Of Letters and Ruins
My quest to discover the ‘true’ Norfolk Churches came when I had but a morning left to spend up in this tranquil part of our shores. The coach was due to leave Norwich at half past three that afternoon, so time was against me in visiting the choice of churches there are up there.
Thankfully my friend Beach had a Car, which is invaluable in that part of the world – as someone who doesn’t drive, the whole affair would have been impossible otherwise. Armed with a book that was lent to me by Ian Brentnall on the Paston Letters, our first port of call would be Paston Parish Church, which lay just over five miles away.
Paston seemed like a good church to visit, after seeing an image of its interior on a Calendar in Ian’s house. The church had some lovely funerary monuments there decked in garlands of flowers, with a fine fifteenth century rood screen and an ancient swathe of pews. Further information from Ian informed me more about the Paston family – an old family from the Tudor Era who took the name of the local village. Initially poor, Clement Paston, a peasant, secured enough funds to give his son William a good education, to the point where he rose to be a Judge and significant landowner. This changed the fortunes and prominence of the family, cemented further after a tactical marriage to Agnes Berry, daughter of Sir Edward Berry of Harlingbury, Hertfordshire.
Thus began four generations of a wealthy family plagued by the civil and political unrest, with letters between various members and friends kept and recorded: detailing every day life in some of the most challenging times to face our country’s history. Amongst these Pepys-esque writings are all manner of correspondence ranging from love letters, State papers and the simmering troubles surrounding the War of the Roses. The letters are from the period of 1422 to 1509 and are in the British Museum, with some also kept at the Bodleian Library/Magdalen College in Oxford and Pembroke College, Cambridge.
The Church dates back to the fourteenth Century, founded from a legacy left by Bartholomew de Glanville, son of the founder of Bromholm Priory. The interior of the porch lists the income and expenditure of the place – my heart sank when I saw that a sixteen year old in Tesco’s working part time probably earns more than this place of worship annually, and that restoration work was a stop-start scenario: only operating when funds were available.
The inside of the Church was dark and brooding. Traces of fourteenth century murals linger on the crumbling plaster. St. Christopher is shown holding the Holy Child, and a little further along three skeletons shaking in the wind, performing the ‘Dance of Death’. For Pilgrims these were designed to inspire and when new must’ve been bedazzling. Despite these fading murals, all attention was being focussed on the Rood Screen which held the true wonders of the Church: the Paston family tombs.
Several tombs of theirs remain, but the most notable are that of Sir Edmund and his wife, Katherine. Both are designed by Nicholas Stone, master mason to Charles I. Edmund records the installation of the memorial, where he comments it was ‘very extraordinarily entertained, and pay’d for it £340. John Donne, the Elizabethan/Jacobean poet better known for his romantic poetry wrote the inscription which is on her tomb. Edmund died in 1632, and his monument neighbours hers in an eye-assaulting clash of styles. The monument is plastered in warnings however, and its fine marble statue of Katherine is enclosed in a wooden cage for protection as the monument is expected to fall apart at any minute. Other Paston tombs are nearby but as to who lay in them, no-one is certain. One has been hacked into the Sedilia behind the Altar Rails, in a bit of building work that would’ve been a prime candidate for ‘Rogue Traders’ had it been around in the fifteenth century.
Me at the altar rail
It’d be impossible to condense any more into this post but its very clear this Church is financially strained. Several leaflets show how like many others, it’s facing the consequences of being isolated from any major settlement and the costs incurred at keeping a building this old in good form. A telling story is that the last regular incumbent was appointed in 1951. A beauty of a Church though, I hope money is found to maintain it, the tombs are a work of art that only work in the context they’ve been set in: the family Parish Church.
Beach then suggested a visit to Mundesley Church, where his Grandfather ventures to occasionally when he’s not at his Bowls Club. He went off for an Ice-Cream (I suspect my ogling of Churches and exclaiming ‘Wow!’ was beginning to wear on his nerves a teensy bit) whilst me and Steve investigated. The Cemetery was on an incline and had a few unusual headstones like the two made out of wrought Iron. I immediately spotted a slight problem: I saw a man in black holding A-Frames into the Church. ‘Oh great’ I said, ‘We’re going to interrupt a funeral’.
I went inside and asked a lady when the funeral would be taking place. Not for another hour or so she said to my relief, at which point a very friendly man called Colin came up to us and, despite being in the middle of preparing the Church for the oncoming Funeral, took it upon himself to give us a guided tour. He informed us he was the Verger and, slightly bemused at his very generous offer, he downed tools and started to give us a rundown on the history of the Church – founded roughly the same time Paston was but and with a chequered past in terms of the buildings condition: circa 1700 Peter le Neve describes it as ‘without steeple, in a frame in the Churchyard three bells, one isle leaded, chancel done with reed, no monument with inscription, five grey marble stones, brasses reved of’. By 1741 the Church was ‘so broken down and decayed that the congregation could not without danger assemble therein’. Colin revealed: “At that time the Rector used to stable his Horse in the Chancel before he took the service in the Church”. Successive improvements happened as the congregation grew but it was not until 1952 the building was unified into one state of good repair.
Mundesley is a smaller and more ‘modern’ church, with a very pretty array of kneelers displayed on the pew shelves. It’s a hodge-podge of different styles which reflect its many building projects over the years. Colin went on to tell us the size of the usable church in the 1740’s and that the Organ was moved in the process of a restoration. Briefly he brought a framed drawing from the Vestry denoting the original size of the church and by the fourteenth century font, an ink etching of the church in 1820, in considerable disrepair. He cheerfully pointed towards a hole in the wall that betrayed the smooth plasterwork with rough, flint stonework. “That was where a memorial was, and it came off the wall in the middle of the service. It nearly killed the person sitting below it”. Tucked away behind the pulpit laid the mischievous monument, looking like a headstone and with a similar font on it to the recently restored Mears monument in Highgate.
Mundesley as a ruin in 1820.
There were statues of Our Lady all over the place, suggesting this was high Church. The Priest who was going to conduct the funeral then arrived, and like Colin said a few words about how the Church functions in modern times – it’s part of the ‘Trunch Team’, a collection of ten churches and six clergy which pools resources between the churches of Mundesley, Antingham, Gimingham, Knapton, Paston, Southrepps, Swafield, Trunch, Thorpe Market and Bradfield.
Grateful of the trouble Colin went to in showing us around and mindful that a funeral was due to be taking place, we left this delightful little church and had a wonder around the churchyard once more, which is undergoing expansion. A monument that would be at home in a Magnificent Seven Cemetery rather than atop a cliff on the Norfolk coast gleamed amongst the others, as did the headstone of a man who lived in Rochester. Migration in ye olde days is always a fascinating thing.
Colin, the Verger.
Sadly the clock was ticking against us and we had to make a move back to the Chalet to ready our things for our return home. I struck a nugget of an idea when I decided to see more of these places that were so intrinsic to life in these far flunk parts of East Anglia: they have a charm to them that local churches near me in south-east London seem to have shed as populations boomed earlier last century. Within their very fabrics are the class system and the ‘old guard’ who worked the fields who were never privvy to the tourism that has now flooded Norfolk, a potential saviour to these old ways, which is why I say the legacy they left behind in these old survivors should be cherished and protected.
Many thanks to Colin from All Saints Mundesley and Stephen Roberts for photo editing and photos 1,2,4, 5 and 6.