St Mary’s Church, Houghton-on-the-Hill

St Mary’s Church Houghton-on-the-Hill has been recommended as a very interesting and outstanding place to visit. It is on our ever-growing ‘To visit’ list.  The church is sited just outside North Pickenham, near Swaffham, Norfolk, UK. Grid ref: TF869053 or 586931,305358.

Towards the end of the twentieth century the village of Houghton-on-the-Hill and its church had almost dwindled to nothing more than a few lumps and bumps and a ruin. However, thanks to funding from several government bodies, numerous charities and private donations, together with the enthusiasm and hard work of The Friends of St Mary’s, the site has experienced a startling renaissance. Visitors from many parts of the world come to see the remarkable wall paintings, to worship at the church or to appreciate its beautiful setting.

How the church has changed over the centuries

There has been a church on this site since 630, the first one would have been constructed out of wood and consisted of a chancel and nave. This was pulled down and a stone building started in 750/800. This stone building would have had a round tower and apsidal (round ended) chancel some time between 950 and the 12th century the nave was heightened and the south aisle was built. To serve it two arches were cut in the south wall.
The shapes of the two semicircular-headed arches of the aisle can be traced in the south wall, with the plaster underneath the arches still visible. A holy water stoop and two alter niches created either side of the chancel arch are part of the original flint church

The north door is part of the original building. It was the custom that the north door be opened and left opened during the service and until the priest left, in order to drive Satan out. But during the 13th century all churches were ordered by Pope Innocent III to have the north doors blocked up, because he decided this was mere superstition. One door jab on the north side survives in the wall, with a tiny shaft supporting a miniature Romanesque cushion capital.

The most striking survival of this early period are the wall paintings on the east wall of the nave. They show a very rare image of the Holy Trinity. This is the earliest known example of a wall painting showing the Holy Trinity in this way in Europe, and most likely unique to Britain.

Several further alterations took place in the 15th century. The aisle was demolished and the arches filled in, a new door was made in the south wall. A large window with decorated tracery was inserted at the east end of the north nave wall. In the 15th Century the chancel was almost doubled in length to 26 feet and given a square end. This chancel survived until the 1760’s when it was then considered to be in a ruinous state demolished and the present chancel built.

There are two nave alters one either side of the nave arch which would have been used for low mass, these are presently blocked up and enclosed. Originally they would have been open in order for the congregation to view the proceedings in the chancel. These low mass alters represent a very rare surviving Celtic influence for an English church and is thought to be a surviving part of the church that was built in the 8th century. The rest of the original chancel was slightly narrower than the nave, and appears to be bonded into the east end of the nave showing that they were built at the same time. This can just be seen where the surviving masonry breaks the surface of the ground. Remains of the east end foundation (just below ground level) have been discovered, and confirms that the chancel had a rounded semi -circular east end (apsidal). This was the normal practice in the 10th century.

There is also evidence of Romano-British rounded chancel within the Anglo-Saxon chancel. Of special interest is the Anglo-Saxon keyhole arch in front of the alter, thought to be one of only two examples in England. (The other can be found at St Olaf’s chapel/church in Gloucester)

The present nave is estimated to have been built as early as the 8th century. The small round-headed double splayed windows in the north and south walls are also typical of this period. Another visible clue to the early dating of this part of the building is the use of long and short work at the corners of the nave , together with the use of the roman bricks. (Which look like very thick tiles). On the south side of the east wall and the north side of the west wall you can see the original line of the nave roof. The semicircular arch between the chancel and the nave also dates from around this time.

The tower is estimated to have been built in the 14th century perhaps earlier, replacing a round Anglo-Saxon tower. (Typical of this area at that time). Evidence for the round tower is the higher archway leading to the tower. The tower has been added to in height over the years. The first two sections are original, the second was added around 100 years later and in 1630 a steeple was added, however this was blown down in 1665.

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