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

All Saints, Shelfanger

Shelfanger: quirky and pleasing

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Tudor porch as big as a cottage

    All Saints, Shelfanger
beautiful modern scissor-brace roof   As I've observed elsewhere, 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.

Mortlock, in the early 1980s, spotted a copper weathercock on top, but this seems to have been lost since. 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? 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.

late13th century wall paintings Adoration of the Magi decoration on the north side

Otherwise, this is a substantially Victorianised building, with a Victorian set of royal arms, simple benches and some reasonable glass that resisted my attempts to photograph it at 5pm in late February. Part of the medieval roodscreen is reset on the front of the ringing gallery, and the font is fine and substantial, with the crowned letters A and B. Not Andrew and Bartholomew, but the initials of donor Adam Bosville, says Mortlock.

I might add that, in common with the other churches in this benefice, Shelfanger church is welcoming to visitors, rejoicing in its commission to allow pilgrims and strangers 'within the gate'. A friendly church, and an interesting one too.

Simon Knott, March 2006


view from the ringing gallery looking west: the off-centre tower arch Adam Bosville's font piscinaand sedilia to a former altar
looking east ringing gallery Victorian arms Victorian image pedestal 

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