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

St Mary, Whissonsett

Whissonsett: most attractive

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spirelets on the tower a cherry tree coming into blossom elegant Dec east window that inescapable south-east shot

    St Mary, Whissonsett
  Edward VII: "tonight, Matthew, I will be St Joseph..." John Salmon and I were looking for the church of St Mary, Whissonsett. On the face of it, this wasn't a difficult quest. The church was clearly marked on the OS map at the heart of the village, and we could see the tower peeping above the rooftops. We'd seen it for the last mile or more, since leaving Oxwick, and the map showed it to the north of the village street and some distance from it, in the arc of a road that circled widely, leaving the street and then rejoining it.

We hadn't bothered going along the main street, but this was our second sweep along the arc road. The church came no closer. We decided to park up on the high street and walk, and then discovered that the place we'd chosen to park was at the end of a long track which led to the church. Sorted.

My map was old enough to show the area to the east of St Mary as a farmyard, but this has now gone, to be replaced by modern houses. The main access to the church is across a field, a kind of paddock, and the track takes you into the southern side of the graveyard. It is an attractive approach, and there is certainly no shortage of car parking space. And the church is very elegant, with spirelets on the tower and a beautiful Decorated east window. A big cherry tree outside the porch was just coming into flower. I decided that I liked St Mary a lot.

Some medieval churches can be a bit stuffy inside, thanks to the seriousness of some 19th century restorations, and the somewhat conservative nature of rural Anglicanism. But it was lovely to step into St Mary and find it full of light, and undergoing some kind of renewal. The west end had been cleared of clutter, the floors appeared to be being replaced, and there were a small number of open benches angled and facing east. I think perhaps that they may have come here from elsewhere, because the 19th century restoration was spectacular, and the sugar-icing of the pulpit and screen would have demanded something much more elaborate than these benches. And, in any case, they are shorter than you'd expect. But as I say, I thought it was lovely. I immediately blamed Father Paul Inman, the Priest in charge of this benefice, because all his churches are open, welcoming and lovely.

One of the most striking features of this church are the large image niches, one in the nave and two in the chancel either side of the east window. The one in the nave contains a real surprise, the large head of a Saxon cross, unearthed in the graveyard. It is at least a thousand years old, and although such things are common enough in some parts of the British Isles, it is a rare thing to find in East Anglia. There's another at Kedington in Suffolk.

This part of Norfolk doesn't have as much interesting early 20th century glass as the east of the county, but the Presentation in the Temple deserves more than a second glance. Simeon holds a doll-like Christ as he declaims the Nunc Dimittis; Mary looks on, but the figure that attracts the most attention is Joseph, standing behind her. He is clearly modelled on Edward VII, who was a generous patron to many churches in north-west Norfolk.

The Annunciation is also very good, and there are medieval survivals too, set in the west window under the tower. The best is an oriental-looking Christ in Majesty, battered by half a millennium of East Anglian winters, which only serves to give it more character.

  Saxon cross

Simon Knott, May 2006


full of light and space looking east chancel looking west
15th century Christ in Majesty west window Annunciation Presentation in the Temple memorials
memorials organ in space sugar-icing Simeon and the infant Christ: "Now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word..."

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