Sunday, 22 November 2020

Music for the Angels - St Edmund, Acle, Norfolk


St Edmund, Acle, has a wealth of interesting features to recommend it, but here is something that is easily missed... 

In the spandrels of a set of early twentieth century benches in the chancel is an angel puffing away into a small set of bagpipes. If you have ever wondered what an angel's bagpipes sound like, then the anonymous carver of these spandrels offers  us some idea in the form of his carving of the angel opposite this musician...

 © Ragged Ramblers, 2020 

Sunday, 1 November 2020

Human Touches at St Andrew, Frenze, south Norfolk

Rising ground

It was late September and veteran Ragged Rambler, Mr. Dan Many Coats, and I were exploring churches in south Norfolk. That day, we had already visited Illington, Bressingham and East Harling, and were now on the road to St Andrew, Frenze, a short distance from Diss. This lovely little church, in the words of the inestimable D.P. Mortlock & C.V. Roberts, ‘has to be sought out, but [is] worth the effort.’ So it proved to be (even though, upon arrival, the church locked)

The church is situated next to Frenze Hall, and requires a drive of about half-a-mile or so through the hall grounds. Sitting atop a small hill (this is Norfolk, so anything over sea level constitutes a hill!), something about this humble little country church set our ‘church fanciers’ radars twitching with anticipation. As you will see from the photograph, it is basically a nave with a bell-turret and a Tudor brick porch. The church is under the care of the Churches Conservation Trust, so we were a little surprised to find it locked. However, as you will see, in many ways this turned out to be something of a blessing.

Tudor period brickwork

Despite initial disappointment we were soon buoyed by the elixier of all Ragged Ramblers – tea! So, we opened our flasks and poured a cup and stood the tea to cool a while, before beginning to explore the exterior of the church.

The first discovery we happened upon was this little angel etched into the glass of the window immediately east of the porch. A crowned angel with curly locks and wings, hovering above a skull and crossbones; most likely drawn by a glazier some time during the late eighteenth/early nineteenth century by our estimation.

‘A lovely thing!’ exclaimed Mr. Many Coats.

Flask + Mortlock & Roberts, 'Norfolk Churches'

Having perambulated the church we returned to the sill where our tea and a well-thumbed copy of Mortlock & Roberts awaited us. As we sat and chatted, it dawned on us what a wonderful Tudor creation this porch was. As is our want, we began to extemporise and were soon conjuring up the scene during the 1500’s as the brickies constructed it. They would have sat and had a sup of ale and got a yarning, just as we were doing. Their days were just as familiar and ‘workaday’ as ours, and yet, for all of the centuries dividing us, we both live(d) during extraordinary times; times of social massive social change, contagion and uncertainty.

‘To think that those Tudors coped with the Reformation and all that other stuff without tea… well, it’s a wonder really isn’t it!’

The impression of fingers lingers...

It was during this conversation that Dan noticed some finger-prints impressed into one of the bricks; the prints of three fingers to be precise. We love discoveries like this! Human touches like these connect us imaginatively with the past in an intimate way. It’s a bit like those carved wooden heads on bench-ends in our churches that shine from the instinctive touch of countless generations of visitors, or – to give a specific example – the tiny paw-prints left by kittens who padded across the wet clay tiles as they lay out in the summer sun at a brick-field so many summers ago, and which, today, can be found on the floor within the grand setting of Salle church (click HERE for more about this).

And then Dan spotted something else. On the east face of the buttress immediately west of the porch window was a small graffito. What makes this one so unusual is that, judging from the paleography, it was carved during the Late Medieval period – probably, the fifteenth century. Probably many such carvings were made, but very few survive in external settings like this. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to decipher it, but it was a great thing to find (one of only three such medieval examples I’m aware of on Norfolk churches).

Writing as I am, on the eve of our second lockdown in Britain, it’s likely that many churches will, regrettably, remain locked. However, as our visit to Frenze proves, taking a good close look at the exteriors of churches can prove to be richly rewarding – and that’s without looking at the gravestones.

Frenze, truly is a charming little church and I intend to return to explore its interior as soon as I can. If it’s half as good on the inside as it is outside, then I’ll be one happy Ragged Rambler!

Composed by Munro Tweeder-Harris, Esq.

© Ragged Ramblers, 2020

Saturday, 31 October 2020

Ancient Secrets at St Gregory, Heckingham


St Gregory, Heckingham, lies tucked away down a narrow lane. Just as at its ‘sister’ church at nearby Hales, an ancient track (now a public footpath) that is aligned with its south door, runs into the distance in the fields opposite. Walk up the small hillock approaching the graveyard entrance and you will see a plain wooden bench on which - with an enigmatic reference to the surrounding landscape - the following words are carved:


‘Ancient church. 

Marshes know far older secrets’

To be honest, although ‘older secrets’ may well lie buried in nearby marshes, I have no idea what they might be. What I do know, however, is that this lovely church has some secrets of its own to reveal. 

There is, for instance, the story of two daughters of John and Elizabeth Crowe - both of whom were named Mary. At the west end of the north aisle is a ledger slab on which is carved a grimly grinning skull. Here we learn that Mary Crowe died in 1659. Meanwhile, the other Mary Crowe lies interred under an almost identical stone at the east end of the aisle, she having died in 1666. Clearly, the name Mary held a special place in the hearts of her parents and was, as was quite common, re-used within families. Even though several centuries lie between me and these deaths, my heart goes out to these poor grieving parents. 


Along the same aisle you will find an ostensibly nondescript ledger slab set into the floor near the wall. I assume it marks the final resting place of some anonymous person. But if you look closely and carefully you will notice some crosses etched into the stone. The position and style of these crosses strongly suggests to me that this a palimpsest: a re-cycled mensa slab that, in the pre-Reformation church, would have been the altar within the churches chancel. 

Stepping into the graveyard for a moment, another ‘secret’ is revealed: namely, the tragedy of countless anonymous poor folk who died in the nearby ‘Union Workhouse’ at Hales. These individuals are commemorated with a modern grave marker to the north of the church - a nice human touch in my opinion. 


Back inside the church, as I look at the re-used medieval tiles that form the raised floor at the east end of the north aisle, I think of the nameless folk who have walked on them. I think too of the tiles drying in the brickyard in the summer sun some long gone day ago. Perhaps, as at Salle, kitten paw prints might be found imprinted on their surface, or fingerprints perhaps (as at Blickling or in the porch at Frenze). 


At present a wooden funeral bier stands immediately next to the late Norman font, a reminder of the cycle of life and death which this church has been witness to. How excited John and Mary must have been as the priest baptised their Mary’s in this very font. How many children, ‘time out of mind’ (as pre-modern documents sometimes say), must have had their heads wetted at this font. Cold old stone and the flow of warm life and Love - these are some of the layers of meaning that reside here. 

And looking at the blocked stair well to the north of the chancel arch, we are reminded of the sweep of huge impersonal historic events that played out here, in the most humble and rustic of settings. The Reformation swept away the rood screen here - most likely ending up on a bonfire in the churchyard, or, perhaps, being recycled into a local home or farm building. 

Now, let me say something about the outstanding treasure of this  church;namely, the richly carved Norman south doorway dated from the mid-1100’s. This is a dazzling display of Romanesque carving: chevrons, crosses, zigzags, bobbins and a hood-mould with wheels. It really is a wonder; one that never ceases to impress me no matter how many times I revisit the church. 

An open door

I think we would all agree that 2020 has been a terrible and testing year. The tragedy of the global pandemic with all its resulting death and disruption is a backdrop against which I write this short piece. I know that I am not alone in having struggled with poor mental health during these testing times. Hats off then to the Churches Conservation Trust for enabling the doors of this church to be open. Unfortunately, a pervasive risk averse culture seems to have swept this country when it comes to keeping churches open - especially, Church of England ones (with noteable exceptions like the Hempnall Group, all of which are open). The fact is that where this is a will there is a way when it comes to open churches. 


Within a church like Heckingham we can escape the tribulations of the wider world for a while. Whether you come to pray or to explore; to sit quietly, or to talk about some things that really matter with friends (or some combination thereof!) - whatever your reason, that open door really means something. It is part of a culture that says, 

‘Here (at least), you are welcome’. 

Within, we are able to heal. 

Stillness within

To support the work of the Churches Conservation Trust please click on the following link and make a financial contribution: 

Churches Conservation Trust Donations

© Ragged Ramblers, 2020

Friday, 30 October 2020

Revisiting St. Margaret, Hales

Thatcher's at work

Arriving at St Margaret, Hales, is always like greeting an old friend - only, on this occasion, my friend was busy having a haircut. The future of any church is only as good as its roof, so it was good to see the thatcher's hard at work on this smudgy-skied Autumnal day. So, not being able to get inside the church as I had intended, I will share some images from my archive instead. 

With its round-tower, lack of aisles and semi-circular apse, Hales is the archetypal Romanesque Norman period rural parish church. In more affluent areas of Norfolk these early churches were replaced during later building campaigns - particularly during the 'Great Rebuild' during the fifteenth century. However, in this area of south-east Norfolk, with its cluster of round tower churches, relative poverty inadvertently ensured the survival of these historical gems. Unlike its 'sister' church at nearby Heckingham, Hales has no aisles, and, thus, retains its essential Norman floorplan. The insertion of larger windows in the apse and nave during later centuries means that the interior of the church is lighter than the original. I imagine that, dimly lit with the original lancets, the Norman chancel must have had an intimate cave-like quality akin to that at St. Edmund, Fritton

Semi-circular Norman apse with early fourteenth century window inserted at east end

It would be remiss of me to write about Hales without mentioning that Norman doorway. Indeed, one of my principal reasons for re-visiting the church was to take a decent photo of it. However, with the builders on site this proved impossible. In the absence of this, here is a lovely batique depiction of the doorway by my friend, Maggie Robertson, who gifted it to me several years ago. 

Maggie's work

Finally, when I return here I will be sure to look at the concentration of apotropaic crosses carved around the doorway. The long departed souls who carefully carved these intended them to ward off evil spirits. If the lovely, warm atmosphere I have always felt in this special church is anything to go by then their work was not in vein. 

© Munro Tweeder-Harris

Saturday, 18 March 2017

Mount Grace Priory


The Carthusian order represented a late eleventh century attempt to reconcile the coenobitic tradition of a community of faith with the eremetic tradition of solitary faith. Therefore, whilst the majority of the monk's time was spent in silent prayer, labour and isolation within their respective 'cells', they did come together for collective services twice daily within a small conventual church. This is one of the reasons for the more humble scale of the Carthusian churches relative to, say, a Benedictine foundation like Fountains Abbey that was designed around collective worship focused on the church. 

However, if the word 'cell' evokes images of a small place of confinement, think again. Think instead of a self-contained house and garden, with food and drink brought to you via a J-shaped serving hatch, cleverly designed to avoid direct contact with the 'conversi' (lay brothers) who served them. 

Today, we visited the finest surviving example of a Carthusian house in Britain, Mount Grace Priory, Yorkshire, located on the once busy pilgrimage route between York and Durham. 



As well as the extensive ruins, this fascinating site includes a reconstructed cell that really does allow one to picture something of the material culture destroyed at the Dissolution. English Heritage deserve credit for their management and interpretation of this site. We received a lovely warm welcome and one of the staff members even took it upon herself to go and photocopy a sheet for us recording the mason's marks on the site.


Effective interpretation can enable visitors to imaginatively step back into the past. 

We will definitely be returning to this marvellous place - not least because they are in the early stages of constructing a new café to cater for visitors. The thought that the cake therein might prove to be as good as the priory site itself has our Ragged Rambler tastebuds tingling with anticipation. Huzzah!

Friday, 17 March 2017

St Thomas, Foxley


It was marvellous! It was more than marvellous - marvellouser than marvellous even! It felt miraculous, as if we were wandering within a landscape portrait painted from the dreams of angels. 

Eye of Aunty

I was relaxing within the soothing environs of a medieval church in the East of Norfolk when I felt a 'presence' - a curmudgeonly and defiant presence! With a shiver I turned and, lo, there was the eye of Aunty Gary staring at me through a small hole in the medieval roof screen. Gadzooks! 

Friday, 29 April 2016

The Grim Grouch!

I had been in a blue funk, but I knew not why. I tried to smile but could only muster a rictus grin. I walked, head down, towards St Nicholas Church, Little Saxham, Suffolk - and then I looked up AIEEEEEEEEEEE!

Friday, 19 February 2016

The Dolan Bar!

All church water storage enthusiasts will know the excitement of happening upon a water tank. So it was today when, in a location in the East of England, Ragged Ramblers saw a beautiful rivetted galvinised tank. 

Having run our eager fingers over the smooth button Maxwell rivets, with a sense of rising excitement we noticed something special lurking under the water-line; something that all water storage tank enthusiasts dream of - oh it couldn't be... surely not! But it was! For what we had seen was one of the rarest and most cherished of water storage features - a Dolan bracing bar!

"Dolan bar!" we shouted with jubilation as we danced about...
"Dolan bar, huzzah!"

Sheep Deep Suffolk

What a fantastic sight it was today when Ragged Ramblers arrived at Holy Trinity, Middleton, north Suffolk. There they were, organic lawnmowers - a wonderful thing to see creatures, fringed by sunshine, roaming and grazing in between the long shadows of the tombs.