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

St Andrew, Southburgh


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St Andrew, Southburgh

Perhaps it was love at first sight. I first came here in the winter of 2006 and there was something about the remoteness of St Andrew that struck a chord in my heart. Maybe it was because we'd just come from vast, vainglorious Hingham. What a contrast Southburgh church was! There it rose, that wholly un-East Anglian tower and spire, far off on the hill top beyond the meadows and woods. I was out church-exploring with Peter Stephens who knew these narrow lanes well, and directed the car through a maze of them. But even so, the church seemed to come no closer, keeping its distance in this profoundly rural heartland of East Anglia.

We headed on. It was the first sunny day of the year, a cold bright day, a hint of the spring to come perhaps. Soon, we were passing a couple of girls on horseback, and then a young family out walking. The rolling hills enveloped us, and we came out to find the church near at hand. It disappeared behind trees, and then we were dipping down and then up, towards a farm and a cluster of cottages and the graveyard, and there it was.

St Andrew is almost entirely a rebuilding of the 1870s and 1880s. It was the commission of the Gurdon family of Letton Hall whose tombs line the walls of neighbouring Cranworth church, with which this is in a joint parish. Pevsner suggests that the architect was J A Reeve, the diocesan surveyor, but St Andrew has, to my eye, more than a hint of the work of Richard Phipson, who was diocesan architect in the 1870s. As Pevsner indicates, a restoration was at first contemplated, but a rebuilding proved necessary.

Coming back in October 2013 I remembered it well, but now the year was dying, Norfolk putting itself back to sleep for the long winter, and there seemed something elegiac about St Andrew on its lonely hilltop. Being so remote, this little church would surely die if it was kept locked. However, St Andrew is open every day. If England was still a Catholic country I have no doubt that Southburgh church would eventually achieve some sort of status as a shrine, and we would find some obscure local saint to drag up as an excuse. Pilgrimages would be made here, and the building would be full of flowers and burning candles. But England took the reformed path, and St Andrew's austere interior must be lonely and take its chance.

And this austerity is a fine setting for one later addition, for in stepping inside even on a gloomy day the first impression is of the splendour of light cast by Leonard Walker's glass of 1935 set on the south side of the nave. Walker's was a singular furrow, there was no other workshop like his, and his thick, multilayered expressionist style is immediately recognisable. Fewer than half a dozen East Anglian churches are home to his work, and the glass here is particularly memorable for its subjects being set against a background of barely coloured lozenges which intensify their fiery power. And they are perhaps a curious trinity of subjects until you notice that they represent Hope, Faith and Charity: the angel appears to St Joseph in a dream to tell him to take Mary and the Christchild into Egypt to keep them safe, St Thomas sees the wound in the risen Christ's side and believes in the Resurrection, and Dorcas offers the beautiful clothes she has made to the poor.

Hope, Faith, Charity (Leonard Walker, 1935) Hope: Joseph and the Angel (Leonard Walker) Faith: Christ and St Thomas  (Leonard Walker) Charity: Dorcas (Leonard Walker)
Joseph and the Angel (Leonard Walker) Christ and St Thomas (Leonard Walker) Dorcas (Leonard Walker) Leonard Walker del et fec 1935

Reeve, or Phipson, or whoever it was, did not undertake a complete rebuilding, for there are a few survivals, including the 15th Century rood screen dado. And curiously, to the east of the window there is a blind roodloft stairway entrance. But since this wall is entirely 19th Century it must be a conceit, which is to say a Victorian attempt to recreate a medieval church by including a survival that a proper medieval church would have. And yet, despite the obsession of those High Victorian decades with ecclesiological correctness and a lush gothic, the nave roof here is a rustic barn-like affair with big kingposts looking as if it has stepped straight out of the 18th Century. The little harmonium built by Newman Brothers of Chicago must have been installed when the church was rebuilt and is equally charming.

Up in the chancel is a memorial to William Tawell who lived beloved and died regretted in 1797. It must have been reset during the rebuilding, as must the little 17th Century brass inscription to Elizabeth Townsend under the tower. She died in 1661, and her crude inscription is a reminder of how, at a time when the European artistic and cultural Renaissance was at its height, we had allowed puritanism to take us back to the Dark Ages. It reads:

her life was short yet liveth she ever   HEAR LYETH THE BODY OF ELI

And what changes her short life saw! Born in the early years of the reign of James I, she saw a regicide, a civil war, the triumph of puritanism and the world turned upside down, the Commonwealth, the Restoration of the monarchy and of the Church of England, and, at last, the first new years of peace under Charles II. What a lot to live through. And I wonder if news of the restoration of the monarchy and of the Church of England had even made it through to lonely Southburgh before Elizabeth Townshend died.

Outside in the churchyard two charming modern headstones caught my eye, their inscriptions noting 'He enjoyed it while he was here' and 'She meant well', bless her, two humble sentiments that I'm sure most of us would be happy to have applied to us. More somberly, William Green's inscription of 1875 reminds us that In that great day when men are met and angels stand around, when books are opened, thrones are set, where shall my place be found? And what shall be the best man's lot if thou great saviour pitiest not? Something to ponder as we headed on to Cranworth.

Simon Knott, November 2020

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looking east looking east looking west
looking west sanctuary S. Andrew's Southburgh 1880
harmonium Newman Bros Newman Bros
war memorial day 22

he enjoyed it while he was here she meant well, bless her
in that great day when men are met and angels stand around


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