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

St Botolph, Tottenhill


Tottenhill south door and churchwarden Norman cross

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    St Botolph, Tottenhill
crucified   A remote church, and rather bleakly situated, or so it seemed to me on this morning of drifting rain. John had met me at Downham Market station, and we headed up through the drizzle to Tottenhill. The weather forecast promised sunshine later, and in fact it would come sooner rather than later. But that didn't seem terribly likely at the time.

St Botolph stands a fair way from its village, and a long, narrow and overgrown lane leads off the main road up to the church. When you get there, the church is locked, and there's no keyholder notice. But I'd found a telephone number on the parish website, and a pleasant old couple had agreed to meet us at the church and open it up for us. They were actually a little surprised to be asked, because they hadn't realised that their number had been made public, but they were no less welcoming for that.

The church is an odd mixture. There's a typical small 14th Century tower, and the east end is the typical middle-brow work of Ewan Christian, but sandwiched in between is a tall Norman church with a spectacular south doorway and a similarly grand chancel arch. The latter has been restored, but the former is powerful in all its primitive glory, with a splendid Norman cross on the tympanum, set in a ropework surround.

This is a sad place, and not just because it is remote and a bit bleak. This church was once a star in the Anglo-catholic firmament. Its tradition dates back to the half-century-long incumbency of that greatest of Victorian Norfolk church eccentrics, William Henry Henslowe, at neighbouring Wormegay, who had Tottenhill church in his care as well. Towards the end of the 20th Century Tottenhill was still home to a small community from Little Bardfield in Essex, which is a High Church hotspot to this day.

The lady keyholder told us that the incumbent who had been here for more than thirty years had retired two years previously, and of course now there was no longer what she called 'a resident priest'. There were still survivals of that earlier age - a statue of Our Lady of Walsingham in an alcove, a cross in the style of Lawrence King above the pulpit. The chancel was lovely, full of neat colour, but the nave was quieter and seemed as if it might not be used very often. I was put in mind of Philip Larkin's line about being

out on the end of an event
waving goodbye to something that survived it.

There is still plenty of evidence that the Henslowe family ruled the roost here. Their memorials abound, none of them spectacular, but each imposing in such a small church. The most unusual is that to Cecilia-Maria Henslowe, who died in 1859 after a long life of strange vicissitude. She was William Henry Henslowe's mother, who lived in Kent but died in the parsonage here in 1859. Her inscription records the remarkable fact that, at the age of nine, she had attended the death bed of her uncle Thomas Arne, that most maverick of 18th Century English composers. Henslowe loved little details like this. The verses on the memorial are his own, as is that on the memorial to his son Patrick John Francis Henslowe, killed on active service at Mhow in India, in 1882. It sems likely that Henslowe intended Tottenhill church to serve as a mausoleum for the family dynasty he was creating, but after his death this came to a stop, and his own memorial and those of his wife and other children were installed at Wormegay instead. They are much quieter and simpler, with no flowery verses. You can read more about him on the entry for Wormegay.

Henslowe's activities here make an unusual story, but of course thanks to the locked churches at both here and Wormegay it is not one which is widely known. It's worth noting that the great majority of East Anglian churches are open to passing strangers every day, and the great majority of those that aren't have a notice telling you where to get the key. Churches like Tottenhill and Wormegay are few and far between, but whenever I stand in one I get an uneasy feeling that I will, in fact, live long enough to see the last days of the Church of England.

The nice lady here spoke softly of their declining congregation, how nobody comes to church anymore, and how since their parish priest had retired people didn't seem so interested. Thanks to the benefice system they could rely on people from other churches coming on a rota basis to fill at least some of the seats, but even so, one of the other churches in the benefice, South Runcton, had recently closed. She wasn't despairing, or even particularly sad - "that's just the way it is now", she observed.

I thought about something I'd written about another church, about 'churches reserved for the slightly smug activities of the Sunday club, while the graveyard is left to the pagan cult of the dead, the bereaved worshipping their recent ancestors with propitiatory flowers, unable to combine this with a prayer said inside a sacred building, increasingly unaware even that this might be an appropriate thing to do.

As the years go by, the congregation gets smaller, and older, and less welcoming to strangers, hanging on to the rituals that comfort them but which otherwise serve no community devotional purpose, and are no means for sharing the faith and love and life of the parish. The building is used less and less often, eventually being abandoned altogether by people who, no doubt, bemoan the decline and fall of their congregation and shake their heads gravely at the immorality of the young of today, their lack of respect and belief.

And yet, they have not even once taken the risk of letting themselves be found by strangers wondering at the God-shaped hole within ourselves, surprising a hunger to be more serious, and gravitating with it to this ground.'

  the Prince of English musicians

Simon Knott, July 2016

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looking east chancel

big nosed man on the chancel arch font lion on the chancel arch

war memorial Cecilia-Maria Henslowe and forebears killed on service at Mhow in India

Our Lady of Walsingham

Davis Brown who lived servant 60 years Boon family graves


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