As I have said on numerous occasions, despite being born in Norfolk, my family did not have a car, so we had to rely on public transport. So, there are some places in the county I know very well, and others I had not heard of.
Reepham is a place I only knew existed, as I have a contact on Twitter who is from there, so I had no idea what the town would be like. What I found was a fine market town, with the market thriving, at least on the day we visited, with stalls doing a steady trade despite the dreadful weather. But of course, we were here to visit the church. But what I didn’t know was that there were churches.
I believe I am right in saying this, but a parish boundary runs at the back of St Michael’s, and the church of the neighbouring parish is right behind, and right now there is a corridor joining St Mary and St Michael together.
St Michael is right now more of a community resource, and when we visited a meeting or something was being held, but we could still visit the chancel.
In fact Reepham had a 3rd church, but that burned down in 1543, and only a little portion of its wall remains. This making it only one of two places in Europe to have three churches. Or so says Wikki. But I am already thinking of Stamford in Lincolnshire that seemed to have at least three churches, if not four.
We walk past the people going into St Michael’s for a meeting or coffee morning or something, and enter the entrance to St Mary’s, not joined to St Michael’s by a corridor.
For me, the joy here was the wonderful tiling, which extended right down the body of the church, as well as in the chancel. And pride of place is a an early tomb to a knight, depicted laying on a bed of pebbles, very unusual.
The surviving one of the three Reepham churches is tucked away beind the prominent, prettier Whitwell St Michael, to which it is right now joined by a corridor. The parish boundary ran along the west wall, and so the tower is tucked neatly against the south side, in the manner of many of the churches of south-east Suffolk – although there, it usually forms the entrance, while here there is a rather awkward porch sandwiched to the west of the tower and to the east of the chancel of St Michael.
The interior was extensively restored in the 19th century in that municipal manner beloved of little-town worthies; it has an urban self-confidence that has pretty well eradicated any sense of the medieval. However, the few medieval treasures that do survive are significant. The font, for example, which evades the mundanity of its setting in encaustic tiles by topping out its large, square platform like the tier of a marriage cake. Still square, yet no longer Norman, the bowl is an Awesome example of Early English patternwork.
Turning east, there are aisles but there is right now no clerestory; it was removed in the late 18th century, presumably because of probems with the roof, and a single span roof over both nave and aisles replaced it. This makes the nave and chancel seem uncomfortably gloomy by contrast with the light beyond the arcades.
Up in the chancel, there are two remarkable relics of the Kerdiston family. One is a superb altar tomb to Sir William de Kerdiston (most guides give Sir Roger, but Pevsner is convincing on the matter) where he lies in full armour, a lion at his feet, on a bed of stones. The thing is, he looks alive – there is a tension in his arms and legs as if he might leap up at any moment. At the base of the tomb are eight weepers, all in 14th century dress and with traces of original colour behind them. A couple of them are damaged, but this does not appear to be iconoclasm – or, at least, one of the undamaged figures carries a rosary, which the reformers would have thought pertinent to destroy. A hanging lion pendant has done even better to survive the accidents of six hundred years.
A younger Sir William lies with his wife Cecily in brass on the chancel floor. You will miss this unless you look for it, as it is hidden by the carpet, but it is well worth the look, because pairs of 14th century figure brasses are few and far between. He is damaged, but she is more or less complete, and looks very pious. There are a number of other memorials in the chancel that vary from the mundane to the truly hideous. In addition, the east window is very meagre; it was installed in the 1840s, and Pevsner quotes architect Joseph Stannard as claiming the tiny slipper chapel at Walsingham as the source of its design, a curious choice for a church as big as this.
The view westward is better than the view eastward; thanks to that southerly tower, the west window is quite simply superb. Despite its restored character, this building has more to offer than might 1st appear.
Simon Knott, June 2004
Reepham is one of those fine, tiny Norfolk towns that must once have been fiercely independent, in the days before there were commuters, and before shoppers could easily drive to the nearest edge-of-the-city supermarket. It has two churches in its churchyard, one hiding behind the other. Once there were three – the remains of the 3rd are still apparent and easily found.
Reepham’s three-in-one churchyard is very central, overlooking the little market place. How did it come to be home to three churches? Churches sharing churchyards is not that uncommon; there are at least a dozen examples in East Anglia, and there were once more. To understand why, we need to consider the difference between a parish and its town or village; we also need to consider the medieval functions of a parish church.
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 occured 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 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 and Suffolk more than in most places, 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 a rare occasion, the settlements of three parishes may be adjacent – and this is what happened at Reepham.
The three churches here were all hard against their parish boundaries, although not actually joined on to each other. You might think this would make the holding of concurrent services awkward, but we need to remember that, at the time they were built, they were not used for ‘services’ in the way that we would understand the word to day. After all, they were not built as Anglican churches at all, but as Catholic churches, and at a time when congregational, corporate worship was a minor part of the life of the Church, if it existed at all. As I explored on the introduction to Cawston and Salle, a church building was designed to allow private devotions, the administration of sacraments, Masses to be said at different altars by different priests, and so on. Worship was active and communitarian, 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.
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 Great 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. When the Church of England entered its century of torpor in the 1700s they probably settled down with a quiet sigh of relief, but the 19th century Anglican revival brought brand-new challenges and changes, and both churches underwent major restorations and rebuildings.
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.