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

All Saints, Roydon

Roydon All Saints

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Roydon All Saints north doorway south doorway

    All Saints, Roydon
unto us a child is born   Not to be confused with the Roydon near Diss, this little village sits out in the mazy lanes to the south of the Sandringham estate. Like many around here, the church is kept locked, but there was a keyholder notice, and also a very affable old gentleman who was happy to lend me the key. The church sits back from the lane, and your first impression is of the solid 14th Century tower, and then the sequence of curious round-headed windows picked out in polychromatic brick down the north side of the ashlar nave. There is a surviving Norman doorway on the north side, and an even better one in the south porch. On the doors themselves, the ironwork is flourishing but not ornate, and what strikes you is the sheer quality of it. Surely it is not the work of some simple village blacksmith?

The answer is no, it almost certainly wasn't. The tower survives from a medieval predecessor, but the rest of the church was entirely rebuilt by the young George Edmund Street in 1857. This is interesting for all sorts of reasons. At the time, Street was making a considerable name for himself. He had worked for five years in the office of George Gilbert Scott, carrying out his own commissions, including entirely new churches as well as restorations, mainly in Cornwall. An enthusiast of the Ecclesiological Revival which had inevitably followed the wave of excitement created by the Oxford Movement, Street was appointed Diocesan Architect to the Diocese of Oxford in 1850. He was just 26 years old.

By 1855, his increasing reputation enabled him to set up in practice for himself, in London, and he entered designs for a number of competitions for secular buildings in the city that were going up in the new gothic style. Mostly, he was unsuccessful, but one of the first churches he received a commission for as an independent architect was this one, All Saints at Roydon.

Now, we think of Street as one of the half dozen top architects of the Gothic Revival, so it comes as some surprise to discover that All Saints was rebuilt in a neo-Norman style. But this was just a year or so after the publication of his book The Brick and Marble Architecture of Northern Italy, so perhaps his mind wasn't yet fully focused on the pattern-book English gothic of his friend Butterfield's All Saints Margaret Street. Pevsner seems to think that Street would have been reluctant to essay into neo-Norman, but if he was, he made a pretty good job of it.

There is a pleasing harmony to the building, the details taking their key from the surviving doorways. The glass of Clayton & Bell (east), depicting the Crucifixion flanked by the Resurrection and the Ascension in three lancets with a roundel of the Nativity above, is an unusual choice for neo-Norman, but once again it works very well, as does the west window depicting St Peter and St John, which Mortlock thought was probably by William Wailes. The font is grand, the pulpit, albeit in wood, echoes the neo-Norman style of the building. It should all be terribly kitschy, but somehow the quality of the work shines through, and there is a quiet gravitas to the interior that I had not expected. Is there a reason for this?

Well, perhaps there is. In January 1856, Street took on as an apprentice a maverick genius by the name of William Morris. The 21 year old Morris was just down from Oxford, where he had studied classics, but his real interest had been in medieval art and architecture. He had known the older Street in Oxford, and shared his passion for the work of Pugin and Ruskin. Morris's arrival must have been like a firework going off in Street's office. His obsession with detail, his puritanical rejection of mainstream artistic tastes, his dislike of urban life and his longing to return to the idyllic simplicity of medieval rural life and manners - is it wishful thinking to see these things reflected in Street's All Saints, Roydon? At the very least, can we assume that the ironwork of the doors may have come from Morris's influence, and possibly even his design?

Morris did not stay with Street for long, for soon his obsessions were all consumed by the Pre-Raphaelite Movement. He would never complete his apprenticeship. But for a year and a bit, two of the great figures of 19th Century art and architecture were working together here at lonely Roydon All Saints, an extraordinary thought.

Both Morris and Street were long in their graves when the final little touch which makes Roydon All Saints even more special was installed. This is the First World War memorial board. Probably by a local hand, it has been painted vividly in a pious 1920s style at the point where late Art Nouveau is tipping into Art Deco. This kind of folk art is a precious touchstone down the long generations, to be treasured and preserved. A great angel, a crucifixion and a couple of haunting little vignettes of soldiers flank the names of the five boys who never came back.

  in the hour of their country's need offered themselves a willing sacrifice

Simon Knott, August 2016

looking east looking east font war memorial
crucified Blessed Virgin and St John at the foot of the cross Disciples at the Ascension The Risen Christ Resurrection, Crucifixion, Ascension
IHS St Peter and St John he is not here he is risen crucified Grant them O Lord eternal rest
1939 1945 chancel arch capital

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