Extract from "The Christmas Dragon" Christmas 1943
A Miscellany devised & compiled by soldiers of a battalion of The Royal Berkshire Regiment (Princess Charlotte of Wales) and attached of other regiments with the assistance of certain friends of the regiment resident in and around North Walsham, Norfolk.
Visitors to Norfolk not infrequently express surprise at the great number and in many instances the size of the churches There are said to be more churches in Norfolk than in any other county, and many have now disappeared or are in ruins. There are or were something like 850 to 1,000 churches in Norfolk. East Anglia has only very small quantities of stone suitable for church building, and that of very poor quality. The nearest quarries with the right sort of stone are in Rutlandshire, and transport was difficult and very laborious 1,000 years ago. Norfolk however has plenty of flints, in the underlying chalk beds, and therefore quite naturally the churches are mainly built of flints, stone only being used for the quoins or angles; as for example, in turning the corners in a square tower. There are many round towers, and probably the reason is this absence of stone locally, making the turning of corners difficult. Some of these round towers are, in part, of Saxon times, and so nearly 1,000 years old.
The flint industry, which still exists in a small way, is the only one that has existed continuously from prehistoric times, for our savage forbears used flint for fashioning their weapons, hence they were called the people of the Stone Ages. The discovery of metals was still to come. This was very many thousands of years ago. In the Thetford and Brandon districts of Norfolk, there are flint mines of the greatest antiquity, and there are still skilled flint knappers treading in the paths their forefathers trod in the Stone Ages.
Flints in the hands of skilled workers can be flaked and fashioned so as to be set in attractive patterns in stone surrounds.
North Walsham is of great antiquity, and the church illustrates its long life story. It took its name as the home of Wals the Saxon, in the days when the Saxons invaded our eastern shores.
On the north side of the ruined church tower is the square tower of a Saxon church. It is built of flints, with which is incorporated a local ironstone for the angle stones. It lay at the west end of the church. The north wall of the present church was part of the Saxon church. The
fact that this early tower was square and uncommon at that time, may indicate that North Walsham was even in those far off days, of sufficient importance and wealth, to have the more elaborate rather than the simple round tower This may have been due to the lordship over North Walsham that was exercised by the great Norfolk Abbey of St. Benet's, a lordship which had existed from early times, and even now the Bishop of Norwich, still Abbot of St. Benet's, and the only Church of England Abbot remaining, is the patron of North Walsham church.
In the fourteenth century the weaving industry, which the foresight of King Edward III had introduced into England, created much wealth, and East Anglia was one of its chief centres. This wealth was given its expression and outlet in the building of the many fine churches to the glory of God, and in the wonderful art displayed in their decoration.
The present North Walsham church began to take the place of the older Saxon building about 1330, and though it was many years in building, delays no doubt being caused by the Black Death in 1348 and the Peasants revolt in 1381, it was perhaps one of the most outstanding in a district of beautiful churches.
The tower was 147 feet in height, with a peal of six bells and a chiming clock It stood for about 400 years and then in 1724 a weakness in the south-east angle, where the stairs went up, caused its partial collapse and, alas, it has never been found possible to rebuild it, on the grounds of expense.
The porch, probably the last portion of the church to be built, at the close of the fourteenth century, is of great beauty and interest as it well illustrates the attractive possibilities in the use of shaped flints. Its date can be deduced from the arms of John of Gaunt, quartering the arms of France ancient, placed inside
On entering the church it may be noted that it is somewhat different to the surrounding churches in that there is no chancel arch or cross walls to break the view. There is also no clerestory, but the fine piers and arches are of wonderful proportions. Their loftiness compensates for the loss of light from the clerestory range. The original roof was removed in 1881, after a service of over 500 years.
It is at once obvious that to such a church with its vast proportions and quadrilateral shape, a screen is necessary to break up the view. Originally there was a screen which stretched across the nave and both aisles. The rood loft over the screen could be approached by staircases in both the north and south walls, and these are still in situ The lower part of the screen with somewhat defaced panels of various saints still divides the nave from the chancel, and recently the screens that separated the nave aisles from the chancel aisles have been taken from oblivion at the west end, and the thick brown paint of centuries has been removed and they have been placed in their original positions. Examination shows them to be of an unusual design, and that once they mu5t have been very fine examples of carving and colouring. One panel indicates the position of the chapel of St. Thomas a Becket. To this saint was dedicated a fraternity or gild, a mutual aid society of very early days. Gilds were, in a real sense, the forerunners of the trade unions
There were return or side screens between the nave chancel and the nave aisles, which enclosed various chapels dedicated to different saints. All the beautiful upper parts of the screens, once so lovely in carving and colouring, have been cut away, leaving only the defaced panels. The rood with its figures, and the carved pulpit of the same date have also completely vanished.
The east windows of the north and south aisles are original and have
wonderfully beautiful flowing tracery of the decorated period of architect ure. The south window at the east end is good perpendicular and so it js possible to trace in this as in almost any old church, the variations in the style of architecture which belong to the different ages or periods.
There is a head of the time of Richard II, fixed on the south chancel wall, which helps to date the church.
In the south chapel is a communion table of the time of Edward VI which bears an inscription, which recalls the time when the Holy Communion was administered to the laity in one kind only, the cup being withheld.
Close by are two miserere seats with quaint carvings, possibly designed to prevent monks dozing through their many devotions.
Between the south chapel and the altar is a curious arch of uncertain origin.
The Paston monument on the north side of the altar wa$ built in the lifetime of Sir William Paston, and recalls the letter-writing and letter-preserving family, from which much intimate history of daily and family life in bygone times has come down to us.
Most of the brass memorials have disappeared, but there are still two of the chalice and wafer type to priests of the church.
The Royal Arms board in the south-east corner is very unusual inasmuch as on it are displayed the Commonwealth Arms.
The hanging font cover, though now much damaged, is of considerable interest and must once have been a thing of beauty, with its elaborate carvings and colour.
Space forbids the insertion of the many points of interest in this noble church reared by the piety of the past generations for themselves and posterity. Thus in the church of North* Walsham an observant eye. can in imagination, pass in review close on a 1,000 years of history, seeing in little details facts that fit in with the recorded history of our people. Days of happiness as well as sadness, the ups and downs of generations of our forefathers who have trod the path we tread and have left their footprints on the sands of time. May we in our turn be worthy of our calling in the great days in which we live ?
C. H. W. P.