84: Booton Church

Wednesday, April 14, 2010
5:05 PM

A monument to Victorian enthusiasm and eccentricity, Booton Church is often known as the Cathedral of the Fields.

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A grand title...

The Church of St Michael the Archangel, at Booton

The Church of St Michael the Archangel, at Booton, near Reepham, comes complete with slender twin towers and what looks like a central minaret. It looms incongruously out of the fields as you come round a bend of an otherwise unassuming Norfolk country road. You cant help but get out and take a look. Despite its ancient roots, it was rebuilt little more than a century ago and was used as a church for little more than half a century after its rebuilding. It was the brainchild of a remarkable literary man with strong local roots and, reputedly, the descendant of a native American princess.

Who was he?

The Rev Whitwell Elwin was the rector of Booton for half a century, from 1850 until his death in 1900. Born in 1816 at nearby Thurning, he was educated, like Horatio Nelson, at Paston school in North Walsham. An ancestor who bought property in Booton in the previous century was descended from John Rolfe, the Norfolk man who was among the first English settlers in North America and married native American princess Pocahontas. A sense of being distinguished may have guided Elwins varied career. Following studies at Cambridge it was clear he was to be no ordinary country parson. A regular contributor to High Tory journal Quarterly Review, he edited it for seven years from 1853 to 1860 for his friend John Murray, who also came from Booton, and later edited the standard edition of Alexander Popes poetry. He befriended Charles Dickens, and visited him in Norwich. Other literary friends, who came to stay with him at Booton, included William Makepeace Thackery and Sir Walter Scott. In a more innocent age than our own, the parson also corresponded with growing girls, listening to their troubles and offering affectionate advice. A little like his contemporary William Gladstone, then prime minister, this was not regarded by his peers as suspicious.

Not a builder then.

Elwins talents did not end at literature. In most respects a model clergymen, he was known as His Rev to his small number of humble parishioners. A little like Parson James Woodforde, the Norfolk diarist who had lived in a previous generation, he knew them all and cared for them, ministering to their everyday needs. Booton dates back to at least the Domesday Book in which it was recorded as Botuna, but its church was barely worthy of mention until Elwin decided to rebuild it. Beginning in 1876, it took up much of his time and energy until his death 24 years later. Despite no architectural training, he had an amateur interest in the subject dating back to his student days.

Why did he do it?

Perhaps the deaths of three of his five children left him with a burning desire to create something to fill the void. Elwin brought the demanding qualities he displayed as an editor to the rebuilding; despite the frustrations of not always being able to get satisfaction from the local builders and draughtsmen he employed, he never gave up. Even when the new chancel arch began sinking into the Elwin family vault, he reburied the bodies of his ancestors and underpinned both the arch and the western towers. The most striking elements of the new church are the two tall arches and central tower, unlike anything seen elsewhere in England. His influences were nothing if not eclectic; the west door was apparently inspired by the abbey at Glastonbury, but he also drew ideas from travels to Italy and Egypt and his own fertile imagination also came into play. Inside is a famous hammerbeam ceiling depicting angels. This was based on the church at Trunch, which Elwin had known from boyhood.

Did he have any help?

The Rev Whitwell Elwin

In the latter stages of design he was fortunate to find talented draughtsman Mr Horwood, of Norwich, who translated his flights of fancy into reality. The angels in the roof were carved by master craftsman James Minns, who also created the distinctive bulls head emblem for Colmans Mustard. But Elwin remained the moving spirit. He admired the design of English churches from about 1300, a period when architecture became more decorative, and there was nothing too austere in his design. Angels dominate the interior; not only those carved on the ceiling, but also those portrayed on the nave windows. Depicted as musicians, mostly pretty young females, they are believed to be portraits of Blessed Girls as Elwin called his young friends.

What did contemporaries think?

The Victorians had a taste for the grandiose, but even they recognised this was something out of the ordinary. Architect Edwin Lutyens, who was to marry the daughter of one of Elwins friends, was not keen on the building, but diplomatically said the church was very naughty but built in the right spirit, and that spirit of toleration and respect for Elwins eccentricity seemed to sum up most peoples attitudes. His Rev himself wrote: When you consider how many persons go to church; bringing with them the frivolities, the business, the cares, and the griefs of life, it is not a light matter that the very solemnity of the building, as they enter it, should awe or smooth them into a like solemnity, and put them at once into a spirit of prayer.

And the modern day?

Tiny Booton could not sustain such a large building for long. Eventually it became redundant. For the past 20 years it has been cared for by the Churches Conservation Trust, a national body which takes over unused churches in danger of terminal disrepair. Roof and stonework conservation have been ongoing, carried out by local craftsmen. More traditional neighbouring churches at Salle and Cawston are also worth a visit, as is Little Witchingham St Faith.

The Churches Conservation Trust, 1 West Smithfield, London EC1A 9EE, telephone 020 7213 0660. It welcome visitors to all 28 of its Norfolk churches.
Website: www.visitchurches.org.uk.
St Michael the Archangel is open every day.

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