It was Saturday, the 6th July 2019; a day which turned wet. It should have been a day when we walked beside the river Bure near Wroxham; instead, we paid a visit to St Mary’s Church. We did so because It was holding its ‘Alphabet of Flowers Festival’, and a degree of extra support, particularly from ones who do not attend such places regularly, would not go amiss. It was well worth it.
For those who do not know St Mary’s Church, it stands on the southern bank of the River Bure, and has been there for at least 900 years – possibly more! Present-day visitors, those with water flowing beneath the keel, would hardly see it as they proceed up river; but should they tie up at Caen Meadow and exit through the meadow’s gates, turning left and walking east for two, or maybe three, hundred yards along Church Lane, they would discover this little gem of a church. So too would those approaching from the opposite direction; those who managed to find their way over the stone railway bridge and away from the sometimes-impossible traffic grid-locked A1151 which cuts Wroxham in two. But any time other than this weekend would mean that they would miss the event that we so much enjoyed!
This is all rather unfortunate, so too is the fact that St Mary’s really does stand in a secluded spot, away from the hustle and bustle that surrounds the River Bure, the boatyards that line the riverside and the small housing estate that faces the church gates. Maybe, for these reasons, or even a lack of real effort on the part of visitors, most never seem to make their way there – this weekend or, indeed any other time. All this is a real shame, for the St Mary’s Church is a wonderful historic building, full of interest despite being set in a quiet and almost a secluded spot.
The present church made its appearance in the 12th century, though much of the building is in the 15th century Perpendicular style; however, you can still see 12th-century stonework in the nave. The south aisle was apparently rebuilt in brick in the 19th century, but the striking west tower is 15th century, with beautifully tracery sound holes and flushwork panels on the parapets. Most of the windows are also 15th century, though most were restored in the Victorian period.
The most interesting historic feature is the magnificent south doorway, a gem of Norman architecture and carving. It dates from the 11th Century and is carved in what Simon Knott described as “a style more typical of Herefordshire”. There are monsters carved into the columns along with what are known as a ‘Sheila na Gigs’ – representations of a lady in an immodest pose. It was, again, Simon Knott who once asked the question: “What’s that doing in a church porch?…….. to which his best guess was that it was a reminder that “man born of woman has but a short time to live! [for] All of us are mortal and by coming into church and becoming one of the baptized one may escape both the foul fiends and death!”. The doorway holds a 15th-century oak door with an even earlier 13th-century iron latch plate. Architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner once called the doorway ‘barbaric and glorious’. He was right.
Within the body of the church are 16th-century arcades and the remains of the medieval rood loft stair. The Victorians were also enlightened enough to employ the great William Wailes, England’s most accomplished and visionary stained-glass manufacturer of the time, to refurbish the church windows; but the parish destroyed one of them in the 1960s. The large east window dates from the Victorian restoration of 1851. Inside, the church boasts some wonderful monuments, mainly from the Victorian period, but included are some 18th century memorials. Among these are those relating to John Wace (d.1795) and Daniel Collyer (d. 1774). It is said that the church also has one great treasure, that of a medieval alabaster relief of the Holy Family. This must have been acquired from somewhere else, maybe by an enthusiastic 19th century Rector who took a fancy to it. Unfortunately, it is one treasure that is locked away in the vestry, so no one sees it.
The most impressive monument, however, is the Trafford Mausoleum outside in the churchyard which stands to the north-west of the tower and is almost large enough to be a church in its own right. It was designed by Anthony Salvin in 1827 for the Trafford family of Wroxham Hall (now vanished). Salvin designed the mausoleum on Early English style, beloved of Victorian Gothic architects, and he exhibited the mausoleum plans at the Royal Academy in London in 1830. The plans were enthusiastically reviewed in Gentleman’s Magazine, which called the mausoleum a ‘pleasing and exquisite miniature chapel’. Salvin’s design was widely copied and inspired the design of many later mausolea throughout the 19th century. He made a serious attempt to emulate 13th-century Gothic design, with ornately carved pinnacles, buttresses, plate tracery, and blind arcading along the building exterior.
The mausoleum was built by Margaret Trafford as a memorial to her husband Sigismund Trafford Southwell, High Sheriff of Norfolk in 1818 who died in 1827. Sigismund Trafford fought at the Battle of Waterloo, and his letters home are an invaluable historical resource. It was Margaret Trafford who was granted permission to build a Roman Catholic burial vault and mausoleum in St Mary’s churchyard and commissioned Anthony Salvin, then an aspiring young architect, to design the building. The mausoleum, which also houses later generations of the family, is usually closed to the public, but has been known to open for annual Heritage Open Days events in September.
As a complete aside to any history of St Mary’s and, of course, the current flower festival – the Trafford family once owned Trafford Park in Manchester, the home of Manchester United’s Old Trafford Football Stadium and the Old Trafford cricket ground, used by the Lancashire County Cricket Club and venue for international test matches.
As for the St Mary’s Alphabet of Flowers, we only have memories and the photographs for, hopefully, others to enjoy. Each followed in order through the alphabet from ‘Arch’ through to the last exhibit titled ‘Zen’.
Photos: David Ross, Peter Stephens, Haydn Brown, St Mary’s Church.