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St Andrew, Southburgh
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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.
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.
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.
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
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