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

All Saints, Upper Sheringham

Upper Sheringham

Upper Sheringham Upper Sheringham
Upper Sheringham flinty Upper Sheringham

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All Saints, Upper Sheringham

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 larger 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 preferable to the metropolitan takeover of Burnham Market and Wells a few miles to the west.

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 hill crest to see what is going on below. And so this is still among the most peaceful of churchyards, with pretty, tiny cottages backing on to it and tempting me to think that they would be pleasant places to live.

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 familiar from Cley, a few miles off. And as at Cley there was still plenty of money here a hundred years later, and so here are grand 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 which dates from the early 19th Century, just pre-ecclesiological. There was an early 19th Century restoration soon after at the capable hands of diocesan surveyor John Brown, and another later in the same century when the equally competent and unexciting Richard Phipson was diocesan surveyor, so all in all the building has done well at all the right times.

All Saints is a fine, friendly church, for they wedge the inner door open and make you feel welcome. You step into a wide, light interior which has the curiosity of being mainly lit from the north. This is partly because of the frosted quarries on the south side, but I also wonder if the sun reflecting off of the sea a mile or so off below has something to do with it. beyond the grand 14th Century font, the range of late 15th Century nave benches probably came at the same time as the aisle windows, and it includes some memorable bench ends, the best known of which is the Sheringham mermaid. She holds a comb in her left hand, and I think a mirror in her right, but this is hard to see because a table has been wedged up against it. This is a fairly common image in late medieval church art, but she is a particularly striking example and 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 that hill from the beach. Unfortunately her damaged face has been casually recut to make her appear ugly. Other bench ends include a chrysom child wrapped in swaddling overlooked by its poor cowled mother, and I wondered if this might have marked a churching pew, in which mothers sat on their return after giving birth. There are several beasts that may be wyverns. Also memorable are a pair of bench ends of a cat, one showing him holding a rat in his mouth and the other of him eating it with his tongue out. Cats are unusual in medieval bench ends in East Anglia, although I've never understood why as they must have been common and useful companions.

mermaid with a comb wyvern? stag
chrysom child wrapped in swaddling cat catching a rat cat eating a rat

The chancel has a number of memorials to the Upcher family, whose mausoleum we have met outside. That to Abbot Upcher is the grandest, depicting a near-life size figure of grief prostrate before a broken column. the inscription proclaims him the purchaser of the estate and the founder of the mansion belonging to his family. He died at the young age of 34 in 1819 (hence the symbolism of the broken column) and his death was the reason for the building of the mausoleum. A window in the chancel contains glass by Christopher Webb depicting St Anne with the young Blessed Virgin and St Elizabeth with the young St John the Baptist. Coming from different generations, the two children can never have known each other as children, but charmingly it does look as if they are being introduced to each other.

To enter the nave you pass through the rood screen, which is an unusual one for several reasons. Firstly, it retains the floor and part of the front parapet of the rood loft, albeit restored but the only one in Norfolk. It 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 surviving is the pair of mythical creatures in the spandrels between the rood loft floor and the uprights. One is a strange monkey/crane hybrid, the other a wyvern. Incidentally, it is worth pondering these uprights for a moment. There's an assumption that the rood lofts in medieval churches were supported by two stone corbels, but perhaps the arrangement at All Saints was once more common.

screen: monkey/crane hybrid nave altar and rood screen screen: wyvern

At the opposite end of the nave is a large beam above the font, still decorated in a 15th Century style. This obviously supported a font cover as at Salle, and it must have been a mighty affair to have needed such a beam to hang it from. You wonder what happened to it. Not far off, early 16th Century brasses remember John and Magdalene Hook. More recently, Augusta Louisa Upcher died in 1863 at the age of 15, and her memorial glass at the west end of the south aisle includes her photographic image, an early use of this technique. Birkin Haward thought it was the early work of Powell & Sons and came as part of the same scheme that filled the other windows of the south aisle with their pressed pattern glass. A memorial to a more famous Upcher, the architect Cecil, is in the north aisle. He is probably best known today for restoring Pulls Ferry on the bank of the river to the east of Norwich Cathedral after the Second World War. He lived in it until his death in 1972.

Simon Knott, March 2022

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looking east looking west
St Anne and the young Blessed Virgin, St Elizabeth and the young John the Baptist (Christopher Webb) chancel John and Magdalene Hook
Abbot Upcher 'the purchaser of the estate', 1819 Augusta Louisa Upcher aged 15, 1863 Augusta Upcher, 1836
Cecil Upcher, architect while on active service in South Africa


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