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St Peter, Ringland
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It is writing of its time. The 1930s and 1940s were the great age of the walking and cycling enthusiast. The road network which emerged during the 1920s and 1930s opened up the countryside for exploration, but the land was still secretive and little-known enough to make that exploration exciting. Britains steam railways had worked their fingers into the remotest of places, places which would be lost to the rail network within a few short decades, and it was perfectly possible to leave Liverpool Street station in London at the crack of dawn, spend the day cycling around remote Norfolk lanes visiting churches, and be back home in time for a late supper. For the more ambitious, the network of Youth Hostels and the proliferation of country inns meant that a walker could easily spend a week wandering around the East Anglian countryside without ever needing to enter a town. Exploring churches was a cheap enthusiasm in the days of a depressed economy, and the restrictions and privations which wartime brought only made the prospect seem more attractive. It could be said that, by the time Cautley published his Norfolk volume, there was already a bittersweet nostalgia for the pre-war era.
He had written his Suffolk volume in his official capacity as Diocesan architect for St Edmundsbury and Ipswich, but it was the journeys which he had made in his younger days which informed the bulk of the follow-up work on Norfolk. As he says in his introduction, For forty years I have been visiting churches in Norfolk and compiling notes and taking photographs... and so many people have urged me to publish them that rather unwillingly I have consented. My reluctance arose because my notes have to be so condensed to bring them within the compass of a book owing to the current restriction on paper... it must be understood that I am in my 74th year and that owing to petrol restriction it is impossible to go round and take the photographs again.
Cautley was not a Norfolk man. He was born at Bridge in Kent, where his father was Rector, and when he was a small child the family moved to Ipswich. He lived in the Suffolk town for the rest of his life, although his parents would later move to Belton in what is, since 1974, Norfolk, and be buried there. Cautley himself is buried in a corner of the graveyard at Westerfield in the suburbs of Ipswich. Being native to the southern county, and having explored it first, his writing about Norfolk is tinged with a hint of the exotic, as if he was exploring a foreign country with which he was quite familiar, but where his status as an outsider might occasionally be betrayed by his accent and manners. He has that fascination with remoteness, in both time and place, which was typical of the early 20th Century urbanite. He was more at home in his beloved Ipswich, in his little office above the shops on the edge of the Cornhill. This was where he designed three churches and a chapel for Ipswich, as well as banks, a library and a mock-Tudor shopping centre, and wrote these books.
The occasion on which I first saw Ringland church through the eyes of Cautley and Ribbans was not the occasion on which I took the photographs for this page. After years of being kept locked, St Peter is in a benefice of open churches these days, but Ringland continues to keep somewhat eccentric hours. I'd first come here in the autumn, and then again on a day of windswept, icy showers in raw March. Both times the church was locked, and there is no keyholder notice. We considered ringing the Rector, who I know is extremely friendly and welcoming to church explorers, but his rectory is miles off, and we couldn't spare the time getting a key would demand. But in October 2008, more in hope than anticipation, we turned up at Ringland far too early for the church to be open, but it was. Indeed, the friendly Rector was inside. He explained that he was just sorting some things out, but he offered to leave the church open for us, and he would let the lady-who-unlocks know that we were already in there. Since this would obviate the need for her to think that we had broken in, and call the police to arrest us, we accepted with pleasure.
It must be said that I already knew that Ringland church was the most important church in Norfolk which still had to make its way onto the pages of this website. There may be bigger churches, there may be more famous ones, but none so artistically and historically significant as St Peter. For this alone, I was excited. We had already stepped through the fine 15th Century porch with its flanking angels and flushwork base course. This leads into an overwhelmingly 15th Century nave and aisles, with a large, elegant clerestory above. If the tower had ever been rebuilt, it would have been one of the most magnificent exteriors in central Norfolk. And yet, this is not a huge church - Peter, Tom and I had some disagreement as to whether it should be in our 'Top 50 larger Norfolk churches' or 'Top 50 smaller Norfolk churches' lists. Perhaps it is best described as a medium-sized church, but that it is to make it seem mundane - Ringland church exhibits the finest qualities of late-medieval grandeur on an intimate scale. The first indication of this is the wonderful nave roof. There are similar roofs at St Peter Mancroft in Norwich and Framlingham in Suffolk, both much bigger churches, but neither of them has anything like the impact of the roof here. The hammerbeams are disguised by coving, as if it was a vast rood loft, with flights of angels punctuating the coving, and more learned angels supporting the wallposts. It is breathtaking. The coving lifts the roof as if it were floating in space, and beneath the coving is Ringland's famous clerestory - as Pevsner observed, it is exactly how a Perp clerestory should be.
As if all this were not enough, set into the clerestory is one of central Norfolk's best collections of late Medieval stained glass. Pevsner points out enthusiastically that it dates from the same time as the window tracery, but as we shall see we will need to be wary about its provenance. For a start, why is it in the clerestory at all? It was set here in 1857 by the King Workshop of Norwich, and while it may well have come from Ringland church originally, it certainly did not come from this clerestory. There are five main figures. Two of them, the Blessed Virgin and St Gabriel, form an Annunciation scene. Another Blessed Virgin holds the Christchild. The last two figures are St John the Baptist, and what must have been a magnificent Holy Trinity scene, with God the Father seated, the crucified Christ on his lap and the dove of the Holy Spirit descending. Beneath them are the figures of donors at prayer. These must originally have been at the bottom of the windows which contained the larger figures, possibly the east window, perhaps the aisle windows.
The clerestory glass was annoyingly difficult to photograph. Not only is it high up, the brightness of the low morning sun on this day in October flooded into the church from the south side, making the north side of the clerestory as bright inside as it was outside.
I suggested before that we must be open to the possibility that this glass did not originally come from Ringland church. This is because the rood screen dado with its painted Saints clearly didn't. It simply doesn't fit the chancel arch. The panels are eight figures from what is known as a Creed sequence - that is to say, twelve Apostles holding scrolls with clauses from the Apostles Creed. Not only are there not enough of them, but the ones that do survive are out of order. Obviously, at some time, the panels have been removed from the dado and replaced. A 9th panel hangs in the north aisle, depicting St Philip. It is not impossible that St Philip and the three other missing Saints formed the gates of the screen, but more likely that the screen was once longer, and came from elsewhere, possibly even Weston over the hills. The survivals here are St Jude, St John, St Andrew and St Peter on the north side, and St Matthew, St James, St Thomas and St James the Less on the south side. All of them have been heavily attacked by iconoclasts, with virtually no trace of face and hands surviving on any of them.
We had just about finished squeezing what Graham Greene called the last ounce of pleasure out of St Peter when the lady-who-unlocks came in. She pottered about, as such people do, and we had a chat about Ringland church and its survivals. Indicating the roodscreen panels, she told us that they used to be very dirty, and you could hardly make anything out. "What happened?", I wondered. "Did the Courtauld Institute restore it?" She shook her head and smiled grimly. "No, I had a go at it with some hot soapy water", she told us. Which may, I suppose, explain why the faces and hands were scoured quite so clean.
The roof, glass and screen are magnificent, but Ringland has quieter treasures, including a 14th Century font, and a contemporary roundel in the south aisle depicting a centaur playing a viol, his tail sprouting a vine and a little dog running beneath him. As Sam Mortlock says, he might have sprung out of the pages of a 14th Century manuscript. There's also a roundel for St Mark.
Simon Knott, January 2009
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