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Burnham Norton

Dedication : St Margaret         Simon Jenkins: *                                                Principal Features : Mediaeval “Wine Glass Pulpit”; Mediaeval Rood Screen

Right up on the North Norfolk Coast between Hunstanton and Blakeney, where property prices have been driven to astronomical levels by “second homers”, there are four villages bearing the name “Burnham”: Burnham Deepdale, Burnham Norton, Burnham Overy and Burnham Market. Remarkably the first three of these, all within a church bell’s chime of each other, each find a place in Simon Jenkins’s Top 1000 English churches.

Burnham Norton is as difficult to find as its close neighbour Burnham Deepdale is easy. The c20 put a busy main road between itself and its village. The village itself had moved away from the area around the church - where remains can still be traced - to the salt marshes of the coast.

Burnham Norton is on an altogether larger scale than its neighbour. As with Burnham Deepdale, the age of the round tower is open to debate. Also as with Deepdale, current thinking is that it is early Norman (the Church Guide suggests AD1090) rather than Anglo-Saxon, although many would disagree. The Guide uses the particularly cogent argument that no surviving Norfolk church architecture is earlier than 1030 whereas King Cnut - a Viking - took the English throne in 1016. As with Deepdale it might be a case of a Saxon builder working during the early Norman period

The font, a much simpler affair than Deepdale’s splendid one, is the only other surviving remnant of the Norman church.

Burnham Norton has an unusual layout today: its aisles are empty and modern wooden screens have been placed within the arcades effectively enclosing the nave. This is carried through to the west end of the nave where a similar screen leaves a large empty space between the seating and the west wall. Imagine a kind of sanctum for the congregation surrounded by a wide U-shaped open space.

The arches of the arcades are themselves nearly indentical. The north aisle, however, has earlier-looking round capitals whereas the south has octagonal ones of obvious Early English date. The obvious inference, supported by the Guide Book, is that the aisle-building spanned the end of the Transitional and the beginning of the Early English periods. The windows, however, are Perpendicular with the exception of the “Y” tracery windows at the respective west ends that are, again, Early English.

The chancel too was built in the late c12 or early c13. The south windows are Early English lancets, but the north windows are Decorated. The chancel arch, just to complete the rather mixed architecture, is Perpendicular!

So far, so ordinary, albeit very pleasant. It is the woodwork, however, that sets this church alight. The rood screen has three original painted panels on each side. They have been terribly defaced but at least they have survived unlike most pre-Reformation screens. The real treasure here, however, is the “Wineglass Pulpit” which is thought to be the best in the country. It was donated in 1450 by one Johannis Goldale and his wife, Katherine. These donors are still immortalised on two the panels whilst the other four are filled by the “four doctors” of the Church: SS Ambrose, Gregory, Jerome and Augustine. “Doctors” of the Church are individuals whose writings have been regarded as of great value to the Church and these four were invested in 1298. These men were theologians of the old unreconstructed Roman Catholic Church. How on earth, I ask myself, did these images survive the Reformation? Whatever the reason, the Church Guide records that our old friends the Victorians painted over them and they were not restored until the 1970s. It is extraordinary to think that the panels survived the iconoclasts of the  Reformation but not the po-faced rectitude of the Victorian era. Unless of course they were painted over during the Reformation as well. Who knows?

Looking towards the east end. Note the little “screens” in the foreground and in between the arches, creating a smaller space for today’s diminished congregations.

The lofty Perpendicular chancel arch shows the tell-tale signs of alterations: orphaned fragments of wall painting and masonry.

Looking towards the west end. The site of a west door from tower to nave is clearly visible. At first floor level is another, smaller, blocked doorway that might have given onto a gallery. Also just visible above this is the original nave roofline.

Looking from the north aisle into the now-empty west end of the nave. This is a fine space to showcase the Norman font and, of course, to carry out baptisms.

The two sides to the sadly-defaced original rood screen.

The Wine Glass Pulpit

St Jerome (Ad347-420) is mending his pen. Cardinals did not exist in his lifetime so the Cardinal’s “hat” is anachronistic.

St Augustine is looking at his pen.

St Ambrose is reading from a long scroll.

St Gregory is writing with his quill pen. His face is quite cherubic!

Johannis and Katherin Goldalle, the donors. The Church Guide comments that Joahannis was no saint himself: he was prosecuted with an accomplice in 1446 for stealing oysters from the salt marsh!

The base of the pulpit appears somewhat precarious!

To west of the porch door is this Communion wafer oven - something of a rarity.

The font is much plainer than that at Burnham Norton. There are suggestions that the two were carved by the same mason, but I am mystified as to why anyone should think that other than because of their geographical proximity. Similarly, others talk of it as an a example of the North West Norfolk School of Norman fonts - which frankly leaves me incredulous. The only thing it has with them is that it is in North West Nofolk! All of the sides are of crude geometrical design, two of them with a simple zig-zag design at top and bottom. In some ways, the most interesting feature is the set of four original Norman legs. Burnham Norton gives pride of place to its font which is totally admirable because it represents 1000 years of unbroken history.

I admit to having no great love of stained glass, much of which is garish and cheesy in design. Mediaeval glass had much more to commend it than the dreadful Victorian and early c20 stuff. This piece of modern glass, though, is delightful in its dignity and simplicity of form,

This is the unusual wafer oven to the east of the south door.

A surviving scrap of mediaeval wall painting.

The font sits proudly at the west end - and what a superb touch on the part of the church people to highlight it with a carpet surround. Modernity and anitquity can be complementary. Beyond the font, what was presumably the original tower arch is now inset with a modern door.

The tower from the north west corner. The original nave roof line can be easily seen. This would have seemed a much loftier tower before the raising of the clerestory. Note also the eight “sound holes” around the top of the tower.