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

St Mary, South Creake

South Creake: devotional and numinous

Read the captions by hovering over the images, and click on them to see them enlarged.
walls washed by the Anglo-Catholic tide a carpet of pink in Mary's month porch with Our Lady of Walsingham village beyond 
 Our Lady of Walsingham busy north side east end of the nave 

  St Mary, South Creake
Queen of Heaven in the nave   Escaping the Burnhams and heading south, the wind changes. It no longer blows from Islington-sur-mer, with its delicatessens, yachting equipment stores and designer fashion shops, but from Walsingham, Egmere and Waterden, the heart of ancient Norfolk. In the early twentieth century, a revolution overtook these parishes; Anglican enthusiasts re-established the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, which had been destroyed by their Church at the Reformation.

The Anglo-catholic tide has receded in Anglicanism now, and Walsingham village largely overtaken by Catholics of the more familiar variety; but the leafy-laned parishes around have never forgotten, and today still have their devotional, numinous atmosphere. They have also retained the urgency to be open for pilgrims and strangers, wayside stopping places of spiritual refreshment. They are some of the loveliest village churches to visit in England.

Many people's favourite is St Mary, South Creake. However, unlike so many churches around here, it is not tiny, or ramshackle, or hauled back from ruination. As with its counterpart at North Creake, this is a big church, a vast one. It was entirely rebuilt in the early years of the 15th century, at a time when bequests were being urgently made; the Black Death of the previous century had concentrated people's minds, and if they were to suffer being suddenly taken from this world unconfessed, they wanted to ensure that prayers would be said for the welfare of their souls. The easiest way of doing this if you were well-to-do was to leave money in your will for rebuilding or refurnishing, a dedicatory inscription asking parishioners to remember you and pray for your spiritual good. Such bequests were anathema to the 16th century reformers, which explains why very few churches were built or restored in the three centuries after the Reformation, and why the tower here at South Creake was never finished.

The village is pretty, and, unlike its North Creake neighbour, this church is set away from the main road, among cottages and approached up a path carpeted in May with pink blossom. The gravestones to the south of the church have all been cleared, which is a crying shame; consequently, this side is rather stark now. A modern statue of Our Lady of Walsingham is in the niche of the porch, flanked by Marian monograms.

You step into a wide, light space. Cleared aisles and modern chairs give an uncluttered feel, but this is not a sparse or barren place. St Mary has a tradition going back several decades of always being full of flowers, as if a wedding was about to take place. Coupled with this, the arcades are punctuated with modern devotional statues, some with candles burning in front of them. Some of the statues are fine. Some are rather grim, including the one of St Sebastian which appears to be intended as St Edmund. But I did like the gaily bedecked King Charles the Martyr.

Of the greatest historical interest is that South Creake has one of Norfolk's 20-odd seven sacrament fonts. It must have been very similar to the one at nearby Little Walsingham, but unfortunately the panels here are almost entirely defaced. However, it is still possible to make the sequence out, and to tell that the extra panel was the Crucifixion. Some helpful soul has carefully written, in biro of all things, above some of the panels to tell you what they are, or were. In several cases they are wrong, which is also unfortunate. However, the panels are below - hover to read what they are, click to enlarge them.

font from the east font from the west with the church beyond first sight: font from the south
so similar to Little Walsingham SE: probably Confession, and E: probably Baptism S: probably Confirmation SW: Mass
W: Crucifixion NW: Last Rites W: Ordination NE: Matrimony

Overhead is the great angel roof, restored in the 1950s. The wings are all modern, but many of the angels are 15th century. Interestingly, when the angels were repaired they were found to contain shot from 17th century muskets. Almost certainly, this is surviving evidence of the attempts, recorded in the churchwardens' accounts, to get rid of jackdaws that infested the church. No less than 120 of them were killed in 1680 alone.

Ahead stands a great 19th century rood, the work of Arthur Blomfield. It is of particular interest to me, as it comes from the church of St Mary in Colchester. This redundant church is one I visit more than most, as it is now the home of the splendid Colchester Arts Centre, and many of Blomfield's fixtures and fittings survive there. I was able to see exactly how well it would have fitted in. The screen below it is 15th century; rather fine, but the figures on the panels have suffered the same 16th century iconoclasm as the font. There is a certain amount of medieval glass, including angels, a Mary of the Annunciation and part of a crucifixion. Perhaps the best medieval survivals here are the carvings in the spandrels of the south aisle roof, which include some extraordinarily fine birds, and the wine glass pulpit, similar to that at Burnham Norton, but actually still in use here.

looking east Blomfield's Colchester rood group Mary and John flank the crucified Christ rood and angels from the chancel

One of the reasons that Anglo-catholicism was, and to some extent still is, so strong in this part of Norfolk is that, paradoxically, it arrived here so late. Many urban churches bear witness to the enthusiasms of the 1870s and 1880s, but rarely did this reach remoter areas. However, by the 1920s the movement had hardened into a militant triumphalist strain, and this was the kind that blossomed in the Walsingham area. In terms of numbers, the movement has greatly retreated since then, but there is a natural tenacity to its character that has allowed it to hold on despite the odds.

Having said that, St Mary still underwent the great 19th century restoration that was common to virtually every medieval church at that time of the great revival in the Church of England. The medieval integrity of the building was reasserted, the chancel was restored to use, the structure was made safe and sound. Surviving medieval stained glass angels were collected together in the north aisle and clerestory.

In the years during and after the First World War, the Church of England was at the height of its power and influence, and was probably the most popular that it had ever been, or would ever be again. It was against this background that Alfred Hope-Patten established a shrine to Our Lady of Walsingham at the parish church in Little Walsingham, three miles from here. The interest that this generated, and, perhaps, an urgency created by the way that the Catholic Church had also re-established a presence at Walsingham, led him to build an Anglican shrine church, and Walsingham increasingly became the focus of Anglican Marian devotion and enthusiasm. Like-minded colleagues responded to the call.

The movement sparked into life at South Creake in 1921, with the arrival of Father Charles Hepworth. He seems to have turned the parish on its head, quickly introducing sung Mass with incense, as well as a daily said Mass, the Angelus, stations of the cross and side altars. The excellent church guide recalls that he wasn't afraid to step on people's toes; he removed the medieval benches against the wishes of some of the parish, pammenting the floor with old stone and installing modern chairs. All these things needed faculties, of course, and the guide recalls that Hepworth asked the Diocese at Norwich to please kindly supply us with a general covering faculty to cover all changes in the future... I suppose this will cost more, but is cheapest in the long run with a church like South Creake.

Father Henry Ventham, who succeeded him in 1927, consolidated these changes, and during his time here two major events cemented South Creake's place in the Anglo-Catholic firmament. Firstly, the opening in the 1930s of the shrine at Walsingham, ensuring a steady supply of pilgrims who passed through South Creake and lit candles at its altars and statues, and, in 1944, the purchase of the patronage of the living by the Anglo-catholic Church Union, who vested it in the care of the Guild of All Souls, who have appointed all Rectors since.

The decision by the Church of England in 1992 to ordain women priests shook the Anglo-catholic movement severely, and may yet be its death-blow. Of those who saw the Walsingham shrine as their touchstone, many left the Church of England to be received into the Catholic Church. But still the saving remant continues the tradition; still these north-west Norfolk churches fly its flag.

There is magic at South Creake. But there is rather more to it than that. The Church of England, by keeping all its churches open in this corner of England, has shown that it has learned a great lesson. Open churches, into which people can wander, sit, rest and experience a sense of the numinous, are the greatest act of witness it has.

We will never benefit spiritually from churches which are locked when a service isn't on, churches where we have to hunt for the key before entering a building which is little more than a preaching space. Ironically, evangelical congregations who usually inhabit such churches are mortified when their buildings are described as museums. But churches that are no more than mere accomodation for the Sunday club, however holy its members may be, can never be anything other than dead to strangers. To be a living church, the building should be one that speaks to the stranger and pilgrim alike, touching them with something like beauty and mystery, one where they can sense the presence of God, and know Him, perhaps for the first time.

Simon Knott, May 2005

  Queen of Heaven in the chancel

chapel of St John the Baptist gaily bedecked King Charles the Martyr Grim St Sebastian medieval pulpit looking west from the nave altar fragments of a crucifixion
sanctuary Mary of the Annunciation medieval geese medieval angels
Medieval Christ rood screen dado hanging pyx above the high altar

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