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Wensum Column: Fakenham writer Jim Harding discusses angels in Norfolk churches

In his weekly Wensum column, Fakenham writer Jim Harding discusses beautiful angels in our area’s churches…

I might have been forgiven for supposing that my youngest son had chosen a racing book for a recent birthday gift - or was it Christmas?

Anyway, the title ‘Steeple Chasing’ immediately put me in mind of a sport I’ve come to love ever since arriving in Fakenham. My attachment to our race track and its more or less monthly meetings has been a regular and very enjoyable experience.

An angel in Fakenham Parish Church
An angel in Fakenham Parish Church

The sport had rather passed me by prior to living here, apart from the marginal investment in big happenings like the Grand National or The Derby.

These caught my imagination thanks to my grandparents who liked a flutter even before the days when betting shops were part of many high streets. How they managed to get their bets on is still a mystery to me.

Anyway, to get back to the book, its cover depicted a fine illustration of a church which, if my guess was anywhere near right, was surely a bit unlikely.

Then I read the sub-title, ‘Around Britain by Church’, which put me on the right track.

I was not to be disappointed when I started to read this wonderful miscellany by Peter Ross.

My son Jack knew that I’d studied history and landscape archaeology at UEA on a day release course from my teaching role at Fakenham High School, and by doing so had been drawn into a fascination with this country’s amazing legacy of medieval churches.

East Anglia is blessed with dozens of them. One of which, isolated a few miles from Halesworth in Suffolk and long before his arrival, had hosted the marriage of your correspondent and his Alison back in 1975.

Author Peter Ross was advised at one point about visiting this part of England and setting some sort of timetable. ‘How many days?’ he asked.

Well, that depends on how often you want to lose yourself in contemplating the many wooden angels who carry on their backs the hammer-beam roofs of many of these churches, he was told.

Apparently nearly 70% of all these type of roofs are to be found in Norfolk, Suffolk and parts of Cambridge.

Invited into one of them in the Norfolk village of Upwell, Peter Ross was greeted by the rector of St Peter’s with these words: “Welcome to our angels. You get your eye in, you start seeing them everywhere.”

The earliest parts of this church were built in the thirteenth century, but it was much enlarged a century later from which period the angels are said to date. Fakenham Parish Church is another which boasts a proud sequence of roof angels.

The lecturer on my degree course at UEA surprised and delighted me when he pronounced that St Andrew’s church in Westhall, which he said was renowned for its architectual pedigree, was one that our group would be visiting and studying in detail.

It too has an ‘angel roof’, though such would doubtless have been lost on me all those years prior when we two had walked down the aisle there together.

My guide book describes the carved angels as holding “shields and crowns. One carries a set of pipes”.

As it’s not much more than an hour’s drive from Fakenham to Westhall we do try to make fairly regular annual visits to renew acquaintance.

Thus far the door has always been open and despite a period of apparent abandonment, the church in recent times seems to have been well looked after - much to our delight.

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