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

All Saints, Upper Sheringham

Upper Sheringham: a grand old building

    All Saints, Upper Sheringham
from the village street   This grand old building sits in its huddled hamlet, somewhat aloof from the high drama of its overgrown child at the bottom of the hill. A couple of hundred years ago, this was one of England's more remote outposts, but the coming of the railways transformed the fishing harbour on the coast below into the brash seaside resort of Sheringham. Now, Sheringham and its even bigger neighbour Cromer have fallen out of fashion - but that is exactly why I like them, and so do thousands of other people, who flock to this coast every summer to populate a resort which still feels as if it has stepped out of the Ladybird Book of the Seaside. It is certainly infinitely preferable to the cosmopolitan takeover of Burnham Market and Wells a few miles to the west.

Incidentally, I joked to the historian David Starkey, with whom I have a small acquantance, that Burnham Market had become Islington-sur-mer. He responded, rather vociferously, "no it's not, it's much worse than that! It is Notting Hill-plage!" which was amusing, the vociferousness arising no doubt from the fact that Doctor Starkey lives in Islington himself.

But all of this means little to Upper Sheringham, for I doubt that many of the visitors to either group of resorts find their way up here, or that the tower of All Saints ever feels the temptation to peep over the hillcrest to see what is going on below. And so this is still among the most peaceful of graveyards, with pretty, tiny cottages backing on to it and tempting me to think that they would be pleasant places to live, before I recalled that there would be barely room in one for my big fat cat to get through a doorway, let alone for me to swing him in time-honoured tradition.

As with several churches on this coast, the money was abundant here to provide a major rebuilding on the eve of the Black Death, and so there is a fine tower, and All Saints has the clerestory of alternating arched and quatrefoil windows made famous by Cley, a few miles off. And, as at Cley, there was still plenty of money here a hundred and fifty years later, and so here are classic examples of late 15th century aisles, with massive windows that turn them into walls of glass, almost. The curious mausoleum on the north side of the chancel is to the Upcher family, whose name is writ large inside, and dates from the early 19th century.

All Saints is a fine, friendly church, where they wedge the inner door open and make you feel welcome. The interior is well-kept and obviously well-loved. On the occasion of my visit, the south aisle was out of commission for roof repairs, and was full of scaffolding. The temptation is to lock the church up at times like this, but here at All Saints they remain open to strangers and pilgrims, and get on with their business.

Upper Sheringham is famous for its 15th century bench ends - or, at least, for one of them. This is a mermaid, just inside the north door. She has become the stuff of popular legend as you would expect, generating a story that she sought refuge in the church from a storm at sea, although she'd have done mightily well to climb the hill from the beach. With a couple of exceptions, Norfolk does not have the exciting bench ends to equal its southern neighbour Suffolk, but in quality these are good, although I am afraid there are not many of them. Apart from the mermaid, the most interesting is an infant wrapped in swaddling bands, somehow a rather moving sight after half a millennium.

mermaid babe in swaddling bands animal with prey? or young?

For my money, the biggest excitement about All Saints is that it retains the floor and front parapet of the rood loft. This is the best survival of its kind in all East Anglia's 1200-odd medieval churches, and is an exciting sight for anyone interested in late medieval Catholic liturgy. It was built up with an upper rail by the Victorians, which is not unsympathetic, but in any case the most interesting thing about it is the pair of dragons in the spandrels between the rood loft floor and the uprights. Incidentally, it is worth pondering these uprights for a moment. We always assume that the rood lofts in medieval churches were supported by two stone corbels, and we are excited when we find them. But perhaps the arrangement at All Saints was actually more common.

At the opposite end of the nave is a large beam, still decorated in a 15th century style. This obviously supported a font cover, which must have been a mighty affair to have needed such a beam to hang it from. You wonder what happened to it.

There is some decent 20th century glass - the representations of St Anne teaching the Blessed Virgin to read, and St Elizabeth with the young St John the Baptist, are curiosities, the two young people shown in the style of illustrations from children's books of the period. Coming from different generations, they can never have met as children, of course; but it does rather look as if they are being introduced to each other.


Simon Knott, July 2006

the Upper Sheringham rood loft view through the screen chancel view west font and screen
font altar against screen in Anglo-catholic tradition St Anne teaching the Blessed Virgin to read St Anne teaching the Blessed Virgin to read, and St Elizabeth with St John the Baptist St Elizabeth with St John the Baptist
dragon carved on spandrel of rood loft looking westwards back through the screen Cecil Upcher US plane crash memorial

     Upchers on the mausoleum

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