Tucked secretively away down a country lane in picturesque North Norfolk, Oulton Chapel is a hidden gem.

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An isolated spot?

Oulton Chapel was built for and by a loyal local congregation. For the most part they were humble people of limited means who chose to worship in their own way. For the modern visitor the fascination of the place lies in its solemn simplicity set in fine Norfolk countryside. But this is a long way from the intentions of its founders; for them being out of the way meant they would not be bothered by those who disapproved of their puritan religion.

When was it built?

The chapel we see now was constructed in 1727. By that time the puritan nonconformist tradition had a history in Norfolk dating back more than a century and a half. It was in the 1580s that two clergymen, Robert Browne and Robert Harrison, established the first congregationalist church in Norwich. These were Protestant churches practising congregationalist governance, in which each congregation independently and fairly democratically ran its own affairs. As such, these independents distanced themselves from the established Church of England and conflict was inevitable. Arguably it led to the English Civil War in the 1640s, when Norfolk and East Anglia was a hotbed of Puritanism. Perhaps the most famous religious independent was Oliver Cromwell, whose family has a part to play in the tale of Oulton Chapel. In 1652, Parliamentarian general Charles Fleetwood married Cromwells daughter, Bridget, widow of the Lord Protectors chief lieutenant Henry Ireton. The two lived at nearby Irmingland Hall. Following the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, Smith Fleetwood, the generals son by first wife Frances Smith, lived at the hall. The royalist Restoration had brought about the return of the established church, and non-conformists such as the Fleetwoods had to practise their religion quietly. Many did so privately, at home, and that may be the origin of the nearby chapel. Research carried out in the past 20 years has shown evidence of earlier buildings on the site predating the current construction. At all events, by the time the Rev Abraham Coveney married Charles Fleetwoods granddaughter, Mary, there was a strong nonconformist presence at Oulton.

What kind of people were they?

Although some were gentry like the Fleetwoods, the majority were ordinary people. Many would have been farmworkers or artisans. Having made the decision to shun the Church of England they risked persecution from employers and their social superiors. Nonconformists were still viewed by many as dangerous revolutionaries who would bring back the days of the civil wars. Even after the Toleration Act of 1689 provided liberty of conscience, feelings still ran high until the early years of the 18th century when passions cooled somewhat. It was not until the mid-19th century that the last civil restrictions on nonconformists were lifted. Back in the 1720s, Abraham Coveney decided to build a chapel at Oulton. It was on poor ground, in a sandpit, and it was put up very simply and cheaply as befitted its humble congregation. In 1731 it had its official opening; for more than two centuries it was a place of regular worship. By 1784, when a manse was completed for the then rector, the Rev Hogg, it was noted that the chapel had a large congregation, mainly of women. The neighbouring Anglican vicar conceded that Mr Hogg was a very handsome man, but they were not on friendly terms.

What kind of building is it?

At first glance it looks like a substantial dwelling house rather than a chapel. The twin Dutch gables on the north front are familiar on buildings of this era throughout East Anglia. Tradition has it that flint was stolen from the disused Irmingland parish church. Inside, the chapel is fascinating. Its raised gallery still contains the original box pews used to cram as many people into the chapel as possible; children and less important folk used to sit up there. The gallery was a familiar feature of nonconformist chapels in the 18th century; a good example can be seen in the famous Octagon Chapel in Colegate, Norwich, as well as the nearby Old Meeting House. The gallery, built on three sides, is supported on a mixture of Tuscan columns and 19th century cast-iron ones. The pastor at his plain central reading desk could see everyone, and the raked positioning of the gallery pews meant he had a good view of the youngsters up in the gods. It would have made a very good theatre. The sturdy pews on the ground floor are of later design, probably 19th century, but the high windows that let light flood in, are most likely original.

How has the chapel fared in modern times?

By the 1960s it was in disrepair. Its foundations, being built on the old sandpit, did not help, but by then the congregation had melted away. Damp and water intrusion was rotting the building, and the chapel could have joined the growing ranks of derelict religious buildings in country areas. For many years it was cared for by the Cutting family but, in the late 1980s, it was bought by Norfolk Historical Buildings Trust. A programme of restoration was carried out, culminating in 1991 when a service of thanksgiving was held. Today this atmospheric place is used for weddings, receptions, meetings, charity events and concerts, although it would also lend itself to theatrical performances.

Oulton Chapel is not easy to find.

Take the B1354 from Aylsham towards Saxthorpe, and look out for a left-hand turn, followed by another left into the grounds. The key is available from the manse during daylight hours. Norfolk Historic Buildings Trust was founded in 1977 to rescue historic buildings at risk which could not find private buyers. Set up by CPRE (Campaign to Protect Rural England) Norfolk and Norfolk County Council, it is a registered charity. It receives an annual grant from the county council with district councils and other bodies contributing towards individual projects.

Website www.cprenorfolk.org.uk/projects/norfolk-hist-build.htm; telephone 01603 629048.

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