All Saints Church, Bawdeswell

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In the words of Jonathan Meades, “everything is fantastical if you stare at it for long enough. Everything is interesting.” It’s a good mantra for starting a new blog. We should be all too aware of the dangers of the blogosphere and twitter feed. There’s so much of interest, so much of the time, it can be hard to give everything the attention it deserves. Blogged, tweeted, forgotten.

So although this blog will only be able to touch briefly on some of its subjects, it will always try to emphasise that taking even a passing interest in the architecture of the county of Norfolk can lead to some surprising rewards.

In that vein, and in order to launch this blog, consider the photograph above. If you know All Saints Bawdeswell already, you will probably have recognised it instantly. It is unique amongst village churches in Norfolk. The designer was James Fletcher-Watson (1913-2004), an artist and architect working at that time in Norwich. The church was completed in 1953.

How did Bawdeswell come to have a fifties Neo-Georgian parish church? In November 1944, an RAF Mosquito bomber, returning from a distraction raid on the German city of Gelsenkirchen, iced up and entered a fatal stall. It hit power lines in the village and crashed into the earlier medieval church, which itself had been substantially rebuilt after two successive towers collapsed, first in 1739 and again in 1828. In the context of this history, the fact that this church is still standing after almost sixty years is something to celebrate.

Pevsner & Wilsons’ Buildings of England (2002 [1962]) wonders whether “in the 1950s one had any justification for imitating a past style. But if one did, the Neo-Georgian is as good as the Neo-Gothic, and it is handled here with pleasure and originality.” (p. 381) That pleasure and that originality is primarily in the masonry detail: carefully herringboned flint, interspersed with (and dressed in) fawn brick. That classic Norfolk building material, found in fields and used to build cottages for centuries, has never looked so elegant or light.

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The shingled belfry only received its clock in 1999. It’s radio controlled, so it automatically gained an hour last night. In the absence of sufficient photographs to explain the context, have a look at the church on Google Streetview and navigate around the village. There are certainly Georgian precedents around and about, although there is nonetheless a striking confidence to this ‘contextual’ design. The massing is remarkably satisfying, especially as the tower climbs to its modest spire.

The Tuscan columns framing the porch on the south side of the nave are repeated inside, notably either side of the altar. The interior of the aisle-less nave is quite beautiful, with rich mahogany doors giving way to whitewashed walls, limed oak pews and a delightful three-level pulpit. The curved apse around the altar is lit by concealed windows to the north and south.

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It would be easy to draw a connection between the delicate natural lighting of All Saints Bawdeswell with the architect’s skill as a watercolourist. He recorded a number of instructional videos on water colour technique that are available to this day.

Fletcher-Watson worked on a number of projects in Norfolk, including the reconstruction of Dolphin Inn and the new Bishop’s House (1959) in Norwich. Discovering his work for the first time, a lightbulb illuminated when I discovered an unexpected connection. Although his work demonstrates a Neo-Georgian confidence, Fletcher-Watson was no stranger to contemporary Modernist architecture in the Norfolk landscape. In fact, some of his watercolour paintings will be familiar to some reading this blog because of his work for two of his Norfolk contemporaries, Herbert Tayler and David Green. Here’s Fletcher-Watson’s painting of their project at Forge Grove, Gillingham.

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