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

St James, Wilton


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    St James, Wilton
death   Wilton parish today includes the former parish of Hockwold, where the church is redundant and now in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust. Indeed, the name of the civil parish is Hockwold-cum-Wilton, but I was pleased to see that the parish church keeps its original parish name. These big Fen edge villages have a character of their own, and so does St James, because it is that rare beast in East Anglia, a church with a stone spire. There are only about half a dozen of them.

St James seems to have been taking shape in the early part of the 14th Century in the decades before the Black Death wiped out half the population of Norfolk. Certainly, the tower and spire date from this time. Then, not unreasonably, there is an interruption, the rest of the church taking the shape we see today in the 15th Century. It is close to the northern edge of the graveyard, where the headstones have been cleared, but the pleasant churchyard spreads out to the south with some good 18th Century survivals. What appears to be an arched, 14th Century low side window is blocked with red brick, at once clumsy and attractive.

We came here fairly early in the morning on a day of heavy rain, and not unreasonably we found the church still locked. But there was a welcoming notice telling us how much they'd like us to see inside, and when I rang up the number on the notice a very friendly man hurried round and opened up for us. We stepped into a large, rather austere interior, dust falling through the white light, and a patina of age on the survivals of 14th and 15th Century triumphs. Despite the friendly welcome there was a rather sad air to the place - it didn't lift the heart. The 19th century restoration adds a slightly urban feeling, but the space and silence of the nave are enough to maintain a sense of the numinous. The best feature of the nave is an excellent range of 15th Century benches, with traceried backs. There are a number of good bench ends, the best of which shows a Wilton shepherd with his flock. Another shows two women talking, one of them in a doorway. Does it represent the Act of Mercy of sheltering the homeless? Or could it possibly be Mary and Elizabeth meeting at the Visitation? Another shows a man on his hands and knees. It is hard to think that he is doing anything other than being sick, and thus may represent the Sin of Gluttony.

lion shelter the homeless? the end of a heavy night a shepherd and his flock the pelican in her piety

There are shallow image niches set into the eastern splays of some of the great windows, and there is a good piece of 20th century glass in the north side of the nave. It depicts the Crucifixion, somewhat in the style of Christopher Whall, and is signed UA 1947. I wonder who the artist was.

A fifteenth century screen separates the nave from the chancel. It is, as Pevsner notes, much restored, but has some intriguing details on the east side: several green men peep out of the spandrels, and there is what seems to be a hunting scene. Did they originally face westwards? It reminds me of the screen at Hargrave in Suffolk, where the carvings also face eastwards.

The chancel is sober Victorian in character, with a tiled floor leading up into the sanctuary. A curiosity is the medieval floor piscina set among the tiles on the south side. There is a tomb alcove on the north side, which may well have once served as an Easter Sepulchre. There is a cluster of medieval glass in the quatrefoil upper light of one of the Decorated windows. Not far along, a final sombre note is added to the rather solemn atmosphere by the memorial to Mary Colborne, who died in 1683 at the age of 44, the mother of three young children. She was born one of the Tyrrels of Wilton, and if the black marble of her inscription plaque left us in any doubt as to the sadness of her passing, then the shrouded skull and crossed bones could not fail to remind us that we, too, will one day come to this. It was with some relief that the kind churchwarden offered us the chance to go up the tower and see the bells, and also to gaze up into the stone spire receding into the darkness, one of the most unusual sights in Norfolk.

  St John

Simon Knott, July 2009

looking east looking west crucified Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph tomb alcove
UA 1947 medieval fragments green man hunting scene image niche
green man green man back to back up the spire
floor piscina piscina image niche memorial bricked up

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