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

All Saints, Shelfanger


half-timbered north porch

    All Saints, Shelfanger

The area south of Norwich has the largest concentration of medieval buildings anywhere in northern Europe, because there are so many medieval parish churches and they are so close together. But all of them are different, as if the local masons of the 14th and 15th century added quirky little details to make their church unique. The centuries after added their own idiosyncracies, and Shelfanger's tower is at once odd and pleasing, with its flushwork battlements and pyramid cap. The buttressing adds to the individualism, with two tall angled buttresses on the west side, and two shorter buttresses partway along each side. The 15th century half-timbered porch on the north side is a delight, as big as a cottage and making a real focus for the building from the street.

One thing not immediately obvious from the north side is that the tower is set off centre. Your first thought is that the nave has been extended southwards, but there is no trace of an arcade. The beautiful modern scissor-brace roof is no clue, although there is a quatrefoil window at the south-west corner of the nave. The chancel is aligned centrally rather than on the tower, and this makes the situation even more curious, because we know that the chancel and the tower are almost exactly contemporary.

How do we know this? Sam Mortlock records that in 1966 a workman restoring the chancel discovered that the wall at the east end was partly hollow. The inner plaster was broken to reveal wonderful wall paintings, of the highest artistic quality. Now set in a pointed arched alcove on the south side and a low arched alcove on the north, they are probably part of a sequence of the life of Christ. In the extreme south-east corner, the angel appears to the shepherds on the hillside. Next, on the north, the most dramatic and imposing scene, the Adoration of the Magi. They offer their gifts to the infant Christ, who is seated on the lap of the Blessed Virgin. The paintings have been dated to the late 13th century, almost certainly original to the building of the church. There is something similar at Little Wenham in Suffolk.

Otherwise, this is a substantially Victorianised building, with a bizarre set of Victoria's royal arms, obviously the work of a local sign painter. The lion looks most alarmed as he watches the unicorn apparently going mad. Victorian propriety made the painter place the animals emerging from beneath the charged shield, thus obviating the need to include signs of their masculinity.

The Clayton & Bell glass reminds us that, as with their mass-market rivals Ward & Hughes, they were really quite good in their early days. Part of the medieval roodscreen is reset on the front of the ringing gallery, and the late 14th Century font is grand and substantial, with the crowned letters A and B - not Andrew and Bartholomew as you might expect, but the initials of the donor Adam Bosville, who was recorded making several bequests as Dec became Perp in those years of theological and artistic ferment.

Simon Knott, August 2018


looking east Adoration of the Magi (13th Century) V R royal arms: anxious lion, lunatic unicorn
font Transfiguration, Agony in the Garden (Clayton & Bell, 1880 Deposition, Resurrection (Clayton & Bell, 1880)
killed in action in France credence: angel of the Annunciation (19th Century)

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