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

All Saints, West Harling

West Harling: haunting

Read the captions by hovering over the images, and click on them to see them enlarged.
14th century tower there was once a spire here Peter walks away
lower part of the tower weather vane weather vane tower niche on the south side 

    All Saints, West Harling
decalogues   The south of Norfolk can seem a forgotten land. Apart from the lovely town of Diss, there is nothing of any size along the border between Thetford in the west and Yarmouth in the east; nothing but winding lanes, forgotten hamlets, woodlands and marshes. Between Diss and Thetford, the lanes off the main road dogleg and meander, as if they are in no particular hurry to go anywhere. Tracks head into the breckland, splaying out towards the border, the occasional scattering of houses showing that they have a purpose, or had once. Some of these were forest roads, others recall how busy this area was during the Second World War. Occasionally, a village is big enough to support shops and pubs; a local centre. A good example is East Harling.

East Harling will be familiar to users of this site for its magnificent church, one of the best half dozen in Norfolk. But there is another Harling; or, perhaps, several. Long tracks that run off into the woods and fields take you to the lost villages of Middle Harling, Harling Thorpe and West Harling. Out here, a mile or more from the nearest road, sits a magnificent church on the edge of the woods. It is All Saints, the former parish church of West Harling, redundant these past thirty years and in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust.

The first sight of it, across a field a hundred or so metres from the gate, is haunting, and not to be forgotten, especially on this bright cold day in deepest winter. Two stark conifers echoed the green of the winter barley. Beyond, the woods were silent, apart from the occasional slam of a shotgun, the distant barking of a dog.

first sight through the trees through the trees handsome

A 14th century tower against a thirteenth century church was improved in the 15th century without any major alterations. There was some money here in the late medieval period, but not too much. The tower had a stone spire, as at nearby Banham, until it was demolished in the 18th century. It is a fairly rustic, simple sight after the sophisticated splendours of nearby East Harling, but it has a presence beyond that of many less remote churches.

As outside, so inside; this is a fairly simple, Victorianised parish church with a scattering of medieval survivals. The CCT have stripped away the worst excesses and removed the clutter, which they do so admirably with the churches in their care. Apart from the curiosity of an electric cooker under the tower, this is a plain and simple interior, an excellent setting for its treasures. These include some fine late 15th century figure brasses to members of the Berdewell family, a reminder of how close we are to the Suffolk border, and a fine Priest in Mass vestments, the wonderfully named Ralph Fulloflove.

Best of all is the glass. Along with a good set of 19th century Evangelistic symbols, and a curious rayed crucifixion scene (is it foreign?), are some beautiful figures from the 15th century Norwich School. They are curious composites; what must have been a fine figure of St Margaret has the head of St Paul. Another good figure, St Catherine, is blessed with an angel head.

Lamb of God St margaret/St Paul and St Catherine/Angel fragments
fragments St Margaret with St Paul's head St Catherine with an angel's head

There is a strikingly ugly Big House family pew shoe-horned into the south-east corner of the nave, resplendent with the kind of brass memorials that the 18th and 19th century squirearchy loved to award themselves. From here, the plaques served as a reminder of who was in charge, both to the Rector across the nave in his pulpit, and to the rest of the congregation as well. You cannot see the altar from the Big House pew, but of course that did not matter; the sacramental activity of the Church served no purpose in enforcing the status quo. The pew is an interesting footnote in history, but it strikes a jarring note in this otherwise peaceful space. Another discordant note is struck by the wholly secular bust of Richard Gipps in the chancel, but this, at least, is of some quality. The early 20th century reredos beyond is, at first sight, dull, but appears to have medieval Flemish panels worked into it.

As I say, we were here in the middle of winter on a bright sunny day, and at two o'clock in the afternoon the sun was already swinging low to the west. As it did so, it filled the great window below the tower with coloured light, flooding this across the decalogue boards that have been reset there. It was stunning, a kaleidoscope of shapes, as if the Mystery of God were reminding us of its precedence over our mere Words.

west window triumph of Light over the Word west window west window

It cheered me up a little. To be honest, my visit here was spoiled by a rude and obstructive keyholder, which surprised me, since one of the roles of the Churches Conservation Trust is to make its churches easily accessible to the public. The keyholder for All Saints lives a good two miles away in East Harling, and we went with high hopes of a warm welcome. However, it was soon apparent that there would be no easy key here.

I knocked on the door, but the woman came to a window and interrogated me from behind a curtain. Seeing the camera in my hand, she asked me why I wanted to take pictures, claiming that unscrupulous people made money out of photographing medieval churches, especially interesting ones like West Harling. I promised that I had no plans to sell any of my photographs (obviously, the idea had never even occured to me) but that wasn't good enough. I had to go through another series of questions about who I was, where I was from, and what I wanted in West Harling. I had to go through my wallet furnishing credit cards and membership cards to be examined. I began to wonder if she was actually enjoying putting me through it.

She made me write down my name and address on the back of an old envelope, although of course she could not have known if it was genuine. I dare say it went straight into the bin anyway.

And at last, I was given the key, and sent on my way with the message that she had to be suspicious, because so much had been stolen from the church. However, it soon became clear from a glance at the visitors book that the church is open every day throughout the summer, and sometimes in winter as well. What, then, had been the purpose of my interrogation?

I have visited more than 1200 churches in East Anglia, and am big enough and ugly enough to look after myself. But if this had been my first church, or my first attempt at getting a key, I do not suppose that I would have ever again dared to visit a church in Norfolk. This alone should be enough to make us all cross.

  rude and obstructive

Simon Knott, December 2006

looking east sanctuary lookling west
font Richard Gipps rayed crucifixion Ralph Fulloflove, Priest 
Matthew Mark Luke John
Berdewells Berdewells fine table (bolted to the wall and floor)
the raising of Lazarus (west window) horrid family pew

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