See the ancient faces hiding in Norfolk’s churches

Carvings at the end of a pew in Salle church. Photograph by Paul Harley

Carvings at the end of a pew in Salle church. Photograph by Paul Harley - Credit: Paul Harley

An exhibition of photographs, open in Norwich every weekend through October, focuses on some of the extraordinary details inside our medieval churches. Photographer Paul Harley has coaxed carvings out of the shadows, writes Rowan Mantell.

The Jaws of Hell, St Benedict's, Horning

The Jaws of Hell, St Benedict's, Horning - Credit: Paul Harley

A face is frozen in wide-eyed horror; an angel, sheltered within feathered wings, is poised to play some heavenly harmony; the grin and gurn of a wild man is framed between tufts of mad hair and coils of beard; two gentle-faced monks seem to pause mid-conversation. Out of the shadows crowd a multitude of strange and silent characters. There are medieval peasants and mythical beings, demons and dragons, saints and soldiers, all plucked from the medieval churches of Norfolk. Some are carved into roof beams or seats, others grieve over tombs or guard doorways. Faces shine from stained glass windows, grimace from porches and pews, gaze out from fonts.

Paul Harley has photographed churches across Norfolk, searching out not just the spectacular architecture, but also the details, the decorative flourishes, the characters from bible stories, folk tales and local villages many centuries ago, which populate each church. Now 28 of these photographs make up a fascinating exhibition at 15th-century St Peter Hungate Church, in Norwich.

Time Frames: Focus in on Norfolk's Medieval Churches, celebrates the medieval figures in wood, stone carvings, and stained glass which Paul has photographed over the past couple of years. 'There are mythical beasts, green men, wild men, animals and the faces of the people themselves – frozen in time, like photographs. Sometimes the carving is highly skilled; sometimes it is crude, basic and yet oddly powerful,' he said. 'All of these photos are of objects that predate the Reformation. They survived the extraordinary iconoclasm of the reign of Edward VI, when stained glass was smashed, wall paintings were whitewashed, rood screens had their faces scratched out, pew ends were vandalised and images were stripped. It is surprising that so much survived.'

Paul, a retired teacher from Norwich, has previously exhibited pictures of endangered cultures in Guatemala and a human rights delegation to Colombia. But much closer to home he particularly loves photographing Norfolk's churches and, even more specifically, Happisburgh at twilight, where he tries to capture the light waning across the sea. He shoots in natural light and most of the pictures in this latest exhibition are in black and white, apart from details shining from stained glass windows. 'It enhances the detail and texture in a graphic and often atmospheric way, revealing the skill and imagination of anonymous craftsmen who present their world to us,' he said.

Carving in St Peter's Church, Great Walsingham

Carving in St Peter's Church, Great Walsingham - Credit: Paul Harley

'One of the joys of visiting a church is seeing up to a thousand years of history in one building. There are additions made to churches through the centuries - round towers, perhaps topped centuries later by an octagon, Norman arches, different styles of window, medieval tombs, 18th-century knights portrayed as Roman senators, Victorian stained glass, 21st-century furniture. Some have children's play areas, and books for sale and remain centres of the community. More often than not these buildings are open. Some now have a kettle and coffee or tea bags and invite you sit down and drink and reflect. Others may be reached along a track in a field and yet are free and open for what may only be a rare and solitary visitor. Some churches are locked, but usually there is a number to call and that often leads to an interesting conversation with the key holder. Long may these churches, which are both examples of ancient folk art and still places of worship, remain so welcoming.'

He has particular favourites, including Cawston and Salle, near Reepham, Wickhampton near Reedham and Crostwight near North Walsham. 'I opened the door to see a medieval painting of St Christopher on the wall, followed by more paintings of the passion and a simple memorial to Hubert Francis, a sailor who died at Scapa Flow in 1939 with a photograph, rather than the usual grandiose tombs of the great and good. A great little rural church, well loved and looked after in a tiny parish with a great medieval treasure,' said Paul. And of the 650-plus medieval churches of Norfolk he said he has probably visited less than 100. So his bicycle rides and photography continue.

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See Paul Harley's exhibition, Time Frames: focus in on Norfolk's Medieval Churches, at St Peter Hungate Church, Princes Street, Norwich, NR3 1AE.

It is open on Saturdays from 10am to 4pm and Sundays from 2-4pm until the end of October.

A wild man carved on a seat in St Martin's church, Thompson

A wild man carved on a seat in St Martin's church, Thompson - Credit: Paul Harley

The church is run by the charity Hungate Medieval Art, and stages regular exhibitions and events and has also put together church trails around Norfolk focusing on stained glass and rood screens. For more information visit and

Carvings in Wiggenhall St Germans church

Carvings in Wiggenhall St Germans church - Credit: Paul Harley

Carving in St Nicholas Church, Woodrising

Carving in St Nicholas Church, Woodrising - Credit: Paul Harley

Carving from All Saints, Upper Sheringham

Carving from All Saints, Upper Sheringham - Credit: Paul Harley

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