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

St John, Rushford


Rushford Rushford Rushford
Rushford south porch parvise Rushford College from the churchyard

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    St John, Rushford

The Thetford area is a kind of black hole in East Anglia's otherwise welcoming landscape of open churches - or at least that is how it seemed to me over a number of years at the start of the century that I spent visiting all the churches of Norfolk and Suffolk. Perhaps things are different now, but having tried to revisit some in this area in more recent years I have to say that I doubt it. And even more than this, St John at Rushford is in a land of dead churches. Within a couple of miles there are three ruins, and St John was lucky not to join them.

In medieval times Rushford was home to a college of priests, and this was their church. The founder was Edmund Gonville, and the date, 1342, puts the tower windows at the absolute peak of the Decorated style. A few more years, and the Black Death would make us all serious and Perpendicular. Excitingly, the college building survives, just to the south of the churchyard, a lovely house that is obviously still someone's pride and joy. But St John has been rather more battered over the centuries. Only the tower and the nave walls remain of the medieval church. Bill Wilson, in the revised Buildings of England: Norfolk, records the sequence of events. The Earl of Surrey, to whom the church was granted when the college was surrendered to the Crown in 1541, wasted no time in mining his new acquisition for building materials. By the end of the decade the church had been derelicted, all the lead removed and the chancel and transepts partly demolished and ruinous. Towards the end of that century, in the 1580s, the nave appears to have been restored for use by the Buxtons of nearby Shadwell Park, an unusual date you might think. It was made sound but the roofline was lowered, creating the odd proportion between nave and tower that you see today. You can see by a drip course on the eastern face of the tower that the nave was once much taller.

The church may be familiar to you if you are a fan of cult films, for this was the church used for the 1968 film The Witchfinder General. The film is set in the 17th Century, and it is an irony that in fact this building was not being used as a church at that time, for half a century after the Buxtons' restoration it had become a barn for the Shadwell Park estate. The 19th Century revival saw it returned to use as a church, a pre-ecclesiological restoration of the 1840s brought the apse, and at the time of the 1851 Census of Religious Worship the officiating minister, a Reverend Frederick Downes Painter, noted that the church was a peculiar, being in no Diocese, the parish not only straddling the border between the two counties but also between the Dioceses of Norwich and Ely. He recorded that there is no permanent endowment of any kind but an annual stipend of 100 is paid to the present officiating minister by the patron of the donature, which is to say about 20,000 in today's money. A total of 66 people attended worship at the church on the day of the census, a remarkably high number out of a population of not much more than a hundred, but Downes Painter recorded that this was about average for the church. Perhaps attendance was compulsory for those who lived and worked on the Estate.

You can still trace the remains of the chancel in the churchyard today. The curious buttresses against the east wall are surviving fragments of the north and south walls, and set inside them are the springings for the chancel arch.

On my first visit in 2006 my nine year old daughter and I had wandered around to the south side, enjoying the busy bees humming around the churchyard flowers, the scent of fresh-cut grass, only to find a large padlock and chain wrapped around the porch door. There was no keyholder notice, and we might have taken St John for a redundant church were it not for two lonely laminated sheets of A4 paper on the noticeboard which, on closer inspection, turned out to be risk assessments for people using the building and grounds. As I have said, this lack of hospitality was no different from that of a number of churches in the Thetford area at the time, and I have pointed out on numerous occasions that an open church is the most powerful act of witness that the Church of England has. The message that comes from a locked church, especially one with an ugly padlock, is quite different. If churches cannot fulfil the Gospel requirement to welcome the pilgrim and stranger within the gate, then they are dying churches.

Be that as it may, a couple of years later I came back on the Norfolk Historic Churches bike ride day, which in those days even these fortress churches of the Thetford area participated in. Well, the kindly lady sitting in the porch to sign participants' forms seemed a bit surprised that I should want to see inside, but she gracefully assented. She didn't seem comfortable with me taking photographs though, so I'm afraid there are not many on this page.

I don't know what I had expected, but if I had read it up in advance I would have known that in 1903, when neighbouring Brettenham church was opulently refurnished at the expense of the Musker family, the old furnishings were brought here to Rushford and the church restored to accommodate them, including the construction of the apse. They are of interest because they are the work of Samuel Teulon, who had overseen an early High Victorian rebuilding of Brettenham church in 1852. This High Church grandeur now transferred itself to Rushford.

You step into a church frozen in time. A High Victorian font in the Decorated style, the dark wood of the benches and a delicate screen lead the eye to the splendour of the sanctuary with its stencilled walls, cooured glass and dramatic reredos in the Flemish style. These would already have seemed old-fashioned when they were installed here, but it is not so hard to imagine a community entrenched in the liturgical enthusiasms of half a century earlier, as if in an attempt to keep the new century at bay. The Muskers paid for three lights in the sanctuary depicting the crucifixion. In one of them a member of the family stands as a richly dressed St John at the foot of the cross with the inscription Ecce Filius Tuus ('behold your son').

It is a period piece, a time capsule, and there is no other church in Norfolk quite like it. I came back to see it again on another Norfolk Historic Churches bike ride day a few years later, but by then Rushford had stopped taking part.

Simon Knott, October 2020

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looking east sanctuary reredos
Blessed Virgin crucified Musker memorial window 'behold your son'


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