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

St Peter, Wolferton


Wolferton (photographed 2006) Wolferton (photographed 2006) Wolferton

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  St Peter, Wolferton

Wolferton is an attractive little village a couple of miles to the west of Sandringham House, and yet its situation lends it an air of otherness, a sense of being very much out on the edge. It is cut off from the rest of Norfolk by the Dersingham Bog and the Wolferton Woods to the east, and from the rest of the world by the marshes and the Wash to the west. Two lanes reach it from the rest of the Sandringham estate, crossing the busy Hunstanton road and then narrowing through a mile or so of rhododendron hedgerows before coming together and then splitting into a loop around the village. The time to come here is early June, when the rhododendrons are in full flower, the purple globes startling in the Norfolk green. Pine trees tower over the sandy soil, giving off their unforgettable scent on balmy days.

If you've heard of Wolferton it might be because of the former railway station in the northern part of the loop. I can just about remember travelling along this line as a child on my way from Cambridge to the sea. The station was famously made grand and ornate by Edward VII to give a suitable welcome to his royal guests reaching Sandringham by train, but the trains have gone now, along with many of the crowned heads of Europe of course. The part of the line north of King's Lynn was closed as part of the Beeching cuts, and the station itself is now a museum. The marshes to the west swallow all sound, as does the Wash beyond, grey and mysterious. Apart from birdsong, and the occasional whinny from the Royal Studs to the west of the church, the air is utterly quiet. It is remarkable to think that we are fewer than ten miles from the centre of busy Kings Lynn.

This part of north-west Norfolk was among the poorest rural areas in England by the 19th Century, but when Queen Victoria bought the Sandringham estate for her eldest son in the 1860s and he set about the rebuilding of Sandringham House, it revitalised the local economy. The estate employed hundreds of people, and the churches on the estate , in many cases moribund or even ruinous, were given impressive makeovers under the patronage of the Prince of Wales, who later became Edward VII. The interiors of most churches on the estate are a testimony to his Anglo-Catholic sympathies, a tradition that would fall out of favour with the royals until the present King came along.

St Peter is a large church principally of the late 13th and early 14th Centuries, with echoes of the big marshland churches on the other side of King's Lynn. There was a well-documented fire in the late 15th Century, at which time it was given the magnificent roofs that were noted by antiquarians in the 18th Century. But by the 1880s it was in a desperate state, and Sir Arthur Blomfield, who would also restore Sandringham and West Newton churches on the estate, was brought in to restore it. You enter through the large south porch under a lantern that was the gift of Edward VII. The nave and aisles you step into are coolly austere, and Blomfield must have felt on familiar ground in this large church and its sense of gravitas. The west end is largely clear and is home to Wolferton's late 15th Century font which must have come after the fire. Up above, and contemporary with it, Bloomfield's roof retains the wall posts with their figures and the cross beams. Turning east to more woodwork, the loveliest parts of this church are, I think, the two aisle chapels, each contained within its own parclose screen.

north aisle parclose north aisle chapel south aisle chapel south aisle parclose

There is some restoration evident in these screens, and puzzlingly the south aisle parclose appears to be 14th Century. Did it survive the fire, or was it brought here from elsewhere? The north aisle chapel reredos depicts the Adoration of the Magi flanked by the four evangelists. Pevsner points out that it is a copy of a work by Titian and is signed by the artist Corsi who also gives his address in Florence as if hoping for more work. The south aisle chapel is plainer, and the church's decalogue boards, once in the chancel, have been reset in it, probably by Blomfield.

Between them, the rood screen is mostly Blomfield's in his favoured dark wood style, but the 15th Century dado was retained and its panels have the figures of twelve saints, very faint now and largely fragmentary. They are hard to identify, so much so that Williamson did not include it in his great early 20th Century survey of rood screen figures. It may well be that they were twelve apostles, but one of them appears to be holding a rosary and so may be a donor. Above the screen, Blomfield's restoration uncovered a medieval doom painting, presumably contemporary with the screen. Unfortunately it was entirely repainted in the 1890s and the result is pretty terrible. The chancel beyond is perhaps a disappointment after the lovely aisle chapels, being rather plain in comparison.

Back in the nave the arcade piers have what appear to be seats around them, and there is another long shelf-like seat along the north aisle wall. These are probably just too early to be evidence of the increasing popularity of congregational worship in the late medieval period, and are more likely a reminder that naves had other purposes than religious ones. A curiosity at the west end of this aisle is a large blank ogee arch. Was it perhaps a shrine of some kind? A large painting depicting Christ the Man of Sorrows hangs above the bench in the aisle, and alongside it are several late 13th Century consecration crosses. Opposite, in the south aisle, the royal arms of Queen Victoria are in embroidery, and are said to have been made by a vicar's wife in the 1840s. They've been recently restored. All in all, this is a church full of interest and beauty. But even more than that you'll remember the setting, the rhododendrons and the pine trees, and the sea in the distance, an unforgettable place to find a medieval church.

Simon Knott, April 2023

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looking east chancel sanctuary looking west
font The Wolferton Doom looking east from the chancel
candelabra lectern, piscina, commandments lectern font cover
consecration cross Christ the Man of Sorrows porch lamp
rood screen north side (photographed 2006) rood screen south side (photographed 2006)
piscina with credence shelf and sedilia 'those who went forth from this village to serve their God, their King and their country'


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