Why have 17 new gravestones suddenly appeared in a Norfolk village?
- Credit: Kate Wolstenholme
For centuries Corpusty Church, high on hill, was a beacon of faith and a bulwark against despair. Here local people sang, celebrated and worshipped. It was a place of prayer and a treasury of the finest art and craft the villagers could create or commission.
Today, almost lost to decay, collapse and vandalism half a century ago, it once again stands as a place to see beautiful things – beginning with series of memorial sculptures.
They are part of a plan to turn the empty church and its churchyard into a centre for art.
Roger Last has helped bring the stones to the churchyard - more than 50 years after he helped save the church itself from collapse.
It stands alone, separated from its village by the main Norwich to Holt road. By the 1960s the people of the twin settlements of Corpusty and Saxthorpe were using Saxthorpe church for their services.
Lonely St Peter’s fell victim to thieves and vandals. “The first thing to happen in the 1960s was that the 17th century bell was stolen from the church. Then all the windows were broken. Pigeons got in with a vengeance, and so did thieves and vandals,” said Roger. “The font was knocked over and smashed. The rood screen cut up and its carvings stolen. The 17th century communion rails were stolen, then the entire pamment floor.
“Added to this was decay of the structure itself. Ivy grew everywhere. The roof of the porch collapsed, gravestones were broken, stone fell from the building.
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“It seemed that matters had reached such an extreme that to reverse this situation was impossible.”
Letters appeared in the Eastern Daily Press, sad or outraged at what had been allowed to happen, but suggesting that the village had moved away from the church and its ruin and loss was inevitable.
Roger replied with his own letter in 1971, pointing out that the church had always been set apart from the village, the church on its hill and the village in its valley, and had been through good and bad times throughout its history.
“What was new was people’s attitudes to the church and its importance in our culture,” said Roger. “It was not a remarkable letter. But it did produce results!”
Almost immediately he was contacted by writer and architectural conservationist Lady Wilhelmine Harrod, known as Billa, who lived in Holt and suggested launching a campaign to save Norfolk’s threatened medieval churches.
“So Corpusty became the catalyst which eventually saw the formation of the Norfolk Churches Trust,” said Roger.
He and Lady Harrod were both founder members of the Trust and in 1974 poet laureate John Betjeman (who was once engaged to Lady Harrod and remained a life-long friend) included Corpusty in his BBC documentary A Passion for Churches.
Roger described the film of the church as ‘depicting Corpusty in all its decay,’ with the poet’s voice-over asking: “Do the stones speak? My word of course they do. You used us to build houses for your prayer and left us here to die besides the road.”
But the 14th century church did not die beside the road. It was adopted, first by the Friends of Friendless Churches and then the Norfolk Churches Trust.
Half a century later its still stands. The tower, roof and porch have been restored, the windows reglazed and protected, ivy removed from the interior and vegetation from the bramble-choked exterior.
As teams of local people cleared the scrub, the building emerged to stand proud on its hill once again. The floor, which was left as sand and rubble when the tiles were stolen, has been boarded; the flint-and-plaster interior walls stabilised – and tantalising hints of ancient paint revealed.
The once-desecrated space is now full of peace and light and the people of Corpusty and beyond are working to find new purposes for their church, perhaps as a space for art exhibitions, craft workshops, concerts and community events.
It is still a consecrated building, leased from the diocese of Norwich and used for occasional services.
The next service will be to celebrate the arrival of the sculptured gravestones and launch a reflowering of the arts and flow of new visitors to Corpusty – ranging from people interested in the history of the church to bereaved families searching for fitting memorials.
“It gives the church a new role as a host of these lovely inscribed and carved stones,” said John Maddison, chairman of the Norfolk Churches Trust.
A trail leads through the churchyard, beginning with an ark carved in pale creamy stone and topped with a metal cross and winding past old lichen-laced gravestones to a grassy patch alive with stunning new stone memorials. There are lines of poetry in sparse flowing lettering, a stone with a delicately sculpted tree and bee hive, a kneeling shepherd and a memorial to a homeless man which frames the landscape beyond.
These new stones do not mark graves but reveal what is possible for gravestones.
“All the stones were carved by outstanding artists in their field and each one is a beautiful artistic object in its own right,” said Roger.
They belong to the Lettering Arts Trust, founded by Harriet Frazer of Snape, in Suffolk, after she tried to find a fitting memorial for her beloved stepdaughter Sophie Behrens who is buried in Salle churchyard near Reepham. After finding an artist to make a fitting headstone she founded the Lettering Arts Trust to help other bereaved families commission beautiful memorials and to promote the craft of letter carving.
Corpusty is now one of seven sites across Britain displaying part of the Letter Arts Trust’s national collection of memorials – the installation made possible by a grant from the Behrens Foundation. Within the next few weeks there will be information about each stone at the church.
They include 15 carved from stone, one made of metal and one of wood:
The Garden of Remembrance monument was designed by Gary Breeze and carved in sandstone and steel by Jo Sweeting.
Blessed are they that mourn was made by Robin Golden-Hann.
Memorial to John and Cicely Bayly was made by John Nash in Welsh slate.
Memorials to John Donne, one in limestone and one in English oak, were carved by Michael Rust in honour of the 16th century poet.
Lantern headstone by John Das Gupta is a tribute to his father in Welsh slate, combining Bengali and British memorial traditions.
Cast iron marker to John Harrison by Nicholas Sloan features lettering traditionally used on England’s cast iron street names.
Stones for the homeless by Geoffrey Aldred was inspired by a man who lived on a London park bench for 15 years.
Leaves of the tree in Cumbrian green slate by Peter Furlonger marks the death of a child.
Three aspects of Aileen Sloan is three different memorials to the same person, by Nicholas Sloan.
Rock of Ages (I am the light of the world) is carved in slate by Christopher Elsey in memory of his brother.
Meditation marker by Andew Daish focuses on four feelings.
Memorial tribute to Ben Shahn, by John Nash, includes letters from the Hebrew alphabet.
Monument to William Green by Ron Parsons is a tribute to his father-in-law and fellow artist.
Headstone with shepherd by Harry Brockway was inspired by a line by poet John Milton.