Isolated and underpopulated, despised by contemporaries, the marshlands of West Norfolk produced stunning churches during the Middle Ages.

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Why were they built?

A complex mix of genuine faith and expression of wealth may provide the answer. Surely there must also have been an element of getting one up on the neighbours. From the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066 to the 16th century these islands of civilisation in an otherwise hostile terrain produced a number of exquisite churches. Set in a rough arc about 10 miles wide between Wisbech and Kings Lynn, those at Walsoken, West Walton, Walpole St Andrew, Walpole St Peter, Terrington St John and Terrington St Clement stand out.

Theyre all off the beaten track.

Even today, on back roads sliced off between the thundering traffic of the A47 and A17 trunk roads, these villages have a slightly other-worldly feel to them. Imagine then how they felt during the Medieval period. Cut off by trackless marshland and fen, many of the fenmen made a precarious living by catching fish and wildfowl. The 17th century antiquarian John Camden described the fen tigers as a kind of people according to the nature of the place they dwell, rude, uncivil and envious to all others. To get an idea of what the marshlands were like you have to go to modern Wicken Fen near Ely. It was near Walpole St Andrew that King Johns treasure reputedly went under the water in 1216; today the church still houses a shrine for travellers, a relic of the days when marsh travel was precarious. The fens provided a (probably) mythical hero named Tom Hickathrift, the slayer of giants in the marshes. At Walpole St Peter, a supporting figure in the external brickwork is said to represent Hickathrift, who is buried in the churchyard at his native Tilney All Saints, if you believe the stories. And yet, from these unpromising surroundings, people produced churches praised as cathedrals.

They must have been expensive to build. Who was paying?

Sheep. In a word. During the Middle Ages, Englands economy was largely based on its prodigious wool exports. Not for nothing did the Lord Chancellor sit on a woolsack at Westminster. Even today two pubs in Norwich are named The Woolpack in honour of that trade. Links to the Low Countries were provided through the growing ports of Lynn and Wisbech. The trade culminated during the 16th century when cities in Flanders such as Antwerp were full of English merchants, and the Flemish influence is abundant in the marshland churches. At Terrington St John a fine carving of the Archangel Gabriel is of 15th century Flemish design, while at St Peter a wooden chancel screen depicts St Gudela carrying a model of Brussels cathedral, the city of which she was patron saint.

When were they built?

Walsoken All Saints is the oldest, the earliest parts dating from 1146 though, like all churches, it has been added to and amended over the centuries. It has been described as the grandest Norman church in Norfolk. At West Walton, the Church of St Mary the Virgin was begun in about 1240. Hailed as an example of early English style, it was built of Barnack stone and has a detached bell tower. Prominent landowner William de Warenne and the Bishop of Ely were moving spirits behind the construction. Built at the end of the 14th century Terrington St Clement is named after an early pope, and is called the Cathedral of the Marshlands. Its detached north west tower is 87ft high, which came in handy in 1670 when villagers took refuge from yet more floods. Although Terrington St John dates from 1423, it seems likely an earlier church stood on the spot. Similarly, St Peters tower was built in 1300. It survived disastrous flooding 37 years later that washed away the rest of the church. Rebuilding began in the 1360s, going on until the following century. Similarly, Walpole St Andrew was rebuilt between 1440 and 1520.

Any special features?

St Peter is known as Queen of the Marshlands. A notably beautiful building, its austere interior has a wooden nave screen built in the 1630s during the reign of Charles I. A unique feature is the Bolt Hole a passage probably built to preserve an ancient right of way, the origin of which is unknown. Carvings on the roof bosses show sheep heads, source of the wealth which allowed the church to be built. Rings in the wall were used to tether horses, so the floor must have once been lower. In the church entrance is a sign telling people to remove their pattens wooden overshoes. St Andrew has a memorial to its 19th century Greek vicar, at Terrington a Table of Kindred and Affinity tells you who not to marry a moot point in an isolated community! Claude Coates, local fruit grower and benefactor, is commemorated by a modern plate glass window at Walsoken, while the church has some intriguing carved figures, including one of the biblical Judgment of Solomon. Terrington St Clements east window has plate glass commemorating the dead of the first world war, while West Walton has a 17th century board recalling more devastating flooding plus a modern statue of St Mary by Norfolk wood sculptor Anton Wagner.

What about the Reformation?

The austere interiors of most English churches date from the iconoclasm of the 16th and 17th centuries. Plate glass, colourful paintings and statuary largely disappeared in this era when they were regarded as idolatory. At Terrington St Clement, though, in 1887 two statues of saints were discovered, having been hidden for three centuries. The 1544 font at Walsoken is a rare survivor, showing the seven Catholic sacraments and the crucifixion.

And today?

The Dicoese of Ely has produced a handy and well illustrated church trail information pack encouraging the faithful and students of history and architecture to visit these churches. Entitled Marshland Majesty, it is one of a series promoting others in the fens. Telephone 01353 652730 for details.

FURTHER READING Englands Thousand Best Churches, Simon Jenkins (Penguin 2001).

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