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St Peter and St Paul, Watlington
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and St Paul, Watlington
It was now 5pm, and the heat of the day was dissipating. We went through the Wiggenhalls, four villages with churches that contain much of interest, including some wonderful bench ends. But we decided to save them for another day.
Instead, we headed west, distant Norwich in our sights. We approached the Great Ouse at the beautifully named village of Magdalen, and as we did so the sun came out; a grumpy swan guarded the road, and then a high bridge took us over the wide reed-bounded river, the land and the sky spreading northwards to Kings Lynn and the Wash. Suddenly on the far side we were back in proper Norfolk, the landscape softening and starting to roll, copses and even woods punctuating the fields. Here we came to the last church of the day, St Peter and St Paul, Watlington.
Peter had spent happy school days in this village, and is very fond of St Peter and St Paul. It was the first church of the day we had seen in sunshine; two men cutting the grass were jolly and welcoming, and the graveyard was beautiful, alive with wild flowers and the bees that the sun had woken.
With its aisles and clerestory, the church is typically East Anglian, except that it is built almost entirely from carstone, a gingerbread church. Around the back the graveyard was wild, full of the purple spikes of loosestrife and the happy dog daisies, soaking in the late afternoon sunshine. Remains of a chapel against the north wall of the chancel include a piscina, and aumbry and a roof line.
Another roofline is inside the church, on the west wall of the nave, showing quite how small the church was when the tower was built. Curiously, one of the tower windows has been drawn inside the nave by the rebuilding.
This is a lovely, gently Victorianised interior with lots of medieval survivals, including bench ends of several of the seven deadly sins. The most obvious of these is Hypocrisy. A woman stoops, as if praying the rosary; but in fact she is asleep, her head in her hand. Avarice shows a man counting his money, and Anger is a man brandishing a sword. So far so good; a man holds what may be a hock of ham to his mouth, in which case he is probably Gluttony. A man has a tail forming a phallus between his legs, and is possibly lust. Another figure is too badly multilated to make out what he is doing; at first I thought he might be a cobbler mending shoes, but I couldn't get it to fit. He may well be Avarice or Sloth.
There are several Victorian reproductions which attempt to interpret the originals in undamaged form, although with some curious results; the sin which is probably Gluttony has become a man ringing a bell. In any case, they are not as good as the same idea at Wilby in Suffolk.
There is a fine Laudian font cover, with a later gilt pelican on top. The font itself is 15th century, and a bit like the one at Stalham with apostles and other Saints around the bowl and base, though badly vandalised here. They obviously didnt bury it, if I may be permitted to poke gentle fun at the curate of Stalham. From a century or so later is a wall memorial to the brilliantly named John Freak.
Hatchments hang low in the north aisle. The screen is bubbly, delicate. The east window is full of late Victorian confidence. Now, in the deepening afternoon, it faded before our eyes as the sun sank westwards. It was easy to imagine schoolchildren quietly gathered for evensong here, the shadows stretching out as the sad Anglican collects were intoned, the evening hymns brooding in the thinning light. Peter remembers coming here twice every Sunday; studying the incumbents board at the back of the church, he found the name of his former headmaster.
Perhaps my favourite single church of the day.
Simon Knott, July 2005
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