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

St Mary, Stalham

Stalham

Stalham

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    St Mary, Stalham

Stalham is a fine little town in the northern part of the Broads, full of activity but on a human scale. It's not as well known as the Wroxham/Hoveton conurbation, but its about the same size and certainly a more hospitable place if you are looking for a shop or a pub. Unlike Wroxham, it sits quietly away at the northern end of the Broads system looking as much to its agricultural hinterland as it does to the Broadland holiday-makers, and there is a sense in which Stalham is on the Broads without actually being of them.

The church is open every day. From the outside it looks a long, low beast huddled among the trees, the south aisle with its Perpendicular windows almost swamping the narrow Decorated clerestory, as though it has been wrapped around the earlier church. In fact, this is not the case at all, for the windows are a result of a rather urban 19th Century restoration, and a Decorated window survives at the east end of the aisle. The tower, on the other hand, is a product of the late medieval period, so late in fact that it was never finished, a bequest to complete it in 1533 coming too late before the Reformation put an end to such things, although the huge west window may give some clue as to the grandeur that was planned. The chancel was also rebuilt over two successive campaigns in the 19th Century, and you step into a church that feels wider than you might expect, and perhaps a little dark under the relatively low nave roof until the view to the east lifts the eye to Perpendicular grandeur again.

The great treasure of Stalham church is its remarkably good font, right at the end of the 15th Century. The openness of the church makes a feature of it, as does the yellow lighting forming a backdrop beneath the tower. It stands high on its pedestal, stately and majestic on its plinth. It almost seems to glow in the dimness. Six of the panels depict a pair of apostles, all apparently similar at first sight, but each holding a symbol and each with their own unique faces. Of the other two panels, the most easterly depicts a rare Holy Trinity scene, with God the father seated and holding the crucified Christ. The dove of the Holy Spirit appears to rest on God's beard behind Christ's head. The most westerly panel depicts a well-preserved Baptism of Christ, with an onlooking angel.

font: Holy Trinity font font: St Matthew and St James

The depiction of God and Christ as human figures would have outraged the 16th century Anglican reformers, and so, as happened in many places, the font was plastered over, not to protect them, but to hide them. It was simply easier than chiselling them all off. Often, this process necessitated hammer blows to remove the bits that would protrude through the plaster, but here at Stalham the panels of this elegant font are carved in relatively shallow reliefs, and so they emerged unscathed in the 1850s restoration.

There is no longer a screen in situ, although either side of its setting there are two large squints which mark the locations of the nave altars, and would have given a view of the high altar to those Priests concelebrating on the minor altars. However, some of the screen panels survive, and are set on the south wall of the chancel. The figures on the panels are St Andrew, probably St Felix, Probably Henry VI, St Edmund and St Roche showing off his plague sores.

rood screen panel: St Andrew rood screen panel: St Felix? rood screen panel: Henry VI? rood screen panel: St Edmund rood screen panel: St Roche

The stained glass in the west window beneath the tower is rather good of its kind.The work of William Morris of Westminster and installed in 1920, it has a feel of the Art & Crafts movement glass that was becoming prevalent among smaller workshops of the time. The east window, by Clayton & Bell, is perhaps less distinguished. Elsewhere in the church there's a good 18th century memorial in the south aisle, a beautiful pillar stoup by the door with a frame that may or may not have been there originally, and several memorial plaques reset on the chancel steps. The overwhelming feel is of a well-kept and well-loved church, open and welcoming, an adornment to its little town.

Simon Knott, August 2019

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looking east sanctuary looking west
Katherine Smyth, 1718 Christ enters Jerusalem (Hardman & Co? 1920s) Christ enters Jerusalem (Hardman & Co? 1920s) Mary
disconsolate cherubs and putti, 1718 rood screen panels: St Andrew, St Felix?, Henry VI?, St Edmund, St Roche Blessed Virgin (Philip Prince, 2015)

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