Open weekend shares secrets of historic church near Swaffham

St Mary's, Houghton on the Hill'A mural showing a winged Seraphim blowing a trumpet to summon the dead from their graves
St Mary's, Houghton on the Hill'A mural showing a winged Seraphim blowing a trumpet to summon the dead from their graves
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Around 25 years ago St Mary’s, Houghton on the Hill, near North Pickenham, was a church that had fallen into wrack and ruin.

It had been desecrated by Satanists who had dug up the bodies of several previous rectors.

St Mary's, Houghton on the Hill'Trustee Alan Brinsdon explains one of the murals to visitor Lesley Parsonson

St Mary's, Houghton on the Hill'Trustee Alan Brinsdon explains one of the murals to visitor Lesley Parsonson

But the church was rescued by Bob and Gloria Davey, a couple who had moved to nearby Swaffham on retirement, and who had stumbled across the remote church hidden in woodland well away from any roads.

They found a church - although never deconsecrated - well off the beaten track with collapsed walls, an open roof and a square tower completely covered in ivy.

Thanks to the couple putting same of their own money into a restoration project and with the help of grants it is now a weather-proof building.

By coincidence it was a time when Norfolk County Council, together with the Heritage Lottery and Breckland Council were putting money into restoring Norfolk’s ruined churches and the building was saved.

St Mary's, Houghton on the Hill'The restored church at Houghton on the Hill

St Mary's, Houghton on the Hill'The restored church at Houghton on the Hill

Little did they know at the time that the church contained works of art that are now recognised as the earliest wall paintings of their type in Europe.

Bob Davey’s first act was to drive out the group of Satanists.

“But that was not before they had dug up the bodies of several of the previous rectors for their bones,” said trustee, Alan Brinsdon, who was showing visitors around during a special history event at the church during the weekend.

It was then that Mr Davey discovered the first of the murals which had been painted over many years on five different layers of plaster.

St Mary's, Houghton on the Hill' A stone smashed by Satanists who wanted to get at the bodies of previous rectors lying beneath

St Mary's, Houghton on the Hill' A stone smashed by Satanists who wanted to get at the bodies of previous rectors lying beneath

Most cannot be accurately dated but were painted before the 11th century and are pre-Norman.

But one can for it shows Thomas Cranmer in 1540 with the Great Bible.

Other uncovered images include a winged Seraphim blowing the last trumpet to summon the dead from their graves before ascending to Heaven.

A frieze of roundels showed both a number of Christ’s disciples and the Devil and his disciples whilst another mural depicts Noah’s Ark. There is a depiction of Hell and people with looks of awe on their faces as they look upwards to Heaven.

“About the time of the Reformation the walls were all whitewashed. At that time no one knew of the murals hidden beneath the plaster,” said Mr Brinsdon.

The first church was a wooden affair dating back to the seventh century. Succeeding churches, all with a round tower, were erected on the site with their size depending on the prosperity of the area at that time. The square tower was erected in the 15th century.

The footprints of these churches can still be seen as the footings for their exterior walls are still visible in the grass.

Between 1996 and 2006 the Friends of St Mary’s raised funds to enable the windows to be replaced and other work to take place.

Heritage Lottery funding paid for conservation work to preserve the murals.

Electricity and new pews were installed to which Norfolk County Council and the Council for the Care of Churches also contributed.

Mr Brinsdon said: “Now we have a secure roof we can hold occasional services but cash is limited.

“We get no financial help and it is hard to be able to raise money by using it for performances such as a concert.”

The church is open daily between 2 and 4pm between the end of March and October.

From November to March it is open only at weekends at the same times though group viewing, by prior arrangement, can be organised to suit visitors.