Acle Fishley Hoveton Ingham Neatishead
South Walsham St Lawrence South Walsham St Mary
Stalham Sutton Wroxham

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

St Mary, Stalham

Stalham: urban, squat and filled with guile...

Fashionablely remodelled 19th century clerestory windows

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    St Mary, Stalham
Those Saints, St Roche on the extreme right   Stalham is a fine, tiny little town in the northern part of the Broads; but we'd spent the morning exploring the remote and lonely parishes of rural north-east Norfolk, and so coming into such a busy place full of locals competing for parking spaces was a little like entering a circle of hell. Later that week I would see some photos of Stalham in the 1920s, and it seemed a smart little place, full of activity but on a human scale. Cars have brought us convenience, but at an appalling cost. However, even before we parked I had seen that the door to the church was wide open. This is always reassuring in a town, and it says a lot about both church and town if the building is accessible during the day. In Suffolk, I had found that soulless places like Mildenhall and Haverhill kept theirs locked, while friendly towns like Bungay and Beccles always kept them open.

There was another reason it cheered me up. Stalham has, I knew, a wonderful font, and I was very keen to see it. So Tom squeezed the car into a gap outside the ironmongers, and we headed back to the church with a spring in our step. The building squats rather clumsily in its little churchyard. The tower was unfinished, a bequest of 1533 not coming in time before dour protestantism put an end to such things.

We stepped through the big Victorian porch and into the relative gloom of the interior. And there it was, the font. 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. The other two panels depict a very rare Holy Trinity (we had seen one earlier in the day on the font at Acle) and a really excellent Baptism of Christ, with an onlooking angel. 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.

Font: Holy Trinity Font: Disciples Font: Disciples
Font: Baptism of Christ Font: Disciples Font: Disciples Font: Disciples

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 include St Roche showing off his plague sores, which is relatively unusual, though not unique in East Anglia. 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.

2011 postscript: An earlier version of this piece recorded, in some detail, an argument which Tom and I had with a local character who had taken it upon himself to show visitors around the church. While this may have made amusing reading, it did not really reflect the experience of a visit to Stalham today, seven years on, as the patient Rector of Stalham politely pointed out to me recently. And so I have retired the account, and can reassure potential visitors that Stalham church is a friendly and welcoming place to visit, like so many of the Broads churches.

And in case you are wondering, they really didn't bury the font to protect it during the Commonwealth period.

  Memorial reset in the chancel step

Simon Knott, September 2004, updated June 2011

You can also read: an introduction to some Broadland churches I

   

Block-like 19th century porch Looking east The sanctuary Looking west, Tom holding the fort north aisle chapel memorial
Stem: Saints Stem: Saints Pillar stoup South aisle chapel memorials reset in the chancel arch

an introduction to some Broadland churches I

Acle Fishley Hoveton Ingham Neatishead
South Walsham St Lawrence South Walsham St Mary
Stalham Sutton Wroxham

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