21 great churches to visit over the early May bank holiday weekend and beyond
PUBLISHED: 08:00 27 April 2019
East Anglia has an amazing array of churches. Norfolk and Suffolk between them boast more than 1200 medieval churches, with Norfolk having the highest concentration of these buildings in the world.
Here are 21 churches to visit, but there are many more across the area which are equally well worth your time.
Some of these churches are holding special events over the forthcoming bank holiday weekend, and visitors may even get the chance to see treasures or hidden areas which are usually not available to see.
1 St Catherine's Church, Ludham, Norfolk: A popular annual event, St Catherine's Country Crafts, will take place on Saturday, May 4 and Sunday, May 5, offering the perfect opportunity to visit the large wool church at this village in the heart of the Broads. The church is known for its 15th-century carved and painted rood screen, one of the finest in the area,
The country crafts event, which usually draws around 1,000 visitors, will be open from 10am-4pm. There will be crafts including pottery, spinning, weaving and a sheep tombola, as well as a range of other stalls and refreshments.
Apart from craft-related stalls and demonstrations, there will also be performances by the Waterside Recorder Consort, the ukelele group newly formed in the village and Broads Swords a recently formed long sword dance group.
2 St Mary's Church, Tuddenham St Mary, Suffolk: A large charity art exhibition and sale will be held here from Saturday, May 4 until Monday, May 6 and then again the following weekend, from May 11-12. More than 50 artists based in Suffolk will each exhibit at least six pieces of art, in a joint fundraising project with St Nicholas Hospice, Bury St Edmunds. The exhibition will be open all day. Dating mainly from the 14th century, this church is built of stone and flint, but underwent renovation in the 1870s when the roof was replaced.
3 St Mary the Virgin Church, Mendlesham, Suffolk: The church's unique armoury, reputed to be the most complete armoury of any parish church in England, opens every year during Mendlesham Street Fayre, which will this year be held on Monday, May 6. It includes the parish collection of armour, assembled at the time of the Spanish Armada, as well as part of an Elizabethan longbow and other artefacts. The church is also known for its impressive 15th-century tower, medieval pews and elaborate 17th-century font cover, as well as other treasures. If you are not able to see the armoury on the bank holiday, you can make an appointment with the vicar.
4 St Mary's Church, Northrepps, Norfolk: A flower festival and arts weekend is being held in this historic church from Friday, May 3 until Sunday, May 5, taking the theme “My favourite song.” This is the first flower festival at the church for many years, and there will be more than 20 displays on show, as well as arts and crafts including jewellery, fused glass and clocks. The festival will end with a short Songs of Praise service at 4.30pm on Sunday.
Known as one of the great East Anglian Perpendicular Churches, Northrepps was partly built in the 15th century and has a great tower as well as stained glass windows and a rood screen.
5 St Mary's Church, Stalham, Norfolk: If you're looking for an art exhibition to visit over the holiday weekend, the ”Inspired” group are putting on an exhibition of works on the theme “Revelation” from Saturday, May 4 until Tuesday, May 7. A selection of quilts will also be on display, and there will be a chance to try crafts yourself, as well as refreshments. The event is open from 10am to 4pm on Saturday and Monday, 12 noon to 4pm on Sunday and 10am to noon on Tuesday.
The medieval church has a well-preserved, beautifully-carved medieval font, and restored panels from a medieval rood screen.
6 St Peter's Church, Spixworth, Norfolk: You can join in bluebell walks from the church, around the medieval Grange Farm Woods, on Monday, May 6 from 11am to 5pm. There will also be another chance to visit, and admire the display of bluebells and wild garlic, on Sunday, May 12. Arts, crafts, refreshments and cakes will be available in the church, and there will be a teddy bear hunt in the woods and other activities for children. Stout footwear is advisable, and dogs are welcome on leads. There is a £4 charge for adults to take part in the event, but children get in free.
The church is 900 years old, and its most striking features include a memorial with two life-size corpse figures, in their shrouds, from the 17th century, and church bells dating back to the 14th century.
7 St Gregory's Church, Sudbury, Suffolk: Sudbury actually has three historic Anglian churches, but St Gregory's is seen by many as the town's “mother church” and is open daily for visiting from 9am to 3pm. The church has an elaborately carved and painted 15th-century font cover in the style of a spire, which is 12ft tall, and an impressive array of ancient carvings.
After the fire at Notre Dame, church relics were in the news, with the Crown of Thorns being saved from the flames. St Gregory's has its own relic, famously being home to the mummified head of Simon of Sudbury, who was beheaded during the Peasants' Revolt. The head is not on public display and you can only see it by arrangement, but you can find out more about the story and see an exhibition in Sudbury Heritage Centre.
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8 St Mary the Virgin's Church, Erwarton, Suffolk: Another unique relic is reputed to have found its resting-place in Erwarton Church - the heart of Anne Boleyn, which is said to be buried in the crypt under the organ. While you can't actually see the heart, you can see the view which the ill-fated queen, Henry VIII's second wife, would have seen when she used to visit the church while staying at nearby Erwarton Hall. There is a drawing of Anne and a memorial to her on the organ.
Aside from the connection with one of England's Queens, the church is also home to medieval effigies of Sir Bartholomew Bacon and his wife Joan de Heveningham – the effigies were restored in the 1980s. The church is open daily.
9 St Peter's and St Paul's Church, Lavenham, Suffolk: One of the great wool churches of Suffolk, Lavenham Church is regarded as one of the finest examples of Late Perpendicular Gothic architecture in the country. The tower is unusually large and grand, and the church contains five 15th-century misericords including unusual images such as a half-woman, half-beast creature playing a viol. The church is one of the most often visited in East Anglia, and is open daily to visitors between 8.30am and 4pm.
10 St Mary's Church, Dennington, Suffolk: This impressive medieval village church partly dates back as far as the 12th century. It is famed for its sciapod, a strange creature carved on to the side of a bench, as well as many other carvings, ranging from a pelican to a hare, mermaid, lion and hounds. It also has the tombs of the Bardolphs, an important family, and many other interesting sights. The church is open daily to visitors.
11 St Peter's Church, Walpole, Norfolk: This huge village church was described as the “finest of all” by poet Sir John Betjeman, and has also been dubbed the “Cathedral of the Fens”. It is also reputed to be one of Prince Charles' favourite churches, and is a top location for TV's Songs of Praise, as well as having been used in the TV adaptation of Dorothy L Sayers mystery The Nine Tailors. It is one of the most visited country churches in Britain.
If you want to wait to visit this church until the end of the month, its flower festival and fayre will be held from Friday, May 31 to Monday, June 3, taking the theme “transport through the ages.”
12 St Peter and St Paul Church, Salle, near Reepham, Norfolk: This is another huge church, on cathedral-style scale, which once had seven priests. There are impressive carvings, paintings, memorials and stained glass to admire. The chancel has an impressive timber roof decorated with 159 angels. Munro Cautley studied medieval churches throughout Norfolk and described this isolated church as the finest in the county. It is open daily to visitors.
Nearby St Agnes Church in Cawston is another magnificent church which is frequently hailed as one of the finest in the area, but has been closed to visitors during major restoration works.
13 St Peter Mancroft Church, Norwich: In the heart of the city, this church is perfectly situated if you want to escape into a historic and restful atmosphere. It is one of the largest parish churches in Britain. The east window features an impressive collection of 15th-century stained glass by the Norwich School of glass painters. There are many monuments inside the church, while the nave and hammer beam ceiling are also well worth seeing. The church is open to visitors daily except for Sundays.
14 Wymondham Abbey, Norfolk: Originally built as a Benedictine monastery, the church is instantly recognisable thanks to its mighty twin towers, which can be seen from miles around on the A11. The church was originally founded in the 11th century, and has been added to over the centuries. Impressive features include the 15th-century angel roof in the nave and the gilded altar screen. The church is dedicated to the Virgin Mary and St Thomas Becket. The abbey is open every day, with free admission, and welcomes around 20,000 visitors each year. There are stewards on hand to answer questions, and regular events are held here.
15 St Margaret's Church, Cley-next-the-Sea, Norfolk: St Margaret's is one of the grandest churches in the Blakeney area, in a lovely location facing the village green. This stunning 14th-century church on the north Norfolk coast has a 15th-century font, carved to represent the Seven Sacraments, a fine collection of brasses from the 1400s and 1500s, and late medieval bench ends.
16 Holy Trinity Church, Long Melford, Suffolk: Long Melford Church is yet another East Anglian church that is nearly as large as a cathedral, and it has been included in lists of Britain's finest churches. The nave is believed to be the longest of any parish church in England. Part of the church dates from the 15th century, although the main tower was struck by lightning in the early 18th century and later remodelled to its current appearance at the turn of the 20th century. The church is especially popular with Alice in Wonderland fans, because one of the images in the medieval stained glass windows, of Elizabeth de Mowbray, Duchesss of Norfolk, is said to have inspired John Tenniel's illustration of the Queen of Hearts. The church is open daily, from 10am to 6pm between May and August. Tower tours are held on specific days, with the next ones due to be held on Monday, May 29.
17 Holy Trinity Church, Blythburgh, Suffolk: Nicknamed the Cathedral of the Marshes, Blythburgh is one of Suffolk's finest churches, and dominates the surrounding skyline. Its roof is decorated with angels with outstretched wings. There is a famous legend that the hellhound Black Shuck burst through the church doors in 1577, and is said to have left scorch marks on the north door from its claws. The church is open daily from 9am to 6pm, or dusk if earlier.
18 St Mary's Church, Huntingfield, Suffolk: The most famous thing about the church is that Mildred Holland, the wife of the rector, painted the ceiling between 1859 and 1866. The legend is that she did it lying on her back, which would have been very difficult in the typical clothing of a Victorian lady. Each panel of the chancel ceiling shows an angel, while the nave roof features figures of the apostles and saints. The novel The Huntingfield Paintress by Pamela Holmes tells her story. You can light up the ceiling by putting a £1 coin in a meter. The church is normally open from 9am to 5pm daily, but the church's website says that there are currently some restrictions due to robberies and vandalism, while CCTV is put in place.
19 St Mary Magdalene, Sandringham, Norfolk: If you are visiting the Sandringham estate, take the time to visit this church, situated within the gardens of Sandringham, which has been used by the Royal Family from Victoria's reign onwards. It dates back in its present form to the 16th century. The church has a beautifully decorated chancel with carved angels framing the silver altar and reredos, presented to Queen Alexandra by the American Rodman Wanamaker as a tribute to King Edward VII. The church is currently open daily from 11am to 5pm from Monday to Saturday, and from 1pm to 5pm on Sundays.
20 St Peter and St Paul Church, Cromer, Norfolk: Standing in the centre of the town, this church has the highest bell tower in Norfolk. It dates from the 14th century, but was rebuilt in the late 19th century after falling into disrepair. There are stained glass windows commemorating members of the lifeboat crew including the famous Henry Blogg, whose life is also celebrated at the town's RNLI Henry Blogg Museum. Peregrine falcons have been nesting in the church tower, and as a result the tower has been closed to visitors. You may be able to see the birds via a CCTV monitor in the church lounge if they are still there. The church is open daily from around 9am to 5pm.
21 St Michael the Archangel Church, Booton, Norfolk: If you are looking for a truly unusual church, make a beeline for this Victorian Gothic church, created in the 1870s by eccentric clergyman the Rev Whitwell Elwin, a descendant of Pocahontas. Elwin raised the money for the building and designed it himself, taking inspiration from other churches, and filling it with carved angels said to be modelled on his female friends. The church is open daily from 9am to 5pm during the summer.
• What is your favourite church in the region to visit and which treasures do you love to admire? Do you have a favourite event at a local church? Email us and let us know.