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

St Peter, Wolferton

Wolferton: big and austere in a fine setting

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from the south-east fine late 13th century tower from the south-west first approach

    St Peter, Wolferton
iron lantern   The time to come here is early June, when the long lanes that lead to the village are lined with mile after mile of lush rhododendrons in full flower, the purple globes startling in the Norfolk green. You pass the old railway station, now a museum; in its day, it was among the most opulent stations in the Kingdom, commissioned by the Prince of Wales in the 1870s with waiting rooms on the upline designed for visiting royalty. But the trains have gone now, along with many of the crowned heads of Europe, of course.

Beyond, the village lies under the balmy high pines of this heathland, and you enter this most remote part of the Sandringham estate; screened from the rest of Norfolk by its rhododendrons, it seems to look as much to the sea as it does to the land. The marshes spread westwards swallowing all sound, and beyond is the Wash, grey and mysterious. The air is utterly quiet. It is hard to remember that we are less than ten miles from the centre of Kings Lynn.

This part of north-west Norfolk was among the poorest rural areas in England in the 19th century, but the building of Sandringham House revitalised the local economy, the estate employing thousands of people. The churches, in many cases moribund or 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 Prince of Wales came along.

St Peter is a large church of the late 13th century, with many echoes of the big marshland churches on the other side of Lynn. Apart from carstone walls and tower, it was destroyed by a well-documented fire in the late 15th century, at which time it seems to have been given the magnificent roofs that were noted by antiquarians in the 18th century. By the 1880s it was in a desperate state; Arthur Blomfield, fresh from his excellent rebuilding of the pretty church at West Newton near the middle of the estate, came to restore it.

He must have felt on more familiar ground here, with a big aisled church to work on, and what he did here is pretty typical Blomfield - dark, slightly austere, with a sense of gravitas. Almost everything you see today is either his, or a gift of Edward VII or Queen Alexandra. The King's taste is indicated right from the porch, where an opulent iron lantern hangs - there is another one at West Newton.

You step inside to Blomfield's cool austerity, slightly gloomy if you come from summer sunshine. Blomfield replaced the roofs to both nave and chancel, but I couldn't help thinking that the figures in the wall posts look pretty convincingly 15th century, as do the crossbeams. However, everything above is certainly his.

north aisle screen looking east south aisle and screen

During his restoration, Blomfield discovered a doom painting above the chancel arch. This, unfortunately, was repainted, and the result is pretty terrible. However, we can be grateful for three fine medieval survivals: a beautiful 14th century parclose screen to the south aisle, which must have come here from somewhere else, and, from after the fire, a 15th century parclose screen to the north, and the dado of the roodscreen, with figures on the panels. There are twelve of them. They are very faint, and some are fragmentary. One carries a rosary, suggesting a donor, but she has a nimbus and may be intended as St Sitha.

rood screen dado (north, I-VI) rood screen dado (south, VII-XII)
rood screen dado panels I, II rood screen dado panels III, IV rood screen dado panels V, VI rood screen dado panels VII, VIII rood screen dado panels IX, X, XI, XII

A curiosity in the south aisle is that the royal arms of Victoria are an embroidery. At one time they were reported to be in a terrible state, but they have been restored and are now framed. A massive triptych sits above a sturdy table in the north aisle chapel. It depicts the adoration of the Virgin by the Magi, flanked by the four Evangelists. It is certainly the most beautiful thing here, and is one of several furnishings that lift Blomfield's restoration out of mediocrity. But even more than these, 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, July 2006

sanctuary font reredos in the north aisle chapel Christ meets Peter, and baptises him 15th century figure in wall post 
arcade Blomfield roof above medieval crossbeams evangelists evangelists Man of Sorrows
Adoration of the Magi royal arms 19th century doom Bloomfield's 1880's rood loft coving

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