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

St Peter and St Paul, Sustead

Sustead in spring

Sustead, 2005 Sustead south porch

    St Peter and St Paul, Sustead

Over the last fifteen years or so I have visited every medieval church in Norfolk and Suffolk, but I have not been back to some of them for a very long time. In August 2005, I visited some forty churches in north Norfolk over the course of two days in the company of the late Tom Muckley. It had been a deep, hot summer, the lanes drowsy and full of green.

Now, in early May 2018, the awakening year at last cast my mind back to summers past. The long, cold winter months had finally come to an end. Now, almost ten years after Tom's death, I found myself thinking back to those two days, and of the churches that I had not returned to since. One of them that was golden in my mind was St Peter and St Paul at Sustead, one of those pretty little round towered churches in the area south of Sheringham. And so, at the start of the bank holiday weekend, with temperatures in the high twenties promised, I took my bike on an early morning train up from Ipswich to West Runton between Cromer and Sheringham on the north Norfolk coast.

It was a gorgeous morning. I planned to cycle back to Norwich, a journey I have made several times before and always by a different route. A steep climb up through the woods along the sunken lane took me across the A140 and then down the hill into the grounds of Felbrigg Hall. I locked my bike in the almost empty car park, and headed for the gate to walk across the fields to Felbrigg church, but stuck on the gate was a handwritten notice, reading 'we regret the church is closed while the west window is repaired'. Presumably they are storing all the stuff in the church.

This was a disappointment, but it would save me time that might allow other churches further on. The narrow lane through the woods descended southwards. The land was boiling with green and yellow, and there was nothing about, no cars, no people, except an old lady standing by the side of the road at an unmarked stop waiting for the weekly bus into North Walsham. I came down into Sustead, just a handful of houses and the pretty church. My heart sank when I saw that the chancel was encased in scaffolding and builders fences, but they were only replacing the roof tiles, and the church was open.

The walls are pleasingly patched up with the red brick of various ages. l had read that the architect and landscape gardener Humphrey Repton had lived for ten years in a house in the village, and must have known the church well. I looked for hints of the late 18th century, but I don't suppose he did much here, always being busy sorting country houses out. Still, the locals must have known who he was, and it was amusing to imagine the churchwardens knocking on his door, tugging their forelocks and asking for his advice on the drains.

You wouldn't have known inside that the scaffolding was there. Everywhere seemed brightly painted and fresh in this lovely little church.There is no tower arch, there is no means of communication between the tower and the nave. Instead, the tower has an external door on the south side as at neighbouring Aylmerton, a local fashion perhaps. The nave has a pleasing mix of 14th and 15th century windows, Some with 15th Century glass. St Catherine and St Mary Magdalene are partly restored, and there are two musicians, one playing the bagpipes and the other a rebec. Curiously, the bagpipes appear to be leopardskin, with a leopard's head where the bag feeds the pipes.

St Mary Magdalene (15th Century) musician playing bagpipes (15th Century) musician playing a rebec (15th Century) St Catherine (15th Century)

There is the ghost of a former transept in the north wall, and in front of it a delightful little late 17th century pulpit with angels carved on it, curious to say the least. It originally came from the redundant church at North Barningham across the fields, now in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust. The 15th Century font is rather remarkable, featuring shields including those of England and France, perhaps carved to mark the end of the Hundred years War.

The south chancel windows are by Christopher Whall, and depict the stories of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son, dating from the 1890s. A generation later, the 1920s left another curiosity. The east window has restrained motifs of late Art Nouveau, but the central top light is unashamedly Jazz Modern, the kind of Art Deco that was used in cinemas and road houses, and in the cabinets of radios. If this is contemporary with the motifs below, then it shows two major schools of 20th century design in transition from one to the other, an unusual survival, especially in a church.

I stood, and took one last look. Such a lovely, peaceful spot. I would not leave it another thirteen years before I came back.

And then I headed a short distance along a quite lane between a barley field and an oilseed rape field to the church at Thurgarton, less than a mile off. Halfway along the lane I stopped, to take a photograph of Sustead church across the barley field. I went to resume my onward journey, reached for my sunglasses on top of my head, and discovered that they weren't there. I'd left them in Sustead church. And so, I turned and revisited rather sooner than I had planned or imagined.

Simon Knott, May 2018


font (15th Century) looking east pulpit, lectern, arch
east window The Good Samaritan comforts the injured (Christopher Whall, 1890s) The Good Samaritan pays the innkeeper (Christopher Whall, 1890s) The Prodigal Son sits dejected in the pigsty (Christopher Whall, 1890s) The Prodigal Son is forgiven by his father (Christopher Whall, 1890s) jazz modern
pulpit angel (17th Century) pulpit angel (17th Century) pulpit angel (17th Century)
Font (15th Century): three lions of England, fleurs-de-lys of France the Sustead dead


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