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St Mary, Shelton
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When I first expressed a mild interest in visiting all of the churches of Norfolk at the start of the century, I was told that I had to see Shelton, and I had to see it on a sunny day. But impatience got the better of me, and so it was in early February 2005 that I first cycled down the lanes from Long Stratton to visit Shelton for the first time. I couldn't have picked worse weather. Norfolk was huddled under the greyest day of the winter so far, with low cloud, fog and drizzle all competing to see which could make the day most miserable. And yet, even in this gloom, there was something uplifting about this church set back from the narrow lane in a wintery graveyard. It is not a big church, but it has everything you might find at a larger one, the nave, aisles and clerestory all on an intimate scale. The truncated chancel was the fashion as the 15th Century became the 16th. There is something thrilling and memorable about late Perpendicular architecture in its smaller proportions. You meet it to perfection at Denston and Ipswich St Mary Quay in Suffolk, and also here at Shelton.
I came back on one of those gorgeous days in June 2009. The red brick of the south aisle and porch glowed warmly, the flint of the tower sparkled, and it was breathtakingly lovely. I saw what my enthusiastic friends had meant. Bill Wilson, in the revised Buildings of England, records that Sir Ralph Shelton, the late 15th Century High Sheriff of Norfolk, included in his will of 1497 an instruction to make up completeley the church of Shelton aforesaid, in masonry, tymber, iron and leede accordinge to the form as I have begunne it, suggesting that the rebuilding had commenced under Shelton's watch while he was still alive and was completed after his death, giving a date for the construction of between about 1490 and the 1520s. All was rebuilt except the tower. The nave, chancel, porch and aisles are Sir Ralph's. Above the porch and south aisle, the clerestory is faced in stone and so only the earlier tower remains to speak of Norfolk's native flint. It too would perhaps have been rebuilt, probably in brick or stone. Because this didn't happen the entrance to the parvise room above the porch had to be bridged in from the present tower stairs, and the west window of the south aisle survives from the church's predecessor - probably, a westward extension to the aisle was planned, but this was also abandoned, leaving the present curious west side to porch and aisle.
Was the porch itself ever finished? Pevsner thought not. You can look up through the broken vaulting to see the blocked door from the tower stairs and a window into the church, but perhaps it is not broken at all but was simply never completed, in which case work may have been going on here as late as the 1540s. Stepping through into the church itself there is the thrill of openness and light. The tall arcades march away eastwards between the white walls like trees in a forest glade. Your eyes are drawn inextricably upwards and beyond, the building opening out immediately without complexity, a perfect example of late medieval rationalism in stone and brick. The height of the unbroken nave and chancel is accentuated by the fact that the hammerbeam roof has gone - only its corbels remain. Supposedly, it was taken away in the 18th Century to be used for a tithe barn and replaced with a white ceilure, fashionable at the time, and which seemed higher than the sky outside on that gloomy February day when I first visited. The east window, which is unusually tall and thin, echoes the forest of architecture before it.
As impressive as this building is, it is perhaps not the great medieval treasure house we might hope. The intervening centuries have left a heavy mark here, and not much old survives. But there is one major exception, for the late 15th and early 16th Century glass is some of the most interesting of its kind in south Norfolk. The fifteenth and sixteenth century figures in the east window are mostly donors at prayer, members of the Shelton family accompanied by the Shelton crest of a yellow cross on an azure shield. Thier shell-tun rebus, a scallop shell on a barrel, appears several times. There is an Annunciation at the top. The glass in the north and south aisles is perhaps even more interesting, with two Annunciation scenes in the upper lights and continental glass below, including a memorable Resurrection. St Peter appears holding his keys but with an angel's head, and there are other composite figures of angels and saints. Curiously, the panel depicting St Edmund and St Edward the Martyr has had the inscription D 1813 scratched into it, possibly a glazier's mark.
The font is contemporary with the earliest of the glass, the evangelistic symbols alternating with angels holding shields in the typical East Anglian manner. On the shields are the instruments of the passion, the Holy Trinity, three crowns and three chalices. Lions and woodwoses once alternated on the stem, though the woodwoses obviously suffered at the hands of 16th and 17th Century vandals, and were recut as buttresses. Otherwise, the old furnishings have long since gone to be replaced by 19th Century poppy-headed benches in a 15th Century style. Shelton tombs form great blocks jutting out of the east wall, dividing the aisles from the chancel itself. The dado of the rood screen crosses the full length of the church to delineate the chancel from the nave under the continuous roof. It must have been very impressive when it was complete. High above the tower arch at the other end of the nave is a huge William III royal arms carved in stone. It was given to the parish as part of the 1880s restoration.
A suggestion that this church had an Anglo-Catholic tradition in the early years of the last century is that the inscription on the war memorial begins Of your charity pray for the souls of the gallant dead. From quite a different theological epoch comes the 1623 tomb to Sir Robert Houghton in the south-east corner. Houghton and his wife, along with two children, glower miserably at each other as they kneel like chess pieces on the tomb top. The skull, crudely painted onto the pediment, seems to laugh at them. Even for those puritan times it is a dour piece, and rather out of keeping here.
Simon Knott, November 2020
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