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

St Andrew, Southburgh

Southburgh: a chord in my heart

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the first sunny day of the year

    St Andrew, Southburgh

Perhaps it was love at first sight. 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.

19th century rebuild: but note the blind rood stair entrance!   Peter knows these narrow lanes, 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. 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, as you'd guess from the photograph, an almost entirely 19th century rebuilding. It was the commission of the Gurdons, whose tombs line the walls of neighbouring Cranworth, with which this is 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 at the time.

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; we would find some obscure local Saint as an excuse, and 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. Such remote austerity is, of course, attractive in itself.

The interior is not wholly Victorian. The medieval rood screen dado survives, and there is a fine expressionist window of 1935 by Leonard Walker depicting a curious trinity of subjects: St Joseph and the Angel, Christ and St Thomas, and Dorcas. It occured to me later that they might be intended to represent Hope, Faith and Charity.

St Joseph and the Angel, Christ and St Thomas, and Dorcas St Joseph and the Angel Christ and St Thomas Dorcas Hope, Faith and Charity?

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; that is to say, a Victorian attempt to recreate a medieval church by including a survival that a proper medieval church would have. More delightfully, on the other side of the chancel arch there is a little harmonium built by Newman Brothers of Chicago. 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.

Despite the date, and the obsession of those decades with the international ecclesiastical style, the roof is a gorgeous rustic barn-like affair with massive kingposts. It looks as if it has stepped straight out of the 18th century.

We wandered around for a while, but not for long. There was not a lot more to see, and we wanted to catch Cranworth and possibly Woodrising before the light failed. It was already nearly three o'clock. The slanted sunlight through the south windows was deceptive, the deep iron-cold air reminding us that it really was still the middle of winter.

I poked about beneath the tower, hoping to find the service register. I wondered how often there was a service, and how many people came. I couldn't find it, but a metal plate beneath the table caught my eye. There was a bucket on the table full of cleaning equipment, so I took out a handbrush and swept the dust and rubble off of it.

  Elizabeth Townsend

It was a perfect little 17th century brass inscription to Elizabeth Townsend, who died in 1663. The inscription was crude, primitive both in its construction and organisation. It was 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 almost to the Dark Ages. It reads:


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.

We headed west into the sinking sun, towards the relative civilisation of Cranworth, where it occured to me to wonder if news of the Restoration of 1660 had actually ever made its way through to Elizabeth Townsend of Southburgh, that remote hilltop parish, before she died.

Simon Knott, January 2006


William Tawell looking east looking west Newman Brothers of Chicago   

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