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

St Ethelbert, Thurton

Thurton on a bleak, windswept winter's day

Read the captions by hovering over the images, and click on them to see them enlarged.
bell tower or turret? The sumptuous south door Head stop on the south nave North door West wall and tower

  St Ethelbert, Thurton

Thurton is an absolute delight in May; the graveyard is a riot of wild flowers, clouded yellows and adonis blues scattering above them, the thatched church sitting warmly among them. Slow worms, field mice and other creatures abound. I know this because inside the church there are pictures showing the place through the passing of the seasons. However, I came here on one of the coldest, wettest, most windswept days of the year so far. The sleet was sweeping in from the east, and I huddled my camera under my jacket as we stepped from the car.

We had come from
Seething, through the narrow lanes that dogleg and doubleback through the fields. These must be ancient routes, because they cut down up to six feet below the open fields, and in several places I was aware of them zigzagging along the ends and up the sides of old strip systems. The mud was thick on the road, and I do not think I would have liked to cycle it.

Thurton is quite a large place, and just above the busy Norwich to Beccles road, but you wouldn't know it from this way in. The church stands below the village top road, the houses hidden in the valley, an incinerator chimney the only incongruous intervention in the landscape. There is a 17th century barn on the top road itself, which is interesting. At least, DD found it interesting. I was content to stay in the car while he examined it, knowing I'd have to brave the elements myself all too soon.

St Ethelbert is a very curious shape. The little tower appears to grow out of the thatch, and it also appears that they ordered it in the wrong size, and didn't bother to send it back. It is in two stages - at nave level it is probably 13th century, but the top bit is more recent. I've seen it described as early 16th century, and this would fit in with a bequest, but it looks 18th century to me, possibly early 19th. It is one of those small towers that looks as if it was specifically designed for bell-ringing, although all the bells are early. While puzzling over this, don't be distracted from the super headstops to the windows on the south side of the nave.

In common with several churches around here, St Ethelbert has a stunning Norman south entrance, this one in particularly good condition. I love the way that later generations have enhanced the archway by adding to the decoration - one pattern in particular, on the east side of the doorway, must have taken hours. There is a simpler Norman doorway on the north side, but it is through the south door you enter.

The building is continuous, without a transition between nave and chancel, although you can see a large arch about two thirds of the way along which probably once held a tympanum to divide the two. I would guess that the western part is pretty much the original Norman church, disguised by later windows. The roodcreen cannot have been very big, and its shallow stairway embrasure suggest the stairs were wooden and part of the structure of the screen.

This building has two great delights, and several minor ones. Firstly, the St Christopher on the north wall. It was uncovered in the late 1980s, and at first sight appears disappointingly indistinct. On closer inspection though, there are a lot of the details which have now faded from St Christophers which have been exposed for a century or more. In particular, the azure blue of the water, and the multitude of creatures in it. I spotted a lobster, a crab, several eels, a flounder, what looks like a pike, and many others. You often see ghosts of such things in other churches, and Cautley records a similar menagerie at
Mutford, just over the Suffolk border, in the 1930s, but they have all faded now.

Up at the top, look at the way the Christchild sits on the Saint's shoulders. It is most unusual - Christ is actually behind the Saint, holding his orb in a gesture of reigning in majesty. The style of the child puts this painting very late, perhaps as late as the early 16th century. They have begun to uncover other wall paintings in this church, and although nothing is understandable yet, the figure immediately to the east of the St Christopher is obviously much earlier, which may mean it is part of a hagiography, many of which came to be frowned upon in the 14th and 15th centuries, being replaced by more doctrinal paintings. There is probably part of it under the St Christopher.

The other thing that makes Thurton remarkable is the collection of glass. Books credit it with being from Rouen cathedral, but actually it is much more interesting than that. It came partly from the collection of a Norwich antiquarian, partly from the Beauchamp Proctor family who donated similar glass to the churches at nearby Chedgrave and Langley. It was installed here in the 1820s. It does include some Rouen glass, but there is also a 15th century English Holy Trinity, and a set of Instruments of the Passion. The little roundels depicting one line homilies may well have come from the refectory of Langley Priory. Further, Chris Harrison tells me that there is surviving work here of the remarkable Lowestoft stained glass artist Robert Allen who was one of the earliest exponents of the medium in the years that the English were first rediscovering it. His are the eight Saints in the west window, as well as the Man of Sorrows in the south of the nave, St Andrew in the east window and a number of other pieces on the south side.

Much of the rest is collected continental glass, but some of it is the work of Samuel Yarrington, who installed all the glass here in the church. Notably his is the church's Royal Arms of George IV, which are in glass on the north side of the chancel.

Perhaps most curious of all, however, is the font. It is elegant and plain, and unusual in that its style dates from the later years of the 17th century. Probably, it was installed to replace one destroyed during the Commonwealth. From before the Commonwealth is a sweet little brass plate to Thomas Gould, who died in 1631. It sits on the south wall, vestiges of wall painting behind it. I loved the memorial to Captain Margarum and his various relatives up in the chancel, particularly as it depicts his boat sailing across the top. DD tells me that the other Margarum memorial facing it is most unusual, in that the obelisk is white outlined in grey rather than the reverse.

I thought this was a lovely church, although perishingly cold; barely 6 degrees outside, it was considerably colder inside, and I wondered what it would take to make me sit inside it every winter Sunday.

Simon Knott, January 2005


Sanctuary Looking east Looking west
Unidentified figure at start of sequence Thurton's lavish St Christopher St Christopher: three fish
St Christopher: eel and lobster St Christopher: crab and Saint's foot St Christopher: pike and flounder St Christopher: the Christchild
Eight Saints by Robert Allen in west window under tower South nave lancets South nave East window, including Rouen cathedral glass 16th century Flemish Holy Trinity The invalid lowered to Christ (Yarrington?)
Man of Sorrows by Robert Allen George IV royal arms Daniel in the lions den Medieval instruments of passion
rare late 17th century font Margerum memorial - DD says this is unusual Margerum memorial
Captain Margerum's sailing ship Thomas Gould, 1631, and wall painting
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The Norfolk Churches Site: an occasional sideways glance at the churches of Norfolk