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

Our Lady of Pity, Swaffham

Swaffham Our Lady: vibrant and quirky

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rather anonymous from the outside into the narthex HOLY LEAD ME

    Our Lady of Pity, Swaffham
Annunciation   Swaffham is a fine town, and it is finer than it has been. European money has been abundant, and the determination of Breckland Council to improve the towns in its care is admirable. As well as Swaffham, the towns of Watton, Dereham and even poor old Thetford are on the up. If you haven't been to Swaffham for a while, then come and see.

The great medieval church of St Peter and St Paul towers over the market place, but it is in its turn dwarfed by the two great wind turbines not far from the centre of the town. This is just as it should be, and a reminder that all of our small towns had windmills in them until relatively recently. As I have said before on this site, if an East Anglian from the 19th century could be transported forward in time to the present day, one of the first things they would wondeer was where all the windmills had gone.

At Ecotech, to the north of Swaffham, you can actually go up one of the turbines to a viewing platform. This would obviously be an exciting prospect, so much so that on the road out there you might not notice, as you passed it, this rather anonymous little red-brick Catholic church. You might more likely notice the huge, dour Baptist church immediately across the road, an uncomfortable juxtaposition, especially if you have just come from the harmonious market place.

Our Lady of Pity is built in that institutional style of the late 1950s, with tall arched windows punctuating red brick walls under a high pitched roof. Actually, there is rather more to it than that; the style echoes Norfolk medieval vernacular, with the large windows creating a walls of glass effect when seen from inside, and the red brick buttressing creating a sense of substance. An idiosyncracy, the first of several, is the quotation carved into the steps that lead to the west door.

You enter a narthex porch, with a spiral staircase to a gallery, and walls of glass fill the arches which lead into the nave itself.

I do not think I have been in another modern church which is so full of light as this one, and the view west from the high altar is beautiful and elegant, the high pitch of the roof softened by a coved ceiling, and the arches picked out in red brick beneath the gallery. I thought it was delightful.

The view east is less harmonious, and rather more striking; Our Lady is a T-shaped church, as if a cruciform building had lost its chancel, and the long east wall is painted deep blue, and flanked by sulphur-yellow windows. Fortunately, the sanctuary is more than a match for this, and the round window at the head of the apse contains a superb round representation of the Annunciation. Awkwardly placed beside the sanctuary is an ornate font dated 1914 - did it come from an earlier church?

I liked Our Lady of Pity a lot, and not only because it was the only church in Swaffham which was open this Saturday afternoon. It has a quirkiness, an originality, that makes it quite unlike anywhere else. The vibrancy of the east end is a contrast with the prayerful simplicity that you easily feel in some contemporary Norfolk Catholic churches - Poringland and Wymondham, for example - and you wouldn't want to see it everywhere. But I am glad that it exists here, at least.

  St Therese of Lisieux

Simon Knott, October 2006

looking east looking west south transept Sacred Heart
sanctuary lady altar Victorian font images staircase 

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