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All Saints, Thornham
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It was the weekend of my 44th birthday, and not unreasonably I was feeling pretty sorry for myself. No doubt concerned about the effects this might have on the rest of the population, Jacquie whisked me off to a remote corner of Norfolk, where, she said, she would take me round any churches I wanted to see.
Taking her at her word, I led her a merry dance around 35 of them, and Thornham's All Saints was the first.
We were actually staying in Thornham, and I can unreservedly recommend the Lifeboat Inn as a place to stay, and a place to eat. In fact, the food was so good, the wines so fine, that by just before midnight I had fallen into a happy coma, all fears of age and mortality chased out of my system by a idyllic combination of clams, venison, Muscadet-sur-Lie and Cotes-de-Rhone.
No one ever got a hangover from drinking decent wine, but a 7am walk on the marshes before breakfast blew away any vestiges of cobwebs, and by 8.30 we were stuffed full again with all manner of wonderful things, and pottering around the graveyard of All Saints.
I was full of anticipation at the two days ahead, but tried to concentrate on this first one. All Saints is in the middle of the village, but has a wide graveyard, so you can take in the fine 15th century nave with its aisles and clerestory. The chancel is a blockish, dull Victorian brute of a thing, and the tower was topped out in the 1930s with that avoidance of anything beautiful so characteristic of the decade. But the Victorians had the decency to put in a high, wide five-light mock-Early English east window which floods the interior with light, and the tower is at least inoffensive.
The path up to the south porch is spectacular; the yew trees that line it have been cut severely to form a long passageway that looks exactly as if it should be skipped up by a girl in a white muslin dress. The porch is also a thing of beauty, not least because the upper storey is lit by a window to match the clerestory.
The doors are 15th century, and you step into the church through a little wicket gate. Inside, All Saints is big. Grand arcades bestride the length of the nave under a hammerbeam roof, and there are a good number of fine medieval survivals - this is a church which is both beautiful and interesting.
Best of all, perhaps, are the bench ends. Not only are they good quality, they do not appear to have suffered any iconoclasm (some of them are damaged, but that it is not the same thing, of course). We know that they are not a full set, because three of them represent deadly sins, of which there are seven, so four are missing. Here we have gluttony (a drunkard) anger (a man with a knife) and sloth (a man praying the rosary but falling asleep). All three stand in the open jaws of hell, reminding us where they are all bound. There are also a lovely post mill, a chalice and host under a canopy, a mermaid (now headless) holding a mirror, a unicorn, a ship in sail and a couple of curiosities - a grotesque old man holding a rose, and animals on barrels.
Interestingly, the screen here was given by the Miller family, and we know that there was also an important local family called Tunn, so I wondered if some of the bench ends might represent these families - the post mill for the Millers, and the barrels for Tunns. In which case the man with the rose might be a rebus of some kind - oldrose? This made me think that these bench ends may well have come from this church originally.
The chalice is obviously unusual and rare, and the mermaid in the mirror represents a medieval legend. Arthur Mee saw them in the 1930s, and, knowing very little about medieval theology, was unintentionally very funny about the three deadly sins bench ends. Life is too short to quote Barmy Arthur at length, but it is worth a look. Mee also thought that the mermaid was a merman, which may give us an insight into his experience of the female form.
Uncharacteristically, Mortlock misreads his notes and gives us a bench end of a fox preaching to geese. You'll find this representation, not on a bench end, but at the very top of the left-hand door of the south entrance.
All that survives of the screen is the dado, but the paintings are in excellent condition. There is evidence of iconoclasm here, for all the faces are scratched out, but the paintings are otherwise fine, and relatively unrestored. There are sixteen panels. The first on the north side is St Barbara, holding a church that is very oriental in style. It matches, obviously intentionally, the pot of perfumed oil being held by St Mary of Magdala in the sixteenth panel. Also reflecting each other artistically are St Paul in the second panel and, curiously, Lazarus in the fifteenth.
You might guess that the twelve panels in between might represent apostles, but in fact this is not the case. Instead, there are twelve Old Testament patriarchs, of whom David with his harp is the easiest to identify. The full panoply is St Barbara, St Paul, Amos, Hosea, Zachariah, Isaiah, David, Jeremiah, Zephaniah, Joel, Micah, Malachi, Daniel, Ezekiel, Lazarus and St Mary Magdalene.
Two other medieval survivals delighted me. Both are unusual. One can be found right at the west end; the tower archway has little image niches facing east, one on each side. Further east, a little brass is set just in front of the screen. It bears a poignant inscription with just four words: Jesu Mercy, Ladye Help. There is a another, longer brass inscription nearby.
On the west wall of the nave is one of those improving texts that the Elizabethans liked to decorate our churches with, and more decoration can be found on the font, where details, including instruments of the passion, have been painted on. I assume that this didn't happen very long ago, but it may reflect what was there previously.
So there we are. One down, thirty-four to go. We set off eastwards, in pursuit.
Simon Knott, May 2005
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