Sunday, 13 October 2019

St. Helen's, Ranworth, Norfolk.

For a few days we exchanged our hidden valleys and steeply wooded hillsides for the distant landscapes and big skies of East Anglia. As we travelled from home the skies were blue, and the sun shone brightly, but on nearing our destination a rather ominous dark grey curtain appeared on the horizon. Roads quickly started to flood, and soon the car felt more like a small motor boat as we created bow waves which in turn rippled out through the hedgerows and into the fields beyond which began to look like watery lagoons. We were grateful to arrive, wet, but intact at our final destination, where we were informed that the area had received one month's worth of rain during the day. 
Fortunately the rest of the trip was dry so following a recommendation in the book 'England's Thousand Best Churches', we set off to find St. Helen's church in Ranworth. The glory of this church is the painted medieval rood screen which is noted for being the most complete and best example in the country. Whereas other medieval treasures within the church were vandalised and destroyed during the Reformation, the rood screen thankfully escaped too much damage and remained mostly intact. However, originally it would have been double the height. The rood screen portrays the apostles and most of the popular saints of the day in the 15th century, all of whom would have been very familiar to the local village people at that time.

St Michael - rood screen panel by unknown Norwich artist c.1480. The Archangel Michael beheads the Seven Headed Beast during the final battle in heaven
(Revelation 12). 
Saint George c1480 wearing a fashionable 15th century turban, England's patron saint is shown slaying a dragon. Such animals were greatly feared in low lying areas such as Ranworth as bearers of disease. As a military protector St. George is a counterpart to St. Michael. The two saints mirror one another and symbolically stand guard protecting the church and the village from spiritual evil.
The top of the screen from the front
and from the back.
Also on the back are painted stylised images of the
White Rose of York. For over 450 years they were hidden by six miserere stalls attached to the screens that came to the church from St. Benet's Abbey after it was dissolved in 1539. They were discovered for the first time as recently as 1996.
Just before the Abbey was dissolved, one of the monks, Brother Pacificus was entrusted with the task of carrying out some restoration work on the rood screen. To complete the task he would row daily from St. Benet's Abbey, making his way along the River Bure with his faithful dog standing in the bow. One evening as he returned back to the Abbey after his daily labours he discovered that the abbey had been ransacked and burnt down, and that all of the other monks had been killed by the king's soldiers. He spent his last remaining days living in the blackened ruins of the Abbey alone. When he died the villages carried his body back to St. Helen's where it now rests within the shadows of the tower. 
The weather vane on the church tower plays homage to Brother Pacificus. However, it is worth remembering that should you be there at dawn or sunset you might just catch a glimpse of him as he makes his watery journey accompanied by his faithful little dog. If you can climb 89 stone spiral steps that are very shallow (people 800 years ago must have had very tiny feet) plus there is no handrail.
Then negotiate two ladders and a trapdoor, you are then promised distant views across this southern gateway to the Norfolk Broads. A slight hesitation on my part, and then it was onwards and upwards.