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.

37 comments:

  1. A sad story about the monks all killed. I wouldn't have gone up the stairs I think, the worst part is always to go down.... But the view was worth it.

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    1. I went down backwards and hung onto the steps as there was nothing else to help if you slipped.

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  2. Fantastic photos. We've had some rough weather, but not as bad as that!! As you know we too love visiting historic buildings and I love reading about the ones I haven't yet visited. Henry VIII's Dissolution was a terrible and sad time in our country's history. Bad old Henry :( I'm not sure I'd have climbed up there, but well done you! Best, Jane x

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    1. This rood screen had a luck escape, albeit some of it was lost. King Henry VIII and his most trusted official, Oliver Cromwell, have a lot to answer for - it reminds me of the wanton destruction carried out fairly recently by the Isis fanatics in Syria.

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  3. I love your posts. We we were working on the Doom Board of St James the Great at Dauntsey, we were told that there were bands of itinerant painters who made their way around the country, painting rood screens. The ones at Ranworth were much better than Dauntsey's! Ranworth also has some very good modern metal-workers too!

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    1. Thank you for your kind comment. The details in the paintings and the assured figures are particularly accomplished especially when compared to similar work done in England during the same period. Some experts believe that they may have been painted by Spanish itinerant painters as the work is not dissimilar to work seen in Spain during that same period.
      I agree about the metal worker - that weather van is particularly good, it is very large too - almost lifesize.

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  4. Brave you for conquering that ladder. The views were certainly worth it. The rood screen is just beautiful. It always makes me sad to think about what was destroyed during Reformation. I LOVE the panel of St. Michael. He is special to me anyway, having been born on Michaelmas. ;-) Thank you for another fascinating post.

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    1. I also love that image of St. Michael, and it is amazing to think that it was painted on a piece of wood 550 years ago - what tales it must have seen - glad that you enjoyed the post Catherine.

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  5. Opportunity for a journey most of us will probably never undertake in this lifetime. Photos are like being there, narrative superb as always.
    Thank you for braving that perilous way to the top and for sharing those breathtaking views!
    The weather vane brings tears ...

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    1. Thank you for your kindly comments which have helped to make a rather dull day so much more acceptable. Having said that the sun has just suddenly broken through the clouds.
      Once I give up challenging myself to do these things then I know that I might be on the slippery slope downwards but I will endeavour to fend that day off for a long as I can.

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  6. Brother Pacificus's story is very touching. Bravo to you for making the ascent! I wouldn't have tried it.

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    1. It is rather a pleasant thought that he is still fondly remembered within the area even unto this day.

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  7. Dearest Rosemary,
    What an ordeal for encountering such heavy rainfall for reaching your final destination.
    Glad you made it without too much problems and that the weather behaved since arrival.
    But it proved to be worth your efforts. St. Helen's in Ranworth did reward you with spectacular photos of the intact painted medieval rood screen. Dit it mean that original there would be another layer of the same above this one?
    Quite an adventure for climbing up to the very top. One wonders if their feet were smaller or that it just happen to work out like this, given the space for the tower to work with?
    You braved it and got awarded with some spectacular views.
    Some very sad history of the Church... But brother Pacificus did not die in vain, as he's immortalized on this unique weather vane.
    Hugs,
    Mariette

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    1. Dear Mariette - I understand that the rood screen would have been as you suggest - i.e double the height.
      We were lucky to arrive without problems from the flooding, and the following day it had all drained away.
      The story about Brother Pacificus is obviously well remembered within the village, and I particularly liked their lovely homage to him with that fine weather vane.

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  8. Thank you for braving the stairs and ladder and for the lovely post.

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    1. I enjoyed the views from the top of the tower, and I didn't find it as difficult as I had imagined it would be to make the climb,

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  9. Hello Rosemary, St. Helen's church is lovely and colorful indeed, but I felt sorry for that poor dragon!

    By coincidence, I am just now listening to Sir Edward Elgar's delicate piece called Rosemary, apparently in this case a reference to Hamlet.
    --Jim

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    1. Hello Jim - I must admit to never having heard of a piece called Rosemary by Sir Edward Elgar!
      That's a great image of St. George and the dragon on the rood screen.

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  10. Nice to know that you could drive through the down pouring. Rain harm cars when you drive through floodwaters. Was your car all right? IncidentallyIn the latest typhoon of my country, it is reported that up to 40 percent of the yearly rainfall was recorded in less than two days. The talk of the Brother Pacificus is heartbreaking to imagine the moments of his witness of the burning Abbey. Thanks for show us the lovely view from the top by braving ladder-climbing and going down such too shallow steps. Rosemary, you’re so courageous.

    Yoko

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    1. We had no trouble with the car Yoko - the flood waters were not sufficiently deep to have any affect on the engine - I saw your flood waters on the news which far exceeded our rain here. It looked absolutely terrifying for the people being rescued and air lifted up into helicopters. I do hope that it has not caused your country too much damage but I suspect that the repairs will be very costly.
      I have to challenge myself Yoko, otherwise I feel as if I am on a rather slippery road downwards. I tried to encourage a young girl of around 11 years old to go up the tower with her mother, but she wouldn't. We are all made differently.

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  11. A most enjoyable post Rosemary, and how brave you are tackling those spiral stairs! Well worth it for the view, which is lovely. I enjoyed seeing the beautiful Rood screen, and the fantastic paintings of the military saints. Best of all is the sad story of Brother Pacificus, and what a solitary life he must have endured in the ruins of the Abbey. The weather vane is absolutely lovely, and a very special way to keep his memory alive.

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    1. It is so lovely to see you back - thank you for visiting.
      I am not really brave Patricia, as you will see from the comment above. I have to challenge myself otherwise I might just give up!!!
      It is such a sad story about Brother Pacificus, but rather special that he is still remembered so fondly within the village.

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  12. Beautiful church and amazing views.
    Climbing all these stairs shouldn't be easy, but it's worth it.
    Hugs and all the best
    Maria

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    1. Glad you enjoyed - once I made my mind to climb, I didn't find it too difficult.

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  13. I admire your courage, I would have had more than a slight hesitation before climbing those stair , but the view is definitely worth the 'ordeal' :-))

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    1. It wasn't as difficult as I had imagined Jane, but I am glad that I did it.

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  14. I think the coming down would have been the most difficult without a railing, and what a treat to see the beautiful screen,

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    1. I actually came down backwards and used the steps for support - my hands were very cold from using the stone by the time I reached the bottom.

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  15. What a superb rood screen and what a brave you, Rosemary. I'm sure I would have been pleased to have negotiated the 89 steps, but no further!

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    1. The ladders were not too difficult Betty as they were metal and firmly fixed in place.

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  16. Bellissime fotografie.
    Buon pomeriggio.

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  17. Oh, what an incredibly beautiful screen! I wish I could see all of it up close! I love Medieval art and this is very inspiring to me! To think it survived all the upheavals of all the years of the religious wars and even survived well-meaning "restorations"! Thank you for sharing your pictures! The view from the top of the Tower is lovely!

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    1. You have made my day - thank you. I am so pleased that you enjoyed seeing some of the beautiful images from this very rare survival of a rood screen.

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