By Haydn Brown.
We are not talking here about Norfolk churchyards that may share their space with grazing sheep or nature conservation; rather it’s more about those churchyards in the County that find their space simply occupied by structures, other than headstones and mausoleums – structures such as other named churches, bell towers and ruins. Each one a legacy from the past and for a reason which is seldom obvious. However, it always seems to raise the inevitable question ‘Why is it there’?
The first thing to be aware of and to understand is that churches which share churchyards are not uncommon in East Anglia, and that there are more than a few examples in Norfolk. The reasons for this are somewhat complex, but made easier if the differences between a traditional village, town and their parish is understood – and also in the context of the medieval functions of a parish church, of which Norfolk alone has many. This point is better explained by a person who has studied these things in depth, Simon Knott. He said in 2004:
“The English parish system is ancient, dating back to Saxon times. In East Anglia more than in most regions, the ecclesiastical parishes pretty much reflect what was there a thousand years ago, apart from the tidying up and rationalisation that have occurred from time to time. Parishes are areas of land, most commonly about ten square miles, and they share contiguous borders – that is to say, there are no gaps between them. It is always possible to step from one parish into another. Everywhere in England is within a Church of England parish.
The great majority of parishes contain a single large settlement [village etc.] within their boundaries, which shares the parish name. To look at them on a map, you could be fooled into thinking that the parish has grown up around the settlement; but of course, this is not the case. Settlements occur naturally and organically over the centuries, almost always for economic reasons. Some parishes have more than one significant settlement, and very occasionally the largest settlement does not share the name of the parish.
Above all, a medieval church is a parish church, not a village church. It just so happens that most of them are in the main settlement of the parish; but in Norfolk, more than in most places other than Suffolk, a significant minority are outside the village of their parish name. And while we may assume that the settlement will be near the middle of the parish, there are plenty of examples where this is not the case at all. Often, it will be towards the edge; sometimes, the main settlements in two adjacent parishes will be joined on to each other, and when this happens it may have been found convenient in ancient times for the two parish churches to share consecrated ground”
On one rare occasion, there occurred a settlement of three adjacent parishes! – at Reepham in Norfolk for instance, a place featured below – however, before that, here are three parishes that never had the complexity of multiple choice and were able to live with just one partner.
The first is the Antingham parish church which shares its name with its neighbouring village, and this deserves a mention before the shared churchyard is targeted. So – the village of Antingham is located about 6 miles south of Cromer and 3 miles north of North Walsham, and with a population of around 360 – give or take. We are told by James Rye, in his book “A Popular Guide to Norfolk Place Names” that the name ‘Antingham’ originates from an Old English word meaning “homestead of the family or followers of a man called Anta”. We see from this that the name of the local River Ant must have also derived from ‘Anta’ – although it is said that the river was formerly known as the River Smale and that this is the origin of the name of the nearby village of Smallburgh. Having said that, Antingham is the source of the Ant, which rises just east of the village at Antingham Ponds and winds itself downstream to feed Barton Broad before entering the river Bure near St Benet’s Abbey. Just below the Ponds, the river’s route has, in the past, been used as a canal which started at what was Antingham bone mill. Centuries ago, following the Norman Conquest, the parish’s main tenants were Roger Bigot and Thurston Fitzguy. Now – what about its parish church!
Antingham’s parish church is St Mary’s and it sits beside the busy North Walsham to Cromer road. Right beside it, and sharing its graveyard, is the ruined shell of its erstwhile companion, St Margaret’s. The once heavily-clad ivy ruin of St Margaret’s dates from the early twelfth century and St Mary’s church was built between 1330 and 1360. Both were parish churches until the Reformation, and may well have continued as independent working churches after the Reformation. To feed off the above general explanation of parish boundaries, the two Antingham parishes here similarly arose from the presence of two different manors which, together with their respective churches, butted tightly up to each other.
This makes the present view of the two structures a spectacular sight, the ruin of St Margaret’s sitting next to and parallel to the clean, neat and tidy church of St Mary’s. But that had not always been the case; at the end of the 17th century, both were in a parlous state and the decision must have been made to use the fabric of St Margaret’s to improve the state of St Mary’s. Since then, it has been suggested that lightening must have struct St Margaret’s, for there is a long crack running from top to bottom of the west wall of its tower. With all that has past, looking from the neat and tidy St Mary’s and across the shared churchyard to the ruin of St Margaret’s, it is possible to feel saddened by the view; but there again, both churches could well have gone the same way as St Margaret’s and the County would have lost something special.
Some nineteen miles due south of Antingham lies South Walsham; the distance between the two is slightly shorter for a crow. The road between the two increasingly winds itself through fields and wooded copses as you approach the village. South Walsham is, again, not large with some 850 inhabitants. Historically, it comprised two separate parishes, that of St Mary and of St Lawrence; for the same reason as other medieval manors in close proximity, their two churches decided to share the one churchyard and the same consecrated ground. In South Walsham’s case, this consecrated ground is at the highest point, away from the river. Was this the sole reason, or did the topography of the area with its particular layout of roads and lanes also make it more convenient for the churchyard to be placed where it is. Both churches were built as new in the early 14th century, although it is known that there had been two churches there since at least the 12th century.
St. Lawrence itself was gutted by fire in 1827 and was largely abandoned and left to go to ruin, only the chancel was repaired and was later used as a schoolhouse. The tower was still standing up until 1971 when it suffered two disasters in short succession – firstly it was struck by lightning and then the sonic boom from a low flying aircraft caused it to collapse. The remains of the base of the tower can still be seen in the churchyard and the chancel building has now been fully restored and is used as a church hall and concert venue.
Then 20 miles or so west of South Walsham, on the other side of Norwich and next to Hethersett, is the much smaller village of Great Melton. Apart from the local legend that says that the area is haunted by a phantom coach containing four ladies in white, there seems nothing else to point out here other than All Saints church and another neighbourly ruin. All Saints is a sizable and somewhat unusual building which stands in the same graveyard as the ruined church of St Marys – the church it superseded in 1883. We know also, that All Saints was itself built on the site of an even older ruin, of which the 15th century tower survives today as part of the new church. The rest is the work, overseen by its architect Joseph Pearce, is in Simon Knott’s words:
“an essay in replicating medieval functions in a fairly utilitarian Victorian manner; a successful combination, I think. Especially when seen from the north-east, the church might be an institutional building of some kind, or a house, or even a factory”.
From the south, the view of All Saints is more in keeping with what one would expect; it is also on the south side of the graveyard that the ruin of St Mary stands. In the middle of the 19th century, it was the working church, whilst All Saints was almost derelict. However, All Saints was the larger of the two so it was decided to restore it by demolishing St Mary and using much of its materials. When finished, the congregation then moved across to All Saints, leaving St Mary as a ruin. It was never said how the congregation managed for services etc. whilst the work was being done.
For the next example of churches sharing churchyards we have to travel due north for some 25 miles. As an aside, you may not have noticed that the journey to these places today has almost completes a circular route – but not quite! Our destination on this leg is to the old church St Mary’s at Burgh Parva near Melton Constable; this is not to be confused with St Peter’s, the Melton Constable church, which is way out of the village in the grounds of Melton Constable Hall. No, our destination is just to the north of the high street on the road to Holt. St Mary’s ruin is the former parish church of Burgh (pronounced burra) Parva – ‘Burgh’ usually being the Anglo-Saxon word for a fort but in this case, we are told that the name almost certainly derives from the local river, the Bure.
Burgh was always small and never more than a hamlet of Melton Constable, but being in an area of open countryside it provided a pleasant setting for the flint remains of the medieval St Mary’s church tower and its footings. The presence of large conglomerate quoins and rubble dressed openings in the surviving parts of the church suggest an 11th century origin although, apparently, the earliest written record of St Mary’s is from the early 14th century when there were probably barely 15 households in the vicinity. The church was consolidated with St Peters in Melton Constable Park in the sixteenth century, but once the Reformation had firmly established itself, the Burgh Parva village gradually became deserted and, together with Melton Constable, could no longer support two churches; by the end of the Commonwealth, St Mary’s was abandoned. The only fabric that survives today is the pretty much complete tower, the chancel’s north wall and the nave’s ‘Carstone’ south wall, as well as a small section of wall that must have originally been under the east window. The south doorway seems to have been blocked up long before St Mary’s was abandoned.
It must be pointed out that here there is no question of two medieval churches sharing the same consecrated ground but one, alongside a contemporary metal hut erected during the reign of Edward VII. This was brought about by the coming of the railways to the area the 1880’s, when the population of Melton Constable mushroomed. A new church was required because the Church of England was presented with the threat of non-conformism – and it was faced with a dilemma. The nearest alternative was St Peters in Melton Constable Park, but this was too small and exclusively used by the Astley family; apart from that, having the parish church out on the Hall estate was asking for trouble. There was a clear need for an Anglican presence near to the growing urban area so a ‘temporary’ corrugated iron church was therefore erected adjacent to the ruins of St Mary’s church in 1903. That church is still in use today despite a competition being held to design a new permanent church; the fact of the matter was that the competition was unsuccessful, hence the corrugated ‘tin tabernacle’ still being use today. At least, this modest structure is of historic significance because it reflects the lasting influence of the railway on Melton Constable, and also one of a rare group of tin structures surviving in Norfolk.
Reepham (Three in one):
Ten miles south-east of Melton Constable lies Reepham, our last call in the search for shared churchyards; Reepham is a unique example! This is a fine but tiny Norfolk town that must have been fiercely independent in years past when there were no regular commuters into Norwich, and before residents preferred to drive miles to the nearest supermarket. However, it can boast of having two churches in one churchyard – Reepham and Whitwell, one hiding behind the other. But once there were three – the remains of the third, All Saints (Hackford), can easily be found.
Reepham’s ‘three-in-one’ churchyard is very central, overlooking Reepham’s little market place. The big question is how did it come to have three churches? Well, the answer here is the same as for our earlier examples, with the exception of Melton Constable – the answer being given in the opening paragraphs above. The three churches here were all hard against their parish boundaries, although not actually joined on to each other. It might well be thought that this would make the holding of services difficult; however, it must be remembered that at the time these churches were built they were not used for ‘services’ in the way that these are understood today. Remember also, that they were built as Catholic churches, not Anglican churches and at a time when congregational, worship was a minor part of the life of the Church. Originally, church buildings were designed to allow for private devotions, administration of sacraments, Masses said at different altars by different priests, etc. Worship was active rather than passive and congregational. Medieval churches were busy places, and this would be the case whether or not all these activities were happening in a single building or in two, or even three such as in Reepham. According to Simon Knott in 2004:
“It was only after the Reformation, with the advent of divine service at prescribed times, that churches sharing churchyards became problematic. If they also shared a Rector (as increasingly happened) then it made good sense to take down one building and just use the other. Hackford church’s demise is attributed to a fire in 1546, but this date looks suspiciously similar to that of the many examples of churches derelicted by the protestant reformers. Most often, churches served by monasteries were taken down and cannibalised for their building materials. We know that masonry from Hackford church was used in the expansion of Whitwell church.
So Hackford church was lost; but the two other buildings underwent all the considerable changes that the protestant Reformation and the subsequent years of conflict could bring……..The two surviving churches remained in separate parishes up into the 1930s, but this was increasingly an anomaly, and it was probably only the revival that allowed them to sustain this for so long. In 1970, Whitwell church was at last declared redundant, and became the parish hall; a happy outcome for the town, and in reality, no more than just another reinvention of this once-medieval building.”
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