home I index I latest I glossary I introductions I e-mail I about this site

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

St Peter, Upwell


Upwell Upwell

Follow these journeys as they happen at Last Of England Twitter.

    St Peter, Upwell

Outwell becomes Upwell. The large villages merge, the two long straight roads head south either side of the long straight River Nene, swimming against the flow. Occasional bridges cross between them as if we were in the Low Countries. The buildings are functional, the product of an industrial and agricultural settlement whose modern prominence dates from the late 17th century, and which still has the puritan flavour of a Flanders town. Until a few years ago the western side of the river was in Cambridgeshire, but it is on the eastern bank 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 train line 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 nearby Emneth. He is perhaps best known today as the author of the Thomas the Tank Engine books, and 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 which fell in the 1840s. Similarly, the body of 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 around here was at its peak.

As at Emneth and Outwell there is an outstanding angel roof here, and this one is probably the best of the three. What makes this one more dramatic though is something even rarer, for you can view the roof at close quarters by climbing up into the Georgian galleries, unusual survivals.

An Upwell angel Upwell angel

One of the galleries 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 with a Stuart royal arms set in the front. 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 hammer beams 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 Victorian and carved in dark wood, at the back of the church.

The roof is not the only medieval survival, for there are a couple of good brasses to Upwell priests, now remounted 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 is one of 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. They were obviously very fond of her.

The chancel was extended as late as the 1880s. The glass, by Shrigley and Hunt, dates from this time and later, including a striking WWI memorial window. But above all else this is a church interior of the early 19th century. The parish maintains its heritage 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?

Simon Knott, May 2020

Follow these journeys as they happen at Last Of England Twitter.

Upwell Upwell Upwell
font Stuart royal arms pulpit tester
lectern lion (15th Century) Victorian Royal Arms lectern eagle (15th Century)
St Michael St Michael Christ at the Transfiguration St Gabriel St Nicholas
Annunciation soldiers on the Western Front who died in the Great War St Michael and the dragon
charity plaque was ever releeving the poore in their neede, for they and diseased of her did well speed brass crane?


The Churches of East Anglia websites are non-profit-making, in fact they are run at a considerable loss. But if you enjoy using them and find them useful, a small contribution towards the cost of web space, train fares and the like would be most gratefully received. You can donate via either Ko-fi or Paypal.


donate via Kofi


home I index I latest I introductions I e-mail I about this site I glossary
Norwich I ruined churches I desktop backgrounds I round tower churches
links I small print I www.simonknott.co.uk I www.suffolkchurches.co.uk

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