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

St Peter, Upwell

Upwell: silent witness

Read the captions by hovering over the images, and click on them to see them enlarged.
from the east across the wide graveyard the octagonal tower grotesque  
view from a bridge south porch glazed tower window

    St Peter, Upwell
on reflection, a fine octagonal tower   Outwell becomes Upwell. The large villages merge; the long straight roads either side of the long straight river head south, occasional Dutch-style bridges crossing between them. The buildings are largely functional, the product of an industrial and agricultural settlement whose modern prominence dates from the late 17th century, and still has the puritan flavour of a town in southern Holland. Until a few years ago the western side of the road was in Cambridgeshire, but it is to the east of the Nene that, just as you reach the southern limits, you see the glorious octagonal tower of St Peter rise twice, once into the sky and once into the water below.

Until the 1960s, St Peter was the silent witness to one of the strangest transport systems East Anglia has known. This was the Wisbech and Upwell tramway, which trundled down along the main road through Emneth and Outwell. More of a trainline than a tramway, its passenger service days ended in the 1920s (although anyone of a certain age in this area will be able to regale you with stories of travelling on it after this) and it became the main distributor of freight throughout this part of the Nene valley, linking with the main line at Wisbech.

The last tram ran in 1966, and in these days of nostalgia for steam you might imagine that we lost something elegant and beautiful; but the W&U trams were monstrous, bulky things that trundled along the five mile track like mechanical dinosaurs. They are no doubt more sadly missed than they were ever fondly loved, and at the time of their retirement it was perhaps a surprise that an energetic preservation society sprung into action, although to no avail. It was led by the Reverend Wilbert Awdry, vicar of Emneth. He is perhaps best known today as the author of the plodding but worthy Thomas the Tank Engine books; a window in Emneth church remembers him.

Today, only road traffic connects Upwell with Wisbech; that, and the beautiful houseboats that glide silently up the straight cut of the Nene. And St Peter is beautiful too. It looks very different to its Outwell neighbour, but the building scheme was similar; the older tower was surmounted by a later top storey, and there was even a spire as well until the 1840s, according to Pevsner. Similarly, the church was rebuilt in several stages, but here the first rebuilding in the 14th century was done to the south of the old church, which was then replaced by a north aisle, at the western end of which the tower stands. The clerestory was probably added in the 1460s, when medieval merchant prosperity was at its peak.

rare survival: the north gallery   As at Emneth and Outwell, there is an outstanding angel roof here, and this one is probably the best of the three, echoing the wonders of Mildenhall over the Suffolk border. What makes this one even more dramatic, though, is something even rarer. You can view the roof at close quarters by climbing up into the Georgian galleries, an extraordinary survival; one fills the north aisle, and there's another at the west end of the nave. These upper storeys in churches were once much more common, but the Victorians loathed them and took them out almost everywhere. The galleries here are of a rich dark wood, the northern one still with its original royal arms. The pews in the body of the church below are contemporary with them, and are rather oppressive in their magnificence. The chancel gates, also contemporary, are more delicate.

The galleries are tiered, and if you stand at the back of the north gallery you are close to the hammerbeams and spandrels of the roof of the north aisle. Even more imposing than the galleries and pews is one of the largest pulpits in Norfolk, its sounding board like a great papal tiara. There is another royal arms, this time carved in dark wood, at the back of the church.

The chancel was extended as late as the 1880s, and the east window is a product of this time. Two of the scenes in the 19th century life of Christ in the it feature boats. In this watery place this is no surprise; not only is St Peter the patron Saint of fishermen, but neighbouring St Clement at Outwell is the patron Saint of mariners. The best feature of the window is the scene of the disciples asleep in the garden of Gethsemane.

The roof is not the only medieval survival; there are a couple of good brasses to Upwell Priests, now mounted on the walls in the chancel. I must pause to say what I always say: they would be better on the floor, because in a fire the heat rises away from floor-mounted brasses. Wall-mounted ones melt.

the medieval font is still in place, and most significant of all the best of the west Norfolk 15th century latten eagle lecterns, with the little lions grinning at its base. A couple of hundred years later later is the brass in the chancel to Jane Bell with its charming rhyme, which you can read by clicking on the image to the right. They were obviously very fond of her.

  Jane Bell

But above all else this is a church interior of the early 19th century. The parish maintains its heritage spectacularly well, and the smell of polish and the gleam of varnish are, in this case, wholly authentic. Contemporary with them is a small brass plaque in the chancel in memory of sixty seven individuals of various age and either sex who in the short period from June 21st to August 13th 1832 died in this rectory of Asiatic Cholera, a frightful and previously unknown disease in this country - Reader, why hast thou been spared? To what purpose hast thou been left until now?

If you want to know more about the Wisbech and Upwell Tramway, click here

Simon Knott, October 2005

   

looking east royal arms I: on the north gallery royal arms II: below the west gallery looking west from the chancel
grinning lion on the lectern base disciples asleep at Gethsemane cholera memorial
font papal tiara pulpit view west sanctuary and east window Priest brass 15th century lectern
lion crocodile eating a man angel man being eaten by two beasts angel

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