44 day Norfolk church quest turned out to be an inspirational idea
PUBLISHED: 10:04 27 March 2016 | UPDATED: 10:04 27 March 2016
For 44 days Rowan Mantell visited a church every day in a challenge which took her from crypts and choirs to flinty ruins and worship-filled architectural wonders.
Turreted towers, flint walls, stone tracery and glorious gothic arches punctuate the city. The churches of Norwich are celebrated for their beauty and history and for the sheer number of these remarkable feats of architecture and faith.
Last month I visited ancient St Helen’s Church, on Bishopgate, at Norwich’s Great Hospital – which is part modern sheltered accommodation for older people, part one of the most important historical sites in the nation. Walking back to work after interviewing the wonderfully-titled Master of the Great Hospital, I passed the Cathedral, St Peter Hungate, St Michael at Plea, All Saints, St John Timberhill... Close by many more medieval masterpieces soared, and even back at work I was near holy ground, where the church of St Michael at Thorn had once stood for around 1,000 years.
A church for every week of the year (and a pub for every day) the old saying goes and, as it was Ash Wednesday, I wondered whether I could visit a church each day of Lent, giving to whatever they were collecting for and taking away a fascinating fact, a photograph, a strengthening of faith.
Today is the final day of my church-a-day-challenge, which began by accident and became both a duty and a joy.
For 44 days I have wandered around remarkable historical sites entirely alone, joined packed congregations, seen sublime works of art inside and drifts of spring flowers outside, found churches proclaiming the gospel with active congregations, weekday cafes and Sunday celebrations, and churches with new secular chapters as venues for dance, drama, martial arts and vintage stalls.
I visited churches which had been almost entirely erased and vast and beautiful buildings that had become virtually invisible to me. I was better at ordering the planets of the solar system, millions of miles away, than the churches which line Magdalen Street and Road, or St Benedict’s less than a mile from the city centre. Mainly my church-a-day challenge was in Norwich because that is where I live and work, but even in the city centre I travelled hundreds of years back in time, looked forward to a better future with the many city churches involved in alleviating suffering at home and abroad, and discovered stories which took me around the world alongside people who had made, used and loved the buildings.
Most of these churches have been places of prayer for centuries, the art and architecture signposting something beyond the here and the now. I left every one uplifted.
• Ash Wednesday – St Helen’s, Bishopgate. The astonishing eagle roof, painted in 1383, is above the part of the church partitioned off to become a hospice ward in the 16th century. But today’s parish church retains a beautifully vaulted chapel, with 24 bosses showing scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary, dating from the same time as the Cathedral’s famous roof bosses.
• Thursday, February 11 – St Peter Mancroft. The city’s largest church glows with medieval stained glass, and is famous for its angel hammer-beam roof, fine memorials, alabaster sculptures and the bells which still sound over the city and 301 years after they rang the first-ever true peal.
• Friday, February 12 – St Alban’s, Grove Walk, has just joined Norwich’s thriving St Thomas’ church, sharing vicars and vision, and reopening with a café, sports and music events and weekly family service.
• Saturday, February 13 – St Catherine’s, Aylsham Road. A huge 1930s brick and concrete church. I hope to return to see the art deco interior.
• Sunday, February 14 – St Gregory’s, Pottergate. Heaven for vintage lovers, plus heavenly 15th-century wall paintings of saints, dragons and angels, recognised as some of the most important in the country.
• Monday, February 15 – St John’s, Timberhill. A peaceful, prayerful sanctuary, with candles, icons and an atmosphere of quiet devotion.
• Tuesday, February 16 – St Giles’. Another working, worshipping church, well-loved and -used, plus the brazier for the beacon which was once lit at the top of Norwich’s tallest church tower.
• Wednesday, February 17 – The Chapel and Hospice of St Mary’s in the Field was built in 1248 where Norwich’s Assembly House now stands - and its underground crypt remains.
• Thursday, February 18 – St Julian’s, where the world-famous mystic wrote down her visions of heaven. Revelations of Divine Love became the first book written in English by a woman and her insights are astonishingly modern. Inside the diminutive church, are hazelnuts to hold while considering her lines: “And in this he showed me a little thing, the quantity of a hazel nut, lying in the palm of my hand.. I looked upon it with the eye of my understanding, and thought, ‘What may this be?’ And it was answered generally thus, ‘It is all that is made.’”
• Friday, February 19 – St Andrew’s, Trowse. The pretty church seemed to float on a glorious profusion of churchyard snowdrops.
• Saturday, February 20 – Christ Church, Eaton. Another working, worshipping, caring and cared-for church.
• Sunday, February 21 – St Andrew’s Hall is part of the most complete medieval friary complex in the country, saved from Henry VIII’s destruction by the forerunner of Norwich City Council. Opposite, 15th-century St Andrew’s Church still serves its parish.
• Monday, February 22 – All Saints’, Shipdham, near Dereham. The much-loved village church has a magnificent two-tier canopy above its tower, a Norman font, a 500-year-old lectern and a surprising number of flags.
• Tuesday, February 23 – St Michael at Thorn. Just a plaque marks the site of this church, bombed in 1942, on the corner of Ber Street and Thorn Lane. But its Norman doorway was rebuilt down the hill at St Julian’s.
• Wednesday, February 24 – St Augustine’s. The congregation worship in the church hall, leaving the church to memorials to past parishioners including a soldier shot for desertion in 1917, a “kind good” weaver, mourned by his staff, and the architect who helped design grand Norfolk halls, including Holkham, Heydon, Langley and Gunton, and the Norwich Shirehall.
• Thursday, February 25 – St Swithin’s Church, St Benedict’s, is now Norwich Arts Centre, but there was probably a church here before the Norman conquest.
• Friday, February 26 – St John de Sepulchre, Finklegate. Lions proudly circle the 15th-century font inside this striking disused church.
• Saturday, February 27 – All Saints’, Intwood, near Norwich. The caw of churchyard rooks triumph over the roar of the southern bypass, beside this round-towered country church.
• Sunday, February 28 – St Thomas’, Earlham Road. Four services every Sunday fill the 19th-century church to capacity and it has recently taken over the pub next door.
• Monday, February 29 – St Michael at Plea, Redwell Street, is now a café, and shop selling religious books, music and gifts. Angels fly down the centre of the roof inside and a pink “forget me not” clock is a landmark outside.
• Tuesday, March 1 – St George’s, Colegate. This gem of a church is still at work in the community it has been serving for centuries. The stories of past parishioners whisper from impressive marble memorials. Meet a Norwich School artist, a murdered man, a grieving mother and many mayors and merchants.
• Wednesday, March 2 – St Margaret’s, Old Catton. Sheltering from a snowstorm at the hexagonal-towered village church I found a group of ladies in full knit-and-natter flow.
• Thursday, March 3 – St Stephen’s, Theatre Street, Norwich, is another church which is not just for Sundays but invites all-comers into its café.
• Friday, March 4 – St Andrew’s, Colney. On my way back from a light-filled funeral in the stunning glass-and-wood gathering hall at the woodland burial park, I stopped at medieval Colney Church, and found a warning to reckless carriage drivers.
Saturday, March 5 – St Mark’s, Hall Road, Norwich, has a churchyard alive with spring flowers, plus regular services and a playgroup, which meets among the pews.
• Sunday, March 6 – Holy Trinity, Trinity Street. The carving of the Last Supper, behind the altar, was installed in memory of Edith Cavell, who worshipped here.
• Monday, March 7 – Heading for Norwich railway station I paused at the Railway Mission on Prince of Wales Road, now used by the Norwich Free Evangelical Church.
• Tuesday, March 8 – A chapel marks the rock in St Helier Bay, Jersey, where a 6th-century saint lived – until hacked to death by Saxon pirates.
• Wednesday, March 9 – A bigger church is dedicated to St Helier in the middle of the town which took his name.
• Thursday, March 10 – The wedding cake of a church visible among the modern towers surrounding London’s Liverpool Street is Christ Church Spitalfields. Built for the “godless thousands” in the 18th century, the ornate masterpiece is a church, café, conference venue and concert hall.
• Friday, March 11 – St Andrew’s, Whitlingham, is barely distinguishable from the shrouds of vegetation which cloak its ruined walls.
• Saturday, March 12 – St Mary the Less, Queen Street. Just the top of the tower of this closed and closed-in church is visible, but it has a flamboyant history.
• Sunday, March 13 – Christianity teaches the people of a church are more important than the building, so while Surrey Chapel is no architectural gem, its treasure is in its congregation. One shining example was Elsie Tilney who saved Jewish people from the Holocaust.
• Monday, March 14 – St John the Baptist Roman Catholic Cathedral. A magnificent landmark with a vast, calm interior - and an intriguing travelling exhibition about the Shroud of Turin.
• Tuesday, March 15 – Ruined St Michael’s is the oldest building in Bowthorpe, picturesque and atmospheric alongside the Church Centre which is not quite as picturesque or atmospheric, but has the advantage of a roof and congregation.
• Wednesday, March 16 – St Margaret’s, St Benedict Street. A venue for art groups with a glowing 1960s stained glass window.
• Thursday, March 17 – St Mary’s, Earlham, Watton Road, where prison reformer Elizabeth Fry once ran a Sunday school.
• Friday, March 18 – The Friends Meeting House, Upper Goat Lane, where Elizabeth Fry and her brother-in-law Thomas Fowell Buxton, who helped outlaw slavery, both worshipped.
• Saturday, March 19 – St Walstan was buried at Bawburgh Church exactly a thousand years ago this spring, and his shrine became a place of pilgrimage. Celebrations are planned for May.
• Sunday, March 20 – Palm Sunday, and palm crosses, at sublime Norwich Cathedral.
• Monday, March 21 – Norwich Castle – where a corner of the balcony around the Keep is still a consecrated chapel, once used by Norman royalty.
Tuesday, March 22 – Princes Street United Reformed Church, one of four linked churches in Norwich, but the only one whose minister’s missionary son was eaten by cannibals in 1900.
• Wednesday, March 23 – St John Maddermarket, cared for by the Churches Conservation Trust.
• Thursday, March 24 – St George’s, Tombland, another of the city’s treasury of medieval masterpieces, still a living, working church today.