St Botolph, North Cove
www.suffolkchurches.co.uk - a journey through the churches of Suffolk
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|The River Waveney makes its way
eastwards, forming much of the border between Norfolk and
Suffolk. As it approaches the sea it sprawls out into
wide marshes that connect with those of the Yare and the
Bure, heading seawards further north. The marshes hem in
the Norwich to Lowestoft road, which is a pretty terrible
one it must be said if you are a walker or a cyclist, a
four mile bottleneck between Beccles and Lowestoft that's
the price we pay for the rivers and the marshes. The
villages of North Cove and Barnby sit along this road,
fortunately bypassed these days. North Cove church
manages to retain a fairly remote feel, sitting next to
the village pub and set back from the main road in a
quietly sheltered churchyard on the edge of the Park of
North Cove Hall. North Cove appears to be so-named to
distinguish it from South Cove, near Southwold. But South
Cove is miles away, and it in turn presumably takes its
name from the fact that it is a mile south of Covehithe.
As is common in East Suffolk, the nave and chancel are continuous under the long thatched roof. The masons were busy here in the second half of the 14th Century, when window tracery was renewed and the chancel was rebuilt, but overall the character is still that of a long, simple Norman church. However, the rebuilding of the chancel at this date has left us with something quite extraordinary, as we will see inside. The south porch is also 14th Century in both origin and character, and it conceals a good Norman doorway with a scratch dial halfway down on the western side from the days before the porch was built. The gable of the porch is remarkably tall, and presumably the porch was once thatched, but in any case there was a considerable restoration here in the 1880s and 1890s, and you step into a narrow nave which appears almost entirely of that time as far as the furnishings go. The 15th Century font was retained, a typical example of the East Anglian style except that the bowl is supported by heads wearing headdresses as on the fonts a few miles off at Mutford and Gisleham.
As you walk eastwards through the plain, simple screen into the chancel, however, everything changes, for North Cove church has one of the finest and most extensive collection of 14th Century wall paintings in the whole of East Anglia. It dates from the rebuilding of the chancel when things got going again after the famines and pestilences of the first half of the century, and there was a new urgency and emphasis on death and last things. It is essentially one single scheme, beginning with a donor rising from their grave above a window on the north side, and then continuing eastwards with a Passion sequence. This jumps across the sanctuary and ends with the Ascension of Christ at the east end of the south side, before returning westwards with a most impressive Doom, or Judgement scene.
The Passion sequence on the north wall is on three levels. Stand out scenes include a depiction of Christ's entry into Jerusalem on a young colt and the Resurrection and Harrowing of Hell scenes to the east of the window. However, the most memorable part is the lower register, where a dozen or so small figures mock and whip Christ before nailing him to the cross, and then take him down from it afterwards. What makes them remarkable is that they are wearing red and yellow chequered and striped clothes, which was a contemporary and disparaging way of showing that they were Jews. The Jews of England, numbering roughly three thousand people, had been expelled by royal edict in 1290, and so it is unlikely that any of the North Cove parishioners had ever met a Jew in real life, although there had probably been small communities nearby in Lowestoft and Beccles.
On the south side, Christ sits in Judgement on a rainbow, overseeing the separation of the sinners and the saved on the Last Day. The Blessed Virgin and St John look on, as St Michael makes the judgements. Beneath, angels sound trumpets and the dead arise from their coffins and await their fate. A few are welcomed into Heaven on the east side of the painting, but most are herded into Hell by a sword-wielding angel on the west side.
It is unusual, although not unique, for the Doom to be on the wall of the chancel rather than above the chancel arch, but of course there is no chancel arch here, and so the rebuilding of the chancel was an opportunity to display it. The paintings were whitewashed, probably in the late 15th Century, and by the time the 17th Century came along they had been forgotten. Early in that century, roundels with texts were painted over where they had been, but it seems likely that these texts were also soon whitewashed, for by the late 18th and early 19th Century memorials were erected overlaying them. The wall painting and the texts were discovered in the 1870s and were unfortunately 'restored' by being overpainted and sealed. But all this was put right over several years in the 1980s when the Victorian improvements were removed, and we now see them in all their freshness.
The returns for the 1851 Census of Religious Worship give a fairly typical picture of the rural Church of England as it was at the start of the 19th Century revival. The Rector of North Cove was Richard Gooch, and his income here was £400 a year, roughly £80,000 in today's money. However, he was an absentee incumbent because he lived not far off at Frostenden, where he was also Rector, and in receipt of a further £400 a year! His work at North Cove was carried out by a curate, James Hammond, who was paid just £80 a year for his efforts (about £16,000 in today's money) but, as TCB Timmins points out in his book The Suffolk Returns from the Census of Religious Worship 1851, Hammond was also an assistant master at Beccles Grammar School.
Hammond made one of the lengthiest returns for any church on census day, mostly made up of a convoluted explanation of why such a high proportion of those attending the church were children. This was because the parish included the hamlet of Willingham some three miles off, and although the residents there were closer to other churches, the children were scholars, and in the main attended the parish church. Be that as it may, the numbers told their own story. Sixty-nine people attended morning worship at North Cove on the day of the census, which seems impressive at first sight given that the population of the parish was only two hundred, but forty of these were scholars, who had no choice but to be there.
As you would expect in East Anglia there was a higher attendance for the afternoon sermon, but still there were only forty-nine people if you excluded the scholars. Meanwhile, there were one hundred and thirty people at the afternoon service in the village Wesleyan Chapel, although some of these would have come from the neighbouring parish of Barnby, the two villages merging into each other. Still, insisted Hammond, I may add that nearly whole of North Cove children attend Sunday and day school where they are enabled to obtain at a trifling cost a sound education based upon religious principles.
Simon Knott, September 2022
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