By Haydn Brown.
Unlike Simon Knott in 2009, I arrived here, at Rackheath’s All Saints Church, ten years later in the height of a dry and hot summer’s day when butterflies were in abundance and flying insects were out to get you. Everything seemed parched, even the wheat, barley and oil seed rape in the surrounding fields looked as if they were quietly crying out to be harvested.
My journey had been via the A1151, Norwich to Wroxham Road, which runs through the parish of Rackheath, dividing it in two. Having left the more southerly New Rackheath, originally known as Rackheath Parva, behind me, I headed in a northerly direction towards a much smaller settlement which was originally known as Rackheath Magna in the 12th century. My destination was the church that many had photographed and some had sketched or written about – this was my first visit.
At a road junction just short of the Green Man public house I turned left, prompted by a brown Heritage ‘Ancient Church’ signpost which points down what is Swash Lane. Thereafter, there are no more signs, you have to look beyond your bonnet and look out for the church’s bell tower, which lies straight ahead, beyond a three-way junction – you take the centre option, along a narrow, grass-centred lane which runs out at the Church gate. I learnt that All Saints is open during daylight hours, and if not, the Keyholder can be contacted on 01603 782044.
I was barely three miles from the edge of Norwich and even less from the City’s Northern Distributor Road. Even in summer, All Saints is still a lonely church, sitting as it does on its personal rise above the surrounding fields. Its only company was yellow ragwort, fern and gravestones – none in conversation with each other. Everything was still and quiet – except for the occasional rustle at ground level, hedgerow and tree canopy as I wandered around.
I was informed earlier that the church had once been near the centre of the settlement once known as Rackheath Magna. However, following the Great Plaque of 1665, when with so many deaths and abandonment of properties, the church found itself ‘on its own’ so to speak. As for the general fabric of this isolated Church, it is early 14th century but does have earlier features. It was built with knapped brick and flint with limestone dressings, including a 13th century series of arches with octagonal pillars. The roof is slated with black-glazed pantiles on a simple south facing porch with a 12th-century sundial in the gable end over the porch door arch.
Like many churches in the 19th century, All Saints underwent its own alterations around 1840 which included the installation of its unusual underfloor heating system. Other notable features still on show include numerous brass plaques and monuments commemorating wealthy individuals from the parish; particularly members of the Pettus and then the Stracey families – the latter’s Baronetcy being created on 15 December 1818 for Edward Stracey with the former Rackheath Hall, now well-appointed flats and apartments, being built in 1852-4 for Humphrey Stracey.
During its recent past All Saints church fell into disuse and disrepair, causing the parishioners of this lonely community to go elsewhere for their services. The church was made redundant in the 1970s and the Norfolk Churches Trust acquired the lease in February 1981. I was further informed that, together with restorations instigated by the Victoria and Albert Museum and taken up enthusiastically by the local community, this church was saved from an ignominious fate. By 1985, the church had secured replacement windows and flooring with many original fittings returned to pride of place inside the building. All this meant that the church managed to survive, once again functioning in the parish as a place worth visiting and supporting for the potential it can offer as a place of meeting and possible worship, provided of course that further attention could be afforded.
Certainly during my visit, the outside needed attention whilst inside, there was an uncomfortable sparseness. Almost alone on a table next to the entrance door was a Notice which gave a brief outline of the church’s history and a personal account which I recognised as one written by Simon Knott, some nine years ago – it is worth re-publishing and is as follows:
“It did not help that I came here on one of the gloomiest, coldest days of February 2009, but this must always seem a remote spot. And yet, it is rather a charming one. All Saints was declared redundant long ago, back in the 1970s, and that should be no surprise. This is a huge parish, and the main village it serves is more than a mile off. The opening of a modern chapel of ease there must have sounded the death knell for All Saints.
Now, the liturgical life of this building is over, and the silence fills its days out here in what feels like the middle of nowhere. In fact, we are barely three miles from the outer edge of Norwich suburbia, but you wouldn’t know it. This lonely little church sits on its bluff above the fields, with only its gravestones for company, reached by a narrow track along the edge of a field, which peters out as it reaches the church gate.
And all around the woods and fields roll, the gently hilly landscape of the country above the winding rivers of the Broads. The church does not seem an intrusion in this landscape. Rather, there is something entirely organic about it, as if it has grown from the land it serves, or as if has been left here for us to find by a former civilisation; which is nearly true, of course. Thanks to the sterling work of the Norfolk Churches Trust, this church is open all day, every day, when most around here are not.”
This must be an ancient site. Ridges in the adjacent fields show that there was a settlement here, probably until well into the 19th Century, but now everybody lives down on the other side of the Norwich to Wroxham road. Rackheath Hall was home to first the Pettus family and then the Straceys, and above all else this church is their mausoleum. The first sign of this is in the graveyard, where the Straceys’ sombre matching crosses stand, fenced off still, to the east of the Church.
The Stacey family graves on the east side of All Saints.
Photo: H. Brown.
Nothing much happened here in the way of building work in the late Middle Ages, and what you see today is pretty much all of the Decorated period. The south aisle is rather curious, because the roofline cuts into the clerestory, suggesting that it may have been refashioned after medieval times, possibly to serve as a memorial aisle for the Pettus family.
You step into a building which is full of light, thanks to the clear glass in the aisle and east window. Everything is white and clean; and, ironically, it all feels beautifully cared for. There were large displays of red flowers decorating the font and windowsills when I came here on a cold February day. The interior was spotless, unlike that of several working churches which I had visited earlier in the day. It was breathtakingly cold, and the great expanses of wall memorials in the aisle and on the north side of the nave really made it feel as if this might be the mausoleum of a lost civilisation.
The Pettus memorials are elegant and lovely, and surprisingly grand in such an outpost, although they also serve as a reminder that, until barely three hundred years ago, if we had been here we would have found ourselves just outside the second city of the Kingdom. The most striking is to Thomas Pettus, who in 1723 was:
“taken from the tender embraces of his most indulgent parents that he might receive the rewards promised in another life to a most engaging friendly behaviour, a most strict and filial obedience, a most sincere, regular and early piety in this.”
From a quarter of a century earlier, but looking the work of another quarter of a century before that, the bold memorial to Thomas Pettus’s grandfather is a rather more serious and sombre proposition.
The Stracey memorials are more workaday, and form a kind of catalogue, one of the most complete records in stone of a Norfolk family’s fortunes over the ups and downs of several centuries. Probably the most beautiful is a 1930s monument to Mary Elizabeth Brinkley, in that flowery development of Jazz Modern which was popular at the time, possibly as a kitschy reaction to the severe lines of cinemas and public buildings of the age. Noting that she was a great-great-grand-daughter of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, it concludes with an equally flowery epitaph, which observes in part that “from out of the murk and mistiness of life her dreams arise, most cool and delicate, and circle her like white and azure flowers”. This is credited to Eleanour Norton, an obscure poet best known for the mawkish k, which was popular in the years leading up to the First World War.
Finally, several 20th Century brasses recall the familiar heartbreak of this intensely rural parish. Horace Arthur Symonds of Hall Farm, Rackheath, died of his wounds on March 3rd 1916, and is buried at Etaples near Le Touquet in northern France:
“The Saints of God! Their conflict past, and Life’s Long Battle won at last, no more they need the shield or sword, and cast them down before the Lord”.
The epitaph is curiously militiaristic, suggesting that the memorial was erected while the conflict is still in progress, and before the reflectiveness which followed the Armistice.
Rather more prosaic, and more moving because of it, are two brass plaques by the south doorway. The first is that to Herbert John Harmer, who died in October 1916, and Robert James Charlish, who died in July 1917. They were both just twenty years old. This Monument is erected by Mr Stephen Sutton their former employer, reads the inscription. England Stands for Honour, God Defend the Right.
Beneath it you’ll find eleven year old Muriel FJ Bidwell, Chorister of this church who was mortally injured by a motor car, and entered Paradise 10th December 1925. I knew to look for this because earlier in the day, at another church, I had met an old man who had grown up in Rackheath. As an infant, he had attended Muriel Bidwell’s funeral. She had been playing in a puddle at a corner in the road, and the car had skidded and crushed her. The lesson of this had obviously been made very plain to the children of Rackheath at the time, and now in his late eighties he had never forgotten it.
All photographs in this blog are copyright H.Brown.