One of my favourite parts of England is East Anglia. Too far north to be part of the London commuter belt, and removed from the main transport routes between north and south (e.g. the East Coast rail line running through Peterborough), the counties of Suffolk and Norfolk often seem to exist out-of-sight, out-of-mind for the rest of the UK. But they are choc-a-bloc with delightful things.
Sutton has its tracts of ‘Constable Country’ and the Sutton Hoo Anglo-Saxon burial ground, while Norfolk has the Broads in its east, the Fens in its west and the greatly underrated city of Norwich. Both counties’ coasts are dotted with hamlets, villages and towns that, in their different ways, are picturesque and often spookily atmospheric: Felixstowe Ferry, Orford, Aldeburgh, Dunwich, Happisburgh, Wells-next-the-Sea. (Parts of that coast, alas, are disappearing or in danger of disappearing due to coastal erosion.) Also, as you wander about the countryside, you quickly realise that there is a bewildering array of small but gorgeous churches tucked away in the region’s rural — often remote — parishes.
East Anglia’s little country churches are also of historic value, maybe no more so than for their rood screens. These are the ornate and painted partitions that in late medieval times separated the nave from the chancel, forming a symbolic barrier between the public area of the church, used by the congregation, and the clerical area of it, used by the priest. The rood screens in East Anglia’s churches were usually made out of oak in the 15th and early 16th centuries, often had images of saints, kings and Christ’s disciples painted on their panels, and could stand three or four metres high. Estimated to number about 400, these rood screens somehow survived the destruction wrought both by the Reformation and by the English Civil War.
The rood screen in the photographs stands inside St Mary Church in Worstead, which is an uncommonly large church by East Anglian standards and which I understand dates back to the late 14th century.
It was a shock, then, to read an article in the Guardian at the end of last month that claimed many of East Anglia’s rood screens are under threat. Half of them are apparently in a ‘serious’ condition. Not surprisingly in an area like East Anglia, which at times can seem pretty waterlogged, damp is partly to blame. Sudden shifts in temperature, with church heating systems being switched on and off to accommodate congregations, don’t help. Other culprits include ‘fungal attacks’, ‘bat faeces’ and ‘death-watch beetles’, and unwitting damage caused by church staff, worshippers and workmen who often don’t realise the value of the screens. Meanwhile, because congregations at many of these churches are shrinking, it is becoming harder to raise funds locally to carry out much-needed repairs to the buildings and their contents.
There is now a project underway, with the involvement of the Church of England and the Hamilton Kerr Institute, aimed at conserving the region’s rood screens. However, its current funds — £40,000 — are a drop in the ocean compared with what is needed. I’m afraid it doesn’t bode well for the future of these 400 little-known, but historically and culturally precious, pieces of Britain’s national heritage.