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

St Mary Magdalene, Warham

St Mary Magdalen: a bit of a star

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an air of privacy priest door porch secretive

  St Mary Magdalen, Warham

St Mary Magdalen is a bit of a star. In this area of Norfolk with so many churches but so few people, it is doubly disadvantaged, because this tiny village has two large medieval churches, All Saints near the village centre and this one on the road to Wells. How could it ever have been needed? What possible reason is there for it to survive?

It nearly didn't. Originally, there were two ecclesiastical parishes here, and as each church had many functions beyond mere congregational worship, they thrived. After the Reformation they were, not unreasonably, brought together, St Mary Magdalen's parish being subsumed into that of All Saints, and this church becoming a chapel of ease to the other. Even so, they are less than a mile apart, and as Norfolk's rural population fell dramatically through the second half of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th, this church fell increasingly into disuse. Eventually, it was nearly lost to us.

It is not a large church, but it has a number of features of outstanding interest. You first come to it enclosed by a high wall with heavy wrought-iron gates, presumably a product of the iron workers at Thornham. It has an air of privacy about it; I was reminded of the walled cemeteries you so often find on the edge of villages in western France.

It was about 9.30 am on a Sunday morning. We had just passed Wells St Nicholas, so we knew there would not be a service on here (what an irony that would have been!). I lifted the latch on the gate, and stepped inside.

The uncut grass of the churchyard was high and wet in this early May. A rich smell of earth and cold. The tower, at first sight 14th century, is probably much older below the bell stage. The nave is slightly offset to the south, and is probably as 15th century as it looks. A fine Tudor window in the south wall of the chancel is beside a little priest door porch as at Knapton and Trunch. Around on the north side is the utilitarian red brick Turner mausoleum.

You step inside to an interior that underwent a substantial restoration at the unusually early date of 1801. As Pevsner observes, this gives it great character, a feeling quite different to most medieval churches. The box pews, the three-decker pulpit, the communion rails - they are all of a piece, and probably the work of the same carpenter. Contemporary with them is the bird-bath font at the west end.

It is not clear to me when the medieval glass was rearranged into the north side window. I would guess it was probably as early as the restoration, as I think the Victorians would have been unable to resist making the arrangement more devotional, and probably adding in some of the missing bits. Instead, we get a splendid array of heads, some of angels, some of Saints, some apparently of monks, all arranged in pairs and threes. It is an absolute delight. There is a sensing angel that I suspect is upside down (see something similar at Norton in Suffolk) and a rather scary devil who has lost his head.

It is unfortunate that this 15th century glass is at the back of the church and hidden from the road, as I notice that it already has a couple of stone holes through it. This may be the result of a strimmer being used instead of a hand-mower, or of some vandal liking the sound of breaking glass; whichever, a stone guard on the outside would prevent it happening again.

collection of 15th century glass the devil a sensing angel 
saints crowned Saint, Mary of the Annunciation angel musicians monks and Christ
continental saint, medieval angel continental bearded fellow a waxwing? crowned Saint, Mary Queen of Heaven

Among the medieval glass there are also some fragments of continental glass, apparently contemporary or not much later, if the larger panels of Flemish and German glass in the east window are anything to go by. Pevsner says that they were all bought from the dealer JC Hampp by the Rector WH Langton in 1806.

The doors into the Turner mausoleum are as utilitarian as the structure, heavy, white and wooden, with vertical metal bars. You step through into a space that is apparently completely bare, until you notice that the Turners are remembered by the ledge stones in the floor.

I said that this church was almost lost to us. It was one of dozens of Norfolk churches declared surplus to requirements in the 1960s. The Brooke report considered what should be done with those in the city of Norwich, of which 24 were redundant. It concluded that they should be demolished, and the land sold for development. This would, of course, have set a precedent for the rest of Norfolk, and for the rest of England.

Enter the redoubtable Lady Wilhelmine Harrod, ex-girlfriend of John Betjeman and lover of all things Norfolk and old. She confronted the Brooke report and defeated it. She set up the Norfolk Churches Trust, which used the expertise of prominent people to arrange the conveying of leases on redundant churches to those who would care for them and love them. On occasions, the Trust took on the lease of the building itself if those who loved it could not afford to.

One of the remarkable things about Lady Harrod is that she was not content with finding new uses for old churches. She was convinced that they should be retained for worship wherever this was possible. Amazingly, churches like Waterden and Cockthorpe, which had been out of use since the 1930s, and were in a near ruinous condition, were rescued by the Norfolk Churches Trust in the 1980s and returned to use by their parishes. Warham St Mary Magdalen was another of the churches that the Trust championed.

Lady Harrod was also committed to churches being open to pilgrims and strangers, encouraging rescued buildings to be open 24 hours a day if possible, and certainly daily where not. A committed Anglo-catholic, she saw them as sacramental spaces, not as mere preaching boxes. She developed the concept of Pilgrim Churches, an idea whose time has still not come, but may ultimately be very important for rescuing medieval churches from disuse. Her greatest legacy, perhaps, was not that she saved Norfolk churches from destruction, but that she convinced so many other people that this was a worthwhile thing to do.

We cannot spare a single Norfolk church, wrote Betjeman in his foreword to Lady Harrod's Norfolk Country Churches and the Future, published by the Norfolk Society in 1972. When a church has been pulled down the country seems empty or is like a necklace with a jewel missing... Norfolk is a faithful county to have kept so many of its churches standing through the centuries. Like St Mary Magdalene herself, it has not suggested selling its precious gift to give to the poor, but has known the true value of witness to the faith. God save the Norfolk parish churches. In saving them, we will keep Norfolk the treasure for the future that it is today.

I had no idea, but even as I stood in the nave of St Mary Magdalen, Lady Harrod was dying. Her funeral was held in this church just six days later. In five hundred years time, historians will wonder how it was that so many medieval churches in Norfolk survived the violence of the late 20th century. I suspect that Lady Harrod will not wish them to remember her, but merely be content that it was so.

Simon Knott, May 2005


looking east: pure 1801 Hanoverian royal arms continental glass
sanctuary doors to the Turner mausoleum continental glass font and space under the tower continental glass
Warham, early May 2005

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