All Saints Wilby

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Wilby: big, rustic, prayerful

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continuity a great boat night must fall: shades of evening on an autumn afternoon

 

    All Saints, Wilby
 

We meet on the third Sunday of each month at 9.30am, joined by the congregations of Eccles and Quidenham. On other sundays some of us join Old Buckenham, or we might pop down to Eccles.

Wilby is the smallest of the six parishes having a population of less than 50. It is an isolated unspoilt community reached only by two minor roads. The medieval church building is in a reasonable state of repair, much work on the tower and nave roof having been carried out in the 1980s. The virtually complete Jacobean interior is truly unique and the finest in the area. We have a monthly service on the second Sunday of the month, when the congregations of Eccles & Quidenham are invited to join us. The service  is usually a Eucharist, Order One of Common Worship in traditional language. There is a tradition that Rogation should be celebrated here for all the group, starting with a gathering on the village green. The ecclesiastical parish of Hargham, one mile to the north/west had been joined to Wilby since the mid eighteenth century when the nave of Hargham All Saints’ church collapsed. The total population of Hargham is about 25. All Saints’ is now looked after by the Norfolk Churches Trust as a redundant church. The Patrons hold at least two annual services, for harvest and a carol evensong.

More about the building

All Saints is a real church explorer's church. Ask anyone who has visited a lot of East Anglian churches for their favourites, and if they like big, rustic, prayerful, ramshackle buildings with plenty of medieval feautures, a real atmosphere and a sense of being a touchstone down the long generations, then Wilby is bound to feature.

Amazing, then, to think that it was nearly lost to us. Back in the 1970s, major repairs were needed to the tower. The Rector of the time threw up his hands in despair and applied for a redundancy order. The blessed Lady Harrod, founder of the Norfolk Churches Trust, stormed down from Holt and told him exactly what he could do with his redundancy order. The parish was galvanised, and All Saints survived as a parish church. Consequently, it is still with us today. I hope that this story is included in the report to the Pope when Billa Harrod is recommended for beatification by the College of Cardinals.

All Saints is a great boat of a church, sailing the fields of south-central Norfolk. There are no aisles, no clerestory, and you can see from the gables quite how thick the thatch must have been. It is an unashamedly Decorated church, putting it at odds with familiar East Anglian Perpendicular. The same is true when you step inside, only it is not the early 14th century which confronts you, but the early 17th. It is almost as if the Victorians never reached Wilby. Rustic wooden benches cluster about a triple-decker pulpit set against the north wall. Only a glance into the chancel reminds you that the Oxford Movement did happen after all. A fire in the 1630s gutted the interior, and it was entirely reroofed and refurnished, almost all of which survives today. We see the English Church on the eve of the Commonwealth, as it must have been to an entire generation of Anglicans. The furnishings, apart from the pulpit, are rendered in a good, local hand. The pulpit is somewhat grander, and must have been brought here from elsewhere, I think, to be incorporated into the triple-decker set-up.

There is a very curious construction in north-east corner of the nave. What seems to be a flying buttress has been built out of bricks, apparently to support the rood loft stairway. I have never seen anything like it. Apparently, it was built in the 19th century by a pupil of Pugin, and Pugin scholars come all the way to Wilby just to look at it.

The chancel, inevitably, appears grander, although it must be said that the Victorians restored its medieval integrity with the lightest of touches. A curiosity is that there appear to be no less than three aumbries in the north sanctuary wall. Even odder, the most westerly of them seems to have a chimney - an opening inside goes up through the wall.

There are medieval survivals, of course. The font is lovely, with richly flowing tracery. There is part of a St Christopher surviving on the north wall, the lower part still bearing the pit marks made by the plasterer who covered it over. On the other side of the Reformation divide are the Charles I royal arms, almost certainly the ones installed here after the fire, and the tower screen, which is dated 1637. Contemporary with them is something quite unusual, a carved stone pair of arms set inside the largest pew on the south side. We are used to seeing hatchments, but here is something else again. Was one of them to the Wilton family, who are commemorated on ledger stones in the aisle? Were they set there to commemorate those who oversaw the reconstruction?

I think this is a super church, one to savour and revisit. And, I must add, it has one of the friendliest churchwardens I have yet met; he was delighted that someone was bothering to photograph his church. He also told me a great story about watching a programme on Papua New Guinea TV in which Lady Harrod demonstrated the use of an Aga - but that must wait for another time.

   

Simon Knott, October 2006

looking east font looking west chancel
bences and triple-decker pulpit curious construction tower screen St Christopher
looking west Charles I royal arms rustic big family

Reproduced by kind permission of Simon Knott whose work this is.

Find more of Norfolk's churches at the Norfolk Churches site


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