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

Holy Trinity, Stow Bardolph

Holy Trinity, with the Hare mausoleum in the foreground

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Carstone The Bardolph mausoleum Gable eave face Tower entrance Tower from the south 19th century Christ in Majesty
The Bardolph mausoleum Squirrel headstop

  Holy Trinity, Stow Bardolph
From the north   I’ve been looking forward to visiting Stow Bardolph ever since I started Norfolk. This is because it contains something that I had longed to see for years.

I had first come across the place as a child, in an old book in a dusty, little-used corner of my school library. I hated school so much that it was always a relief to curl up here in one of the crumbling leather chairs, especially during a wet break or a rare free period. In my mind, it was always winter in that library, the high windows steamy and the room warm with that special fug that comes from old cast iron radiators.

I liked best the shelves of books in their leather bindings, which showed that they were brought here before the First World War, in the days when the school was new. I rarely saw anyone else take these books down. They were mostly bound Victorian magazines, and in them I would lose myself; the cold, damp classrooms with their ancient desks would fall away, gloomy corridors and acrid laboratories would fade, and I would be somewhere else.

It was, perhaps, my own fault that I passed the eleven plus and ended up in such a grim institution. I am not sure if the laws of libel permit me to mention the name of Cambridgeshire High School for Boys, and its creepy, oafish headmaster Mr Colin Hill, CW Hill as he styled himself, or 'Crip' as he was known to the boys, for his more than passing resemblance to the wife-murderer Dr Crippen. Am I allowed to remember out loud, for instance, the sadism of one of his German masters, who would wind his fingers into his victims’ hair as he pressed their faces into the desk? On on the door of another master's room the sign ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’: Work Sets You Free, the terrible lie once written above the entrance gates of the Auschwitz concentration camp? Perhaps Hill and the rest are dead now, and the County High School has in any case been closed these twenty five years.

But it isn’t so much the pain I remember (though my goodness there was plenty of that!) as the interminable days, weeks, months and years of emptiness; and the sarcasm, the arrogance, the bullying. Children never to be valued, never to be nurtured, never to be loved. I still think about it every day. No wonder I saw books as a form of escape.

It was in one of those bound Victorian magazines that I saw it. From the 1860s or so, I should think. It might have been Household Words or All The Year Round, although I own complete sets of both of these myself now, and I have never found it again since. I spent hours leafing through the volumes in that library, and I remember the smell of the paper – and yet, old as they were, they were so little used that there was a crispness and a smoothness to the pages, despite them being more than a century old. I would devour them: serialised stories of suspense that hinged on lost wills and mysterious relatives; proud descriptions of innovative public works projects like Town Halls, bridges and systems of drains; articles about dire poverty in Calcutta and the East End; colourful accounts of life in the Empire: exploring in Africa, a factory in India, logging in Canada, missionary work in the south seas. For me, these books were the 19th century, not the dates and famous men I was taught about in history lessons. And there were page-fillers, snippets of curiosa, short descriptions of strange things to be seen in the backwaters of England. Here was where I had first come across Stow Bardolph…

A quarter of a century has passed, and it is November 2004, one of those murky, drizzly days that remove any doubts that Autumn is coming to an end. We speed through the forest on our way from East Harling. That great church has exhausted me; there is so much to it. I am daunted by the number of photographs I have taken, and how to use them. Our next stop is really planned as light relief, and although I have learned that it is not a good idea to cherry pick churches if you plan to visit them all eventually, it feels like we deserve a treat.

Stow Bardolph is just outside of Downham Market, on the western side of the county, the part that Noel Coward was thinking of when he made his remark about Norfolk’s flatness. This always seems a familiar landscape; having been born in the Cambridgeshire Fens, west Norfolk seems less foreign to me than any part of Suffolk. Although Norfolk is not so much of an agro-industrial wasteland as north Cambridgeshire, it has to be said that Downham Market does not have the most attractive of settings, and the A10 Cambridge-to-the-coast road actually passed through Stow Bardolph until the bypass came.

Today, the village comes as a relief after the busy road; inquisitive sheep watched us through a wooden fence as we turned into the main street past the coolest village sign in Norfolk, turned past the pub and headed on towards the Hall and the church at the far end. The pub, the Hare Arms, is worth a mention because I moan far too often about some of the places I stop for lunch, and this one was really excellent. We went there after visiting the church, and there was a roaring fire, good food and beer, a friendly host and a bill that didn’t break the bank. I recommend it unreservedly, and plan to go back. I should also mention the Old Rectory, for in it was born one of the Norfolk and Suffolk Churches sites’ most faithful correspondents, Simon Cotton. If I have ever got any facts about medieval wills and bequests right, then it is because of him.

Holy Trinity looks unfamiliar - at least, to my eyes. The squat tower is built from carstone, a local material to here but unknown in Suffolk or east Norfolk, where flint reigns supreme. The blocks darken to red, and give buildings the gritty, rugged quality of chocolate chip cookies. The narrow nave and chancel are smaller than the steeply pitched roof and low tower suggest, and are flanked to the north by what appears to be an aisle, but is in fact the 17th century Hare mausoleum. Cautley thought it 'poor', which seems a little harsh. It appears to have its own entrance in the west end, but we resisted trying the doors and stepped in through the north door of the nave.

Well, to be honest, it was a bit gloomy. Holy Trinity is not without its glories, but they aren't presented immediately. Mortlock thought the nave 'fresh and well-cared for', both of which are plainly true, but freshness and a sense of the medieval do not always merge seemlessly. The church is quite dark, and underwent an overwhelming restoration. It leads you to question, for example, how original the Norman tower arch is.

Holy Trinity is essentially a Victorian church inside a medieval shell. The architect was John Brandon, and he was one of those designers who had an eye to the overarching principle of the place - every carving, every tile, underwent his scrutiny. The chancel in particular has been lavishly refitted in the style of the mid-century - but these things date and fade, and what was so well suited to the ritualist services of the 1860s now appears very old-fashioned.

That said, the woodwork is fine, although you would do well not to rely on Pevsner if you don't want to end up in a state of utter confusion. In Bill Wilson's new edition he mentions the stalls... with misericords referring to the Hare family: one has a hare gripping the Hare arms and on the other a hind holds the arms of Bishop Hind. How they loved that kind of conceit in the C15! Ho ho, I bet they did, how amusing - or at least it would be, if it were true. In fact, the Hare family didn't take possession of the Hall until the middle of the sixteenth century, and Hind was Bishop of Norwich in the nineteenth century. And the misericords? One features two boys fighting, and in the other a cowled monk holds open the mouth of a dragon. There is a hare, and a hind - but they are on the 19th century choir stalls. That said, the hare is magnificent, but you wonder how Pevsner could have got them so mixed up - did someone misread their notes, or was it a case of being befuddled by sherry? Further down the entry for Stow Bardolph the pub is described as pleasant, so perhaps it was the latter. What else? The Charles II royal arms are outstanding - Mortlock thought them the best in Norfolk. The sedilia is splendid, but more Brandon's work than anyone elses.

In the nave, looking west Looking east The sanctuary In the chancel, looking into the Hare chapel
Mortlock thought this Norfolk's best royal arms extraordinary sedilia Looking west Hare - geddit?
roodscreen, east window Misericord I Misericord II Misericord II (detail)
Memorial to Dame Elizabeth Hare Happy the man...

It is with something approaching excitement that I stepped through the north chancel doorway into the Hare mausoleum. Here was what I had come so far to see.

The doorway is 19th century - before, you had to enter from the outside. The family pew set into it was originally within the chancel. The mausoleum has undergone a more recent restoration, and is now neat, clean and well-lit. It is obviously used for much of the daily business of the church. All around are Hare memorials, dating from the early 17th century up into the late 20th century. There are about twenty of them all told, some more prominent than others, but the one I most wanted to see was the plain mahogany cabinet that sits in the north-west corner.

A bronze plate tells us that it contains Sarah Hare, who died in 1744. Open it up, and there she is. A wax effigy, dressed in her own clothes. She was about fifty when she died, and it was apparently her own wish to be immortalised in this way. The door to the cabinet is not without reason - she is terrifying, her face dumpy, warted, defiant. I had obviously seen photographs of her in the years since I first read about her, but nothing can really prepare you for the frisson as the cabinet door swings open. It made me think of fairground peepshows that I can just remember, and I realised that I would have paid for this, too.

Sarah Hare's cabinet Sarah Hare The door open
Sarah Hare close to Inscription

The excitement of Sarah Hare may distract you from the other memorials here - it certainly did me. But there are tremendous things here. The memorial to Sarah's sister, Susannah, is by the great WIlliam Scheemakers, and Mortlock says it is his only work in Norfolk. Around the room are at least half a dozen memorials which stand as among the greatest of their age. I found my self sensitised by Sarah to respond to the life sized figures of her relatives with something other than a cold architectural eye. It was all fascinating, one of the best collections of memorials of its kind in England.

Sir Thomas Hare, 1834 Susannah by Scheemakers, 1741
Sir Thomas Hare, 1693 Sir Ralph Hare, 1623 Finely restored

We wandered back up the street to the Hare Arms. It seemed odd to go into a pub named after all the people we’d just been visiting, so to speak. A curious immortality; although not as strange as being cast in wax like Sarah Hare, of course. I was glad I'd seen her, glad she was still there. I thought back to the time I'd first read about her, a lifetime ago, in a book that was already a hundred years old.

And all that time she'd sat here, through two centuries of wars, kings, winters, the rise and fall of Empire. And nothing in all her life was as remarkable as this long, silent, immobile vigil. If she could know, would she still want this immortality? Would I want it for myself?

I thought of Larkin: Life is first boredom, then fear. Whether or not we use it, it goes, and leaves what something hidden from us chose, and age, and then the only end of age.

We leave the pub, and the sun has come out, a cold, bright, crisp, winter sun. We get into the car and accelerate out onto the A10, resuming the journey, because what else can you do?

  Norfolk's coolest village sign

Simon Knott, January 2005


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