7 of Norfolk's most beautiful churches

Churches - H
Places - H
St Margarets Church at Hales
Dated 6th September 1999
Pho

St Margarets Church at Hales - Credit: Archant Library

In a county with many hundreds of beautiful churches, spanning more than 1,000 years of history, picking just 50 to include in a book called Churches of Norfolk must be an almost impossible task.  

But church historian John Vigar, of Norwich, has taken on the challenge. He said he wanted to reveal the extraordinary range of Norfolk’s churches, across the county and across the centuries, and highlight some lesser-known, but nonetheless remarkable, buildings.    

The alphabetical guide begins at thatched Barton Bendish, near Downham Market, with its wonderful Norman west doorway, and finishes just 10 miles away at grand Wiggenhall Magdalene, where flights of carved angels soar from the rafters. Along the way readers are transported across the county to celebrate churches tucked into fields and farmyards or at the heart of busy communities, churches with round towers, square towers, pinnacled towers, even a ziggurat tower; churches with alabaster tombs and ancient screens alive with paintings of saints, and some of the best medieval glass in England.  

Churches of Norfolk by John E Vigar

Churches of Norfolk by John E Vigar - Credit: Amberley Books

John Vigar inside the 14th century St Mary's Church at Fordham. Picture: Ian Burt

John Vigar inside the 14th century St Mary's Church at Fordham. Picture: Ian Burt - Credit: Archant

John, a retired university lecturer, has written guidebooks to hundreds of churches and is involved with the Centre for Parish Church Studies based in Norwich and the Norfolk Churches Trust.  

“There are more medieval churches in Norfolk per head of population than anywhere else in Europe,” said John. And he said many Norfolk churches are remarkable for their size, because they were funded by rich donors.

He said the county has 131 of the country’s 180 round-towered churches and even the square towers have their own Norfolk addition – a window opening halfway up the tower, perhaps to let light in and sound out of bell tower. “Inside our churches three items of furnishing stand out,” said John.

“Firstly fonts, where a distinct type, the Seven Sacrament font, reigns supreme. These octagonal fonts have seven of their side panels carved with depictions of the sacrament. There are 25 in Norfolk out of 40 countrywide.” And he said the rood screens and angel roofs (again the country’s largest concentration of roofs decorated with carvings) were also particularly impressive. 

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Churches of Norfolk by John E Vigar is published by Amberley.  

Seven you should definitely visit

1. St Mary’s, Barton Bendish, near Downham Market was once one of three churches in the small village. Thatched St Mary’s is now looked after by the Churches Conservation Trust while St Andrew’s is still in use and All Saints was demolished in the 18th century – and its beautiful Norman door moved to St Mary’s. 

St Mary's, Barton Bendish has a Romanesque west doorway originally in All Saints Church

St Mary's, Barton Bendish has a Romanesque west doorway originally in All Saints Church - Credit: John Vigar

2. Bracon Ash, near Norwich, where an 18th century mausoleum for the Berney family is attached to the little towerless church.  

Churches - BBracon Ash church

Bracon Ash church - Credit: Archant Library

Inside the Berney mausoleum in Bracon Ash church showing the loculi that line the walls

Inside the Berney mausoleum in Bracon Ash church showing the loculi that line the walls, one for each burial - Credit: John Vigar

3. East Harling, between Thetford and Attleborough, where the substantial church sits on a chalk mound and its tower is topped by a spire. Inside are some elaborately carved tombs and monuments, telling fascinating stories of lives lived long ago, but John Vigar says the ‘great glory’ of the church is the stained glass in the east window, which would have been made in Norwich around 600 years ago and somehow survived puritan destruction. 

East Harling church has stained glass made in Norwich showing the Ascension

East Harling church has stained glass made in Norwich showing the Ascension - Credit: John Vigar

Harpley Church

East Harling - Credit: Archant Library

4. Hales, near Loddon, has another of Norfolk’s lovely thatched churches, plus a round tower and elaborate Norman doorway, with some medieval painting inside.  

Churches - H
Places - H
St Margarets Church at Hales
Dated 6th September 1999
Pho

St Margarets Church at Hales - Credit: Archant Library

5. Harpley, between King’s Lynn and Fakenham, which has one of the most important church doors in the country. The huge 600-year-old south door is carved with the figures of early Christian doctors and evangelists. Inside there are medieval carved pew ends too. 

The finest medieval door in Norfolk at Harpley.

The finest medieval door in Norfolk at Harpley. - Credit: John Vigar

Churches - HPlace of rare beauty, the Church of St Lawrence with its fine wooden carvings and

Church of St Lawrence, Harpley - Credit: Archant Library

6. St John Maddermarket is in Norwich city centre, but still manages to be tucked away with many people unaware of what is inside the flint walls at the city end of Pottergate. A footpath cuts beneath the tower and inside there is a rare painted chapel ceiling and some particularly fine memorials and Norwich glass.

The 1608 Sotherton monument in  St John Maddermarket, Norwich

The 1608 Sotherton monument in St John Maddermarket, Norwich - Credit: John Vigar

Photo essay of St John Maddermarket Church, Norwich.Picture: ANTONY KELLY

St John Maddermarket Church, Norwich - Credit: Archant

7. Wiggenhall St Mary Magdalen is a vast brick, flint and stone church beside the River Great Ouse with tower and turrets outside and carvings and paintings of saints and angels inside. 

Wiggenhall St Mary Magdalene

Wiggenhall St Mary Magdalene - Credit: John Vigar

A carving in Wiggenhall St Mary Magdalene

A carving in Wiggenhall St Mary Magdalene - Credit: John Vigar


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