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St Andrew, Thurning
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In the introduction to his often-maligned England's Thousand Best Churches, the journalist Simon jenkins makes the very telling point that the churches of England are a dispersed gallery of vernacular art... a church is a museum, and should be proud of that fact. This caused some controversy at the time; of course, he was not suggesting that this was all a church was, and as it happens I agree with him. I'd go further, and say that the building is a touchstone to the past. Not merely the visible links us to the lost generations.
St Andrew, Thurning, is a case in point. Obstensibly a typical medieval church in an area of many typical medieval churches, it tells a unique story, as they all do. It sits in the middle of nowhere, and your first approach to the south is past the Rector's stable - he had a long trek each Sunday from Wood Dalling. From this side, the building appears truncated, and moving round to the east the reason unfolds. Here are the remains of the chancel, demolished in the early 18th century at a time when few chancels served a liturgical purpose. The surprise is the fine reticulated tracery of the east window, which was obviously used to fill the chancel arch. At first, there was a doorway placed in the wall, but this was filled in, probably by the Victorians. A curious rectangular window is set in the east end of the north aisle.
Inside, St Andrew is a delight. In 1823, the old chapel of Corpus Christi College in Cambridge was pulled down, and the old furnishings were brought here. Gorgeous, dark wood 18th century box pews fill the aisle and the west end, while up at the east a mighty three-decker pulpit towers over all. Simple benches fill the space in the middle, and Mortlock tells us that well into the 1920s it was considered proper here for male servants to sit on the right hand side, and female servants on the left. The sanctuary, with its three sided communion rails, is pretty, but even the benches in the nave seem more focused on the pulpit, as they were in all Anglican churches before the 19th century.
Thurning makes its way into the Jenkins book, as it should, but the church goes even further to remind us of the past, for some clever soul has placed a sign on each box pew, telling us which farm or house paid the rent for it. So here we have Lime Tree Farm, Rookery Farm, Thurning Hall, and so on, the better seats for the gentry and the cheap seats for the servants. Along the south wall is a line of hat pegs. Mortlock adored this church - here are dignity, intimacy and comeliness, he wrote, with a proper regard for the niceties of social distinction, the age caught like a fly in amber.
Simon Knott, July 2006
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