the middle years of the 15th Century came a series of bequests for a new tower, and in 1517 there was a further bequest for a bell, suggesting that the tower was complete by then. The east end is curious, with, apparently, two separate chancel windows side by side, one a triple lancet, the other with four light interlocking tracery.

The 19th Century restoration here need not concern us too much, because one day in the summer of 1981 a cigarette stub thrown by a workman from the roof of the tower set light to the thatched roof that was continuous over nave and chancel. The building was completely gutted and was repaired over the next two decades. The church is open every day, and you step into a light interior that has been entirely renewed since the fire. The view to the east is unfamiliar, because, as with the view from the outside, there appear to be two separate chancels side by side. In fact, that to the north is the true chancel, and the one on the south is a chancel aisle chapel, sometimes referred to as St Anne's Chapel, but more often as the Berney Chapel. I have seen suggestions that there may well once have been an arcade dividing the south aisle from the nave, but if so no trace of it survives. Looking at the roofline it is hard to see how 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 glass in the two east windows dates from 1999, and is memorable. It is by Sarah Bristow, and replaces that lost in the fire. In the chancel, a yellow cloud and a blue cloud approach each other, perhaps an echo of the prophet Elijah hearing the 'still small voice' of God after the earthquake, wind and fire in the Second Book of Kings. The triple lancets next door host a looming crucifixion, the three sombre purple crosses hovering above the blue. But what makes the windows remarkable is only visible when you close up, because etched into the glass are maps. Behind the clouds, it is a reproduction of the Ordnance Survey map of the Yare Valley, while that behind the three crosses is a map of the Holy Land.

east window (Sarah Bristow, 1999) east window: Ordnance Survey map of the marshes (Sarah Bristow, 1999) east window: Ordnance Survey map of the marshes (Sarah Bristow, 1999)
Berney chapel window (Sarah Bristow, 1999) war memorial window

One result of the fire is that all the trappings of the 19th Century restoration here are gone, and the replacement furnishings are striking. The wide bleached wood benches that took their place have an imposing confidence, but the choir stalls create a kind of tunnel effect discordant with the brick chancel floor. The capitals of the chancel arch are curious, carved with tracery patterns and with sockets above that would once have supported the rood beam. At the other end of the nave, the 14th Century font survived the fire.

More survivals are in the Berney Chapel. The Berneys were one of the significant East Anglian families who cross the divide from the late Middle Ages and 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 and Alice Berney and their 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 ranks behind them.

Berney memorials Henry and Alice Berney (1580s) Henry and Alice Berney, 1584

This is a lovely part of Norfolk to walk or cycle, the lonely lanes rising and falling with a surprising drama, and the occasional distant views memorable. When I first explored this area some twenty years ago I remember finding most of the churches locked, but today they are pretty much all open daily with only a couple of exceptions. The Halvergate Marshes sprawl to the east, and the only crossing of the Yare between Norwich and Great Yarmouth is here at Reedham, 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, but it is well-used by locals too. The chain ferry, and the pub beside it, are best seen on a summer evening, as the light begins to fall, and you might have stepped into an Arthur Ransome children's book.

Simon Knott, August 2022

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looking east sanctuary Berney chapel
font looking west rood beam support in chancel arch
sanctuary, Berney chapel helm Berney memorial (late 16th Century)


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