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

St Margaret, Swannington

Swannington: a big, comfortable church

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highest point in the village fat as butter relaxed and sprawling

    St Margaret, Swannington
George III   Swannington sits in the hills above the Norwich to Fakenham road, a large village in woods and fields, higher than its near neighbours Alderford and Attlebridge. Not far off are giants: the churches of Salle and Cawston are visible as sentinels from the ridge a mile or so to the north. But here we are still settled in wooded lanes, and St Margaret is a big comfortable church that seems to have relaxed, sprawling in its wide graveyard at the highest point in the village.

Most striking, of course, is that massive tower, quite unlike the erect pencil-like beacons of Attlebridge and Alderford. It is as if the medieval stone masons delivered the materials for all three towers to this church by mistake, and then used them all here. Successive restorations, including a fairly big 19th century one, have enhanced it, and here it sits, flanked by its aisles, as fat as butter.

A reminder that we are close to some of England's greatest churches is the magnificent south face of the porch. The porch itself is a functional, perfunctory one, and presumably this facing was onto an older structure. In stone and flushwork above the door are the words IHS NAZARENES ('Jesus of Nazareth'), and there are flushwork monograms about the base. Best of all, in the spandrels, are two carved scenes. The one on the left shows a very fat dragon, with two bemused onlookers. On the right hand side, the dragon is dead, the people are happy, and an armoured female looks triumphant. These are scenes in the life of St Margaret, an unusual thing to find, although the same two scenes may be on the screen at nearby Weston Longville.

life of St Margaret I front of the porch life of St Margaret II

Pevsner was a bit snooty about the 1980s extension on the north side of the church, saying that it was best not to mention it, which is one way of mentioning it I suppose. But in truth it does not intrude, and is in any case out of sight. He also bemoaned the dividing off of the west end of the church with a screen to create a hall area, but in reality this is only the skeleton of a screen, and the view eastwards is not impaired. I had imagined something much worse.

Because the aisles extend to the western face of the tower, and the area below the tower is open, the west end of the church is wide and high, creating the sense that this will be a bigger church than it actually is. The war memorial is set in the middle of the west wall.

Turning east, The building opens out into its aisles and then narrows again for the tall chancel. The interior is rather dark, because there is no clerestory, and the richly coloured glass of the east window is jewel-like in the gloom.

There are a couple of intriguing medieval survivals. The chancel roof is original, late 15th century. The purbeck marble font, probably 13th century, has been cobbled together with marble legs by the Victorians. Best of all is the Norman pillar piscina in the sanctuary. Supposedly, it was 'found' by the Rector in the rood loft stairway in 1917. The date alone makes this unlikely, and It probably didn't come from here originally (there is a 14th century one set in the wall behind it) but it features exquisite carvings, including St George killing a dragon.

The whole church focuses on the collection of glass in the east window. It is rich and intricate, as if this was the side chapel of a French cathedral, and it was intended for contemplation.

In church exploring terms this is not a major interior, particularly in comparison with some of its near neighbours, but it has great local character and, despite its Victorian going over, something of the flavour of the self-important 18th century, when the nation was ruled from the pulpits of the parish churches. As if to remind us of this, Jonathan Bladwell gave the royal arms of George III in 1762, and signed them too.


Simon Knott, March 2006


looking east chancel looking west font
north arcade and hatchments north aisle facing east pillar piscina and Decorated piscina behind curious 'gothick' seat and prayerdesk war memorial

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