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

Holy Trinity, Stow Bardolph

Stow Bardolph

Stow Bardolph, 2004

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    Holy Trinity, Stow Bardolph

It's now a good twenty years since I first visited Stow Bardolph church and wrote about it for this site, but that visit is still vivid in my memory.  I had first come across this place as a child, in an old book in a dusty, little-used corner of my school library. It was always a relief to curl up there in one of the crumbling leather chairs, especially during a wet break or a rare free period. In my mind, it is 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, 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 in one of those 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 come across 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 already being more than a century old. I would devour them, the serialised stories of suspense which hinged on lost wills and mysterious relatives, the proud descriptions of innovative public works projects, town halls, bridges and systems of drains, the articles about dire poverty in Calcutta and the East End, the colourful accounts of life in the Empire, of exploration 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.

Stow Bardolph is an attractive, well-to-do village just to the east of the town of Downham Market. Standing in the pleasantly quiet street now it is odd to think that 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, which you'll need to cross if you are coming by bike or on foot from Downham Market. You then enter the blocked off end of the main street, inquisitive sheep watching through their wooden fence. You pass the farm shop, and then you reach the church on your right. It sits with its squat tower against the street, its materials a mixture of carstone and brick giving it a gritty, rugged quality. The narrow nave and chancel are smaller than the steeply pitched roof and low tower suggest, but they are flanked on the north side by what appears to be a substantial castellated aisle with grand Perpendicular windows. This is the Hare mausoleum chapel of 1624. Cautley, in his suspicion of anything after the mid-16th Century, thought it poor, but as Pevsner points out this is a Gothic survival rather than a revival. It was built to accommodate the Hare family's memorials, and also to allow them a place in the church where they could sit separately from the ordinary people of the parish. The chapel was built with its own entrance at the west end, which presumably the Hare family used to enter the church so as not to mix with the parishioners going in through the south porch.

Apart from the Hare chapel and the tower, the church was almost completely rebuilt by Raphael Brandon in the 1840s, an unforgiving decade. You step into a church which can feel a little gloomy at first, despite the lack of coloured glass. Mortlock thought the nave fresh and well-cared for, both of which are plainly true, but it is hard to see beyond the early Victorian confidence that Brandon intended. He had an eye to the overarching principle of the place, every carving and every tile playing its part without too much regard for the survival of anything medieval. Of course, we do not know what state this church was in when Brandon came along, and in any case his restoration was overlaid with a series of makeovers later in the century for the increasingly ritualist furnishings and services that the High Church movement was bringing in its wake. The chancel fittings in particular are a sign of the 19th Century enthusiasm for seemly worship here. The Anglo-Catholic tide has now receded, probably long ago in the case of Stow Bardolph, and has left a church which feels at once old-fashioned but a bit of a time capsule.

Incidentally, Pevsner and his revising editor got themselves in a bit of a pickle with their entry for Stow Bardolph in the Buildings of England volume for Norfolk North-West and South, which 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! In fact, the Hare family didn't take possession of the Hall until the middle of the 16th Century, and Hind was a Bishop of Norwich in the 19th Century. There is a hare and a hind, but they are on the 19th Century choir stalls. And the misericords? One features two boys fighting, and in the other a cowled monk holds open the mouth of a dragon. They are indeed 15th Century, but they have been reset on 19th Century stalls and so may not even have come from this church at all originally. The other fine surviving woodwork is the carved set of Stuart royal arms, which Mortlock thought the best in Norfolk.

But you do not come to Stow Bardolph just to visit what is essentially a 19th Century church and to scoff at Pevsner, for on the north side of the chancel is the doorway into the Hare Mausoleum. It is worth noting that the doorway is also of the 19th Century, and there may not have been any way through between chancel and chapel when the chapel was originally built. The chapel is open on the south side giving a view of the pulpit, but not, you notice, the altar, and Pevsner thought the chancel had been rebuilt along its original lines.

You step through into a space which is entirely different in character to the rest of the church. A large, light place, it is lined with two centuries of memorials to the Hare family, perhaps the best collection of their kind in the whole of Norfolk. There are about twenty of them all told, some more imposing and eye-catching than others. It was with something approaching excitement that I entered the chapel on the occasion of my first visit in 2004, and I still feel a similar frisson when I've come back here, most recently in June 2021. I am taken back to my Cambridge childhood, to a steamy school library in a 1970s winter, to an old cracked leather chair beneath shelves of bound Victorian magazines, where I first read about one of these memorials in particular.

A plain mahogany cabinet in the north-west corner of the chapel tells its own story on a brass plaque: Here lyeth the body of Sarah Hare, youngest daughter of Sir Thomas Hare Bart and Dame Elizabeth his wife and sister to the present Sir Thomas Hare who departed this life the IX day of April MDCCXLIV and ordered this effigies to be placed here. Open the door, 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 story goes that she died of blood-poisoning after pricking her finger while doing needlework. The door to the cabinet is not without reason, for 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 thrill as the cabinet door swings open. It made me think of fairground peepshows that I can just remember. 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 almost three centuries of wars and treaties, kings and queens, summers and 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 any of us want it for ourselves?

Sir Ralph Hare Sir Thomas Hare, 1693 Susannah Hare, 1741 Mary Hare, 1801
Sir Thomas and Lady Ann Hare, 1820s (detail) Sir Thomas and Lady Ann Hare, 1820s Sarah Hare, 1744 Sarah Hare, 1744
and ordered this effigies to be placed here green man Sir Thomas Hare, 1693

The excitement of Sarah Hare may distract you from the other memorials, but there are tremendous things here. The earliest of the memorials is to Sir Ralph Hare who died in 1623. It's made of painted alabaster, a riot of columns, strapwork and obelisks. It is, as Pevsner notes, a lively design. The most imposing of the memorials is to one of the Sir Thomas Hares, this one dying in 1693. He reclines life-size in slightly absurd Roman armour, and the inscription tells us that the monument was erected by his wife Elizabeth. Sir Thomas died at the age of 35, but his wife outlived him by almost sixty years. Pevsner says that the work is attributed to Grinling Gibbons. More than a century later, the tablet memorial to another Sir Thomas, who died in 1634, is elegant and charming, the figure of Charity separating his inscription from that of his wife who died before him. Opposite, the memorial to Sarah Hare's sister Susannah is by the great William Scheemakers, and Mortlock says it is his only work in Norfolk.

When you can eventually drag yourself away and step back into the church to leave, there is one more memorial worthy of notice that you pass on your way. On the south side of the chancel is a memorial plaque to James William Adams VC, Chaplain in Ordinary to the King, Vicar of this parish and Rector of Wimbotsham. Adams' story is really rather remarkable. In 1879 at Killa Kazi, where he was serving as a chaplain during the Second Afghan War, Adams dived into a water-filled ditch under the sight of an Afghan charge to rescue men who had fallen beneath their horses in the muddy water. As a result he became the last of five civilians, and the first ever clergyman, to receive the Victoria Cross, and when he returned to England it was to great acclaim as a popular hero. He was appointed as chaplain to the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, who had his country house at Sandringham just up the line from Downham Market, and he spent several years ministering to the people of Stow Bardolph and Wimbotsham next door until he retired to Rutland, where he died in 1903.

And after all that excitement, to recover. The Hare family still have something to offer, for just to the north of the church the excellent village pub is the Hare Arms. It does seem a little odd to go into a pub named after all the people you've just been visiting, so to speak. A curious immortality perhaps, although not as strange as being cast in wax like Sarah Hare. I was glad I'd seen her, glad she was still there, glad there was still a thrill. As Mortlock observed, How many nightmares, I wonder, have sprung unbidden from that innocuous mahogany case!

Simon Knott, July 2021

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looking east sanctuary looking west
Hare Chapel chancel font (19th Century) Hare hatchments
hare with missing shield a grateful memorial of his ministry hare with shield
misericord: two clowns Stuart royal arms misericord: two clowns
James William Adams VC, Chaplain in Ordinary to the King stone pulpit aumbry Mr John West who was 20 years steward to the Honourable Sir Ralph Hare


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