Thurifer sings Ave
Can you hear the birds singing Te Deum to welcome Mary’s month of May? In a pleasing symmetry it opens with the Society of Mary (SOM) Festival and ends with the National Pilgrimage to Walsingham. They are linked this year as Fr Graeme Rowlands, the Chaplain-General of SOM, will preach at the National. Those who go on pilgrimage or retreat at the shrine participate in rich devotional fare as well as comfortable accommodation and good food. Part of a visit is recreation and can often include a visit to Wells juxta mare; excellent beach, fish and chips and a trip on the light railway. For the church-crawling buffs there is much to enjoy.
A favourite with many is the Church of Our Lady St Mary, South Creake. An imposing exterior of chancel, nave and tower reveals a spacious and light-filled interior. In its medieval appearance it appears untouched by the ravages of protestantism and iconoclasm. But all is not what it seems. The church had not avoided the vicissitudes of history and the Catholic Revival begun in 1833 did not reach South Ceake until the 1920s when a series of High Church priests, not least among them Fr Michael Smith, restored the Mass as the central act of worship, enhanced by bells and smells, installed screen and pews, statues and banners, and vestments. The rood was not installed until the 1980s. It may be a re-creation but it is one that works.
Perhaps somewhat overshadowed is St Peter’s, Great Walsingham. The nave and tower (the chancel lost at the Reformation) are set apart from the village. It is alone but not forlorn. There is grace in its proportions and some lovely details, not least the south porch, a fifteenth century addition. The interior is structurally unaltered. The medieval font has a Jacobean canopy which adds a touch of colour. Some medieval glass survives, a fragment of the original scheme. An image of Our Lady at prayer gloriously survives the depredations of puritan intolerance. The pews have poppy heads, carved animals and grotesques, a happy combination.
Many will know the lovely, simple, unprepossessing exterior of Houghton St Giles on the road into Walsingham. Fewer will know its interior. It is worth stopping or walking to it from the village. It is a nineteenth century interior but with significant medieval survivals. The fifteenth century rood screen retains much of its colour, vivid reds and gold, gentle blues and saintly iconography. Faces have been cruelly defaced, as on similar screens in other churches. The theme of the panels is Holy Women and their children. As well as the Virgin and Child, the images include St Elizabeth and St John Baptist, St Mary Salome and her sons St James and St John. The Four Latin Doctors are represented, Saints Gregory the Great, Jerome, Ambrose and Augustine of Hippo. And two popes, St Silvester and St Clement. The altar rails are seventeenth century and there is good nineteenth century stained glass.
A little further afield seek out the village of Bale. Here once stood a mighty oak but no more. The National Trust maintains the small site and remarkably does not charge an arm and a leg to look at it. All Saints, a few yards away, is small but a gem of the mid-fourteenth century built a little before the Black Death struck the village. Its glory, however, is medieval glass of the Norwich school; several scenes are now set in one window. Scenes of the Annunciation surrounded by angels and, slightly incongruously, a depiction of Daniel and Samuel in the central light. Consecration crosses can be seen on the nave walls and the remains of a wall painting of St Christopher carrying the Holy Child. Do not miss the delightful octagonal front which dates from 1470. If you are passing Upper Sheringham, All Saints is worth a brief stop to see a fine rood screen with loft and also note the bench end carvings, including one of a mermaid.
In the forty or so years I have been visiting Norfolk, it was only late last year that I went to Binham Priory (St Mary and the Holy Cross). Approached from the west through the remains of the monastic gatehouse the church (once the nave of the priory church) looks like a badly completed jigsaw. The west window stone lights were filled with bricks in 1809—yet it is a masterpiece. The north aspect seen from the ruins of the monastic living quarters is tall but truncated with the loss of the chancel. The clerestory windows are neatly uniform but the middle and ground tiers are a hotchpotch of shapes, sizes, and in-filling. Inside the nave of the priory church comprises seven bays. You can follow the construction east to west. Begun in 1130, the zig-zag decoration gradually moves from Norman to Early English. There is a seven sacrament octagonal font (the eighth panel shows Christ’s Baptism). The remains of a rood screen can be seen displayed on the south wall. Bingham came in the first phase of monastic foundations of the Normans. It could have been as early as 1093. The priory followed the Rule of St Benedict. In late autumn the ruins are evocative and lachrymose. If you listen you may hear floating over the fields the monks chanting: ‘Ave, ave, ave Maria.’