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St Mary, Sporle
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We were weaving southwards, left and right of the Swaffham road. We came through busy, purposeful villages that were off the beaten track: Great Massingham, Rougham, Wellingham. We headed onwards and found Sporle, another large village, its long pretty street flanked by a stream, a pleasing bridge carrying across to the church on the hill.
Peter parked on the village street, and crossed the bridge. There didn't seem to be anyone about, and so he climbed the hill to the church.
Walking past the tower, he found the south door, which lets directly into the church. There isn't a porch, and the door has a traditional handle as well as a yale lock. Peter tells me that he turned the handle, and pushed. But the door was locked, and it wouldn't open. He rattled the handle a couple of times, but no; it was definitely locked. He stood for a moment, looking around for a keyholder notice. There wasn't one. And then, suddenly, the door opened.
It opened just a fraction, just enough for a tall man to put his head out. He took one look at Peter, and said "You can't come in. There's a service on." And then he shut the door again.
This seemed to me an extraordinary thing to have happened. There was a hint of the absurd about it. The vast majority of village churches are very welcoming, and would certainly be pleased if a stranger turned up while a service was on. I wondered if it had been someone having a joke, but Peter said no, he could hear the sound of voices within.
A small priest door to the east was covered in cobwebs, and clearly had not been opened for years. We wandered around the church, which is very imposing whichever side you see it from. The graveyard is gorgeous, and seen from the east the setting is dramatic. But even the plate tracery of the east window seemed to throw a blank stare at us. The north door is actually bricked up, which was appropriate under the circumstances. The west doors were also locked, and for want of any other ideas of how to effect an entry into Fortress Sporle, we scratched our heads and then went back to the car.
So, what on earth was going on at Sporle church? Thinking about it afterwards, I came up with a number of possibilities. If the church was now redundant, the 'service' that Peter had encountered might actually have been something unofficial, and perhaps even something that shouldn't have been going on at all. If that was the case, then no wonder that they wouldn't let him in.
But no; Sporle was surely much too big a village for its church to be made redundant, and it was the work of a few moments to discover that it was still a working building. And so I wondered if perhaps there had been some kind of feud going on between rival groups within the congregation. Perhaps there were two factions, holding separate services and rearranging the furniture accordingly. Perhaps the dispute over removing 'goods and materials' was something to do with people claiming ownership of liturgical furnishings.This would explain the siege mentality when Peter tried to enter during a service, and would also give a reason for the very strangely worded notice. But was such a turn of events really credible outside the covers of a JL Carr novel?
August 2007: We came back to Sporle about nine months later, on one of the hottest days of 2007, only to find that the annual Sporle fete was in progress on the school field. We walked around to the church, and found that on the outside of the south doorway there was now a keyholder notice, listing no fewer than four keyholders. It still isn't clear to me if this was a result of what I had written the previous year. Not unreasonably, they were all out, shying cocunuts and beating the keeper no doubt. But it was a step in the right direction, and so a few weeks later, on another beautiful summer day, we returned again.
Remembering the notice, I went to one of the keyholders, who turned out to be a delightful old lady with a cockney accent. She reiminded me of my wife's great aunts, who all came from Bethnal Green and Whitechapel. "Have you got any identification?" she demanded. As far as possible, I deliberately carry no identification, but I did offer her my bank card. She laughed, and declined it. "There you go", she said, handing me the key. "Enjoy it".
And so, Peter and I stepped inside Sporle church for the first time. My first impression was of how dark the inside was, even with the south door open, thanks to the box around the doorway, reminiscent of churches in France. The windows, which we had previously been unable to look through, turned out to be full of high quality printed quarries from the late 19th century, very expensive at the time, I should think. The famous wall painting of the life of St Catherine is on the wall of the south aisle, and as our eyes became accustomed to the gloom, the images resolved themselves. There are about 24 of them, and Pevsner points out the self-evident truth: there are two distinct series, the first of which, consisting of the initial eleven frames, he dated to about 1400, and the rest to a few decades later. The candle beam of a parclose screen still runs between the south aisle and the middle of the painting, suggesting that it post-dates it.
Pevsner is very good on the architectural history of the building here, which is one of the most complex I have come across in a Norfolk church. As we wandered around, it was like encountering a series of rooms, finding piscina after piscina of different ages, arcades which alter and contrast, places which appear to have once been exposed to the elements, and so on. With the caveat that it is not entirely clear what Herbert Green did, it looks as if the entire building, pretty much, was in place before the Black Death. After that, there was window tracery and the famous wall painting to come, but that's about all.
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