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

All Saints, Wighton


Wighton porch Wighton

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


All Saints, Wighton

Small and secretive hamlets lie along the lanes that thread through the green fields of north Norfolk, but Wighton feels like a proper village, and an attractive one too, set in that hilly landscape north of Walsingham a few miles before you reach the sea, but when you are already aware of it. It has a decent pub, and as often in this area it has a large church, for we have left behind those charming scattered smaller ones to the south. Wighton's church speaks of late medieval Perpendicular glory, and thanks to a number of 15th Century bequests and contracts we know when rebuilding work was commissioned and even when some of it was carried out. Pevsner observes that the short chancel is of great interest in that we know it was begun in 1440 by James Woderofe the master mason of Norwich Cathedral. He worked here for fifty-seven days. It was nine years before the roof went on, and then a number of other bequests paid for furnishing it over the next twenty years. We can assume the nave and aisles were complete before 1494 when the south porch went up and there was an elaboration of the early 14th Century tower.

Wighton church is something of a landmark, sitting on a high rise at the western end of the village along the pleasingly named Kirkgate Lane, and its tower is visible for miles around. It must have caused quite a stir then, when one winter night in 1965 the tower collapsed in a storm. Thankfully, it fell away from the body of the church. At that time of pessimism in the Church of England, when so many rural churches were being declared redundant, it must have seemed an unlikely prospect that the tower would ever be rebuilt. You can imagine the parishioners shrugging their shoulders and saying "well, that's that, then", probably thanking their lucky stars that they still had a church left to worship in. The ruins were made tidy, and people went on with their lives.

And then something a little unlikely happened. A Canadian engineer and businessman, Leeds Richardson, whose ancestors are buried in the churchyard, offered to pay for the rebuilding of the tower in its exact original form. "well, we just couldn't believe it", the churchwarden's wife told me back in 2005. "We thought that anyone who wanted to pay for rebuilding the tower must be mad!" The bank did all the checks you'd expect a bank to do, and it seemed that the offer was genuine. Even then, the bank insisted on half the money being paid up front before work could begin. And so, a fairy tale happened, and in 1976 the tower was topped out and rededicated, this time with six bells instead of one, the extra five coming from a redundant church in Maidstone.

It would be easy for me as an outsider to say that it is a shame the new tower wasn't a bit more adventurous, but for the people of Wighton it was a case of getting their church back. Sometimes, all you really want is healing, and that is what Good Samaritans are for.

Obviously, the tower looks brand new in comparison with the flintwork of the rest of the church, but it will mellow with age. Coming back in 2022 it already seemed a little less stark to me, but perhaps that was my imagination. You enter the church through the two storey porch. The lower stage is vaulted, though not grandly. Above the windows to east and west are bosses depicting the fork-bearded head of Christ and a mermaid holding a comb and a mirror. Beyond, you step into to the wide, echoing interior. There was a major restoration in the 1890s and another one in more recent years, but there's no doubt that this is still entirely a late medieval church in character. As at nearby South Creake the aisles have been cleared of all benches, and this creates the sense of a church within a church, surrounded by an ambulatory space. At the west end of the nave, the large font is built up on two steps in an imposing manner. Its panels include he Instruments of the Passion and a Holy Trinity symbol.

In the upper lights of several of the nave windows are set 15th Century figures by the Norwich school of painted glass, generally lightly restored. Among them are a group of female saints, St Agatha with a claw rake, St Catherine with a wheel and sword, St Juliana with her demon on a chain and a figure that Ann Eljenholm Nichols thought might be St Anastasia. She appears in the Canon of Saints with the other three, and there are canonical sets at, for example, nearby Cley and Field Dalling. However, as Nichols notes, it is just as likely that the patterns have been disturbed. A set of male saints is more easily identifiable as St Peter, St Andrew, St Bartholomew and St Paul.

St Agatha with a claw rake  (15th Century, restored) St Juliana with a chained demon (15th Century, restored) St Catherine with sword and wheel  (15th Century, restored) St Anastasia?  (15th Century, restored)
St Paul? (15th Century) St Bartholomew (15th Century) St Andrew (15th Century) St Peter (15th Century)
angel musicians (15th Century) St Anastasia?, St Catherine, St Juliana, St Agatha (15th Century)
fragmentary angels (15th Century) St Peter, St Andrew, St Bartholomew, St Paul (15th Century)

Another of the windows has four angel musicians in its upper lights, and then the fourth window has fragmentary glass, which in two of the lights has been used to make composite angels. Nichols notes that their torsos are naked, suggesting that these fragments originally came from a Judgement scene, the dead rising from their graves and being sent to heaven or to hell. Intriguingly, one of the main Norwich glass workshops of the 15th Century was that of John of Wighton who came from this parish. It seems entirely probable that some of the glass here was made by him.

The main lights of the nave windows are filled with decorative quarries,and then at the centre of each an imposing panel with a figure of one of the Apostles. These are the 1850s work of Joseph Grant, one of the Grants of Costessey. James and Joseph Grant are perhaps the most intriguing of all the small East Anglian glass workshops of the 19th Century. Their glass can be found in a dozen or so Norfolk churches. Joseph is listed as a glass stainer in White's 1845 Directory of Norfolk, and although James was recorded as a tailor in other directories of the time he was certainly involved in stained glass production. Costessey was the village of the Jerninghams who were staunch Catholics, and, as Birkin Haward puts it, they carried an appreciable part of the village population with them, including the Grant family. This meant that the Grants moved in quite different circles to other stained glass producers, and as it seems likely that they both lived in Costessey all their lives it would explain the non-ecclesiological character of their work.

The Catholic church in Costessey was built in 1841, but until then the parishioners used the Hall chapel, which in 1805 was filled with what Birkin Haward describes as an outstanding collection of English and foreign glass, obtained mainly through Hampp of Norwich and installed by Joseph Miller the well known glass painter of London. James and Joseph would both have attended Mass here each Sunday, and, as Haward observes, whether or not the familiarity of this exceptional stained glass environment had any bearing on their interest in a glass painting career, it must have made an early impression which stimulated them in their later work. Certainly, these figures seem to owe more to the styles of earlier centuries than they do to other glass being produced in England in the 1850s.

St Thomas (Joseph Grant of Costessey, 1850s) St Simon (Joseph Grant of Costessey, 1850s) St James (Joseph Grant of Costessey, 1850s)

A couple of decades before the Grant glass, George IV came to the throne and was celebrated here by a characterful set of royal arms, the shield set at an angle and the lion and the unicorn resting peacefully behind it rather than holding it up, as though symptomatic of the early 19th Century, before the energy and change of the Victorian era got going. There are other memories of the past, including the church's only wall memorial of note to Humphrey Bedingfeild who died at the age of 81 in 1677. The Bedingfeilds, or Bedingfelds, were an established East Anglian family, best known for their grand pile of Oxburgh Hall. Another noted East Anglian family was the Jermys, who had one of their houses in Wighton. A 1652 ledger stone remembers Ann daughter of Francis Jermy, the vertuous and beloved wife of Mathew Dey. More humbly, Lucy Burcham, Spinster, died in 1807 and has inscribed on her ledger Here the wicked cease from troubling, here the weary are at rest from the Book of Job.

All in all then, a church full of interest and a sense of a lively parish. On that dark morning in late November 1965 it would not have been possible to imagine the church as it is today, with the tower rebuilt, the interior entirely restored over the last twenty years, the glass releaded. When the original Wighton bell was recast before being rehung in Mr Richardson's tower, they inscribed on it With Determination, Success is Inevitable. A happy ending.

Simon Knott, May 2022

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

looking east chancel
font looking west Humphry Bedingfeild, 1677
The Wighton mermaid George IV royal arms forkbeard head of Christ
'Here the wicked cease from troubling, here the weary are at rest', 1807 Ann daughter of Francis Jermy, the vertuous and beloved wife of Mathew Dey (1652) Simon, Barbary and John Levington 1749/1769


The Churches of East Anglia websites are non-profit-making, 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 Paypal.


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