Norfolk's best churches

We have more medieval churches than anywhere in northern Europe, and more Saxon round tower churches you'll not find anywhere. No wonder they say you can't see a Norfolk horizon that's not punctuated by a church tower. Cameron Self of Literary Norfolk tells us his 10 favourite county churches, and why…

Walpole St Peter: It is easy to see why St Peter's was John Betjeman's favourite Norfolk church. Known as the 'Queen of the Marshlands' - it is a large, ornate building dating from the 15th century. The south porch is particularly fine and has roof bosses to rival Norwich Cathedral. There is also a processional way which passes underneath the eastern end of the church. Inside it is full of carved bench ends and painted saints and the Fenland light floods in through the many windows.

Burnham Overy Town: Located on a small hill close to the River Burn - St Clement's Church has a lead and tile roof and a squat, centrally placed tower. Over the years the church has been much altered. Originally it was cruciform in shape but today there is no north aisle. The tower has also been lowed and capped with a bell-cote. The interior is whitewashed and there is a wall painting of St Christopher and a very rare floor piscina. The graveyard is full of sea captains and may have inspired a young Horatio Nelson - who lived at nearby Burnham Thorpe.

Frenze: Follow the signs for the Diss Business Park (and then Frenze Hall) and eventually you come to a collection of farm buildings. In the corner sits the tiny church of St Andrew. It has no tower and no nave and there is a simple bell-cote on the roof. Inside, it is wonderfully peaceful and seems to be a place where 'prayer has been valid'. It was once the church of the Blennerhasset family and is full of their memorials. In one of his letters John Paston humorously wrote that: 'Raff Blennerhassett wer a name to styrte an hare'. This church is now cared for by the Churches Conservation Trust.

Salle: At 111 feet, the tower of St Peter and St Paul at Salle (pronounced 'Saul') dominates the fields north of Reepham. With the exception of a few cottages and Salle village hall - it stands on its own - a massive reminder of the wealth of Norfolk families such as the Briggs, Fountaines and Boleyns. The interior is lofty and luminous and there is a Seven-Sacrament font with a pinnacled cover. Look out for the ghost of Ann Boleyn which is said to walk in Bullen's Lane.

Hales: St Margaret's church lies over a mile away from the present village of Hales. It has a thatched roof, a round tower and an arcaded apse. Once it was part of the benefice of St Olave's Priory who starved it of money for refurbishments - so today it is one of the best examples of an unaltered pre-Gothic Norman church in the country. It's also famous for its two magnificent Norman doors. It is now looked after by the Churches Conservation Trust and, in the summertime, the graveyard is full of wildflowers.

Fishley: St Mary's stands on its own in the fields just north of Acle. It is an exquisite, tiny round towered church with a pre-conquest tower and a Norman doorway. From its gate can been seen the nearby tower of St Margaret's at Upton. The interior is plain and stripped out and somehow appropriate for such a remote gem.

Cley: In the Middle Ages Cley was a thriving sea port - exporting wool and other commodities to the continent. Money from this trade enabled the community to build the grand church of St Margaret's. Located a low hill overlooking the Glaven valley - it has a magnificent south porch and there is lovely carved tracery work around the windows. John Betjeman described the interior as: 'light falling on carved Norfolk oak, gone silvery-grey with age'. (Look out for the beautiful mermaid on one of the bench ends). In the graveyard is the table tomb of Mr James Greeve - an assistant to Sir Cloudesly Shovel which features in the opening pages of Jack Higgins' The Eagle Has Landed.

Cranwich: St Mary's church is located just off the busy Mundford to Downham Market road. It has a charming Saxon round-tower and a thatched roof. It was built on a pre-Christian burial mound and has a rare circular graveyard. Inside it is plain and whitewashed and, on sunny days, full of light. The village of Cranwich declined in the 17th Century and eventually became deserted - so today St Mary's has no congregation.

Burgh St Peter: This bizarre church stands on its own at the furthest tip of Norfolk - inside a giant loop of the River Waveney. Directly across the river sits Oulton Church in Suffolk - where the novelist George Borrow was married. Strangely the church is dedicated to St Mary - even though the village is named St Peter. However, there is more strangeness to come for it has the most extraordinary tower. Built from brick in the shape of a ziggurat, it was apparently inspired by Samuel Boycott's son's trip to Italy.
The Boycott family were rectors here for 135 years from1764 to 1899 and the church is also their mausoleum. The family also gave their name to the term 'to Boycott' after Charles C Boycott - who owned land in Mayo in Ireland - increased the rents and was sent him to Coventry by the villagers.

Oxnead: St Michael is not a particularly beautiful church. In fact, it appears rather down-at-heel. However, it is full of history - for this was the church of the Paston family who lived at Oxnead Hall. Inside, the church is full of their memorials. There is a marble bust of Lady Katherine Paston (died 1636) by Nicholas Stone and the alabaster tomb of Sir Clement Paston. In the seventeenth century King Charles II was entertained at Oxnead Hall - but Pastons are now long gone. There is a delightful poem about Lady Katherine which was written by the Norfolk-based poet Michael Riviere:

'We're not the tomorrow, alas
Of this lady's wish; her treasure scattered for ever,
Her mansion now green mounds beside the river,
Not a Paston left to wear the flesh…..'

Literary Norfolk has more details of the county's churches.

 

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