At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Nicholas, Oakley

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Oakley

Oakley porch St Nicholas, Oakley

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    Oakley is one of the beautiful, rolling little parishes on the south bank of the Waveney, sparsely populated and little-visited, although the church tower will be familiar to many for being visible on its rise from the main Diss to Yarmouth road which runs about half a mile to the north on the Norfolk side of the border. The church sits alone in the fields with just one house for company, the churchyard tree-shrouded and silent apart from the birds. Oakley has long been a joint benefice with the neighbouring busier parish of Brome. It seems to have been a wealthy benefice, for when George Paterson was Rector here for forty years in the 19th Century, he was receiving more than 650 a year, something like 130,000 in today's money. By the 1860s he was contributing some of his riches to the Kerrison family's rebuilding of Brome church, the work of the great Thomas Jekyll.

Incidentally, the 1851 Census of Religious Worship is revealing about Brome and Oakley. The combined parishes had a population of 650, and a regular Sunday morning attendance of just over a hundred, the two churches alternating weekly in holding morning and evening services. That means about one in six of the population were attending the parish church on a Sunday morning, which was above average for East Anglia because of the enthusiasm for non-conformism. Congregational, Baptist and Methodist chapels often attracted larger congregations. However, there was nothing like that here. The nearest chapel was in Hoxne, but that was host to barely thirty people on a Sunday morning. The census noted that there were five Baptist families in the combined parishes, but that was all. Anglican congregations generally rose during the second half of the 19th Century, reaching a peak in the years after the First World War, before slowly falling away again. Those years of plenty are often reflected in the furnishings and decorations, and that is certainly so here at Oakley.

The church looks bigger than it is. The 14th Century tower and 15th Century porch are familiar from other East Anglian churches, but there are no aisles, no clerestory. This is a simple church made to look grand by the enthusiasms of confident ages. The 15th century porch is perhaps the most impressive feature. They seem to have been proud of their porch at Oakley if wills transcribed by Peter Northeast and Simon Cotton are anything to go by. In 1430 John Hubert asked to be buried in the porch and left 20 marks to the fabric of the porch. In 1453 Simon Cordeburgh left the considerable sum of 20 shillings to the emending of the porch, and in 1506 Philip Cursson, a gentleman and alderman of Norwich, topped them all by requiring that I will that the chirche of Okeley beside Hoxen have marbill to the sum of XXs to patheyn the porch with all. At one time the porch had two storeys, but the upper floor has now gone. There is a collection of medieval fragments in the side windows including the top part of a St Christopher carrying the Christ child on his shoulders and the head of Christ as the Man of Sorrows. The flowers in some of the quarries might easily have been copied from the life in this churchyard.

You step into what a simple, aisleless building, a church of the ordinary people, as ordinary as Brome's church is extraordinary. The fairly primitive font is set directly against the north wall as was often the way before Victorian restorations. To the east, the roodloft stairs run up from a window sill on the north side of the nave, as at Occold and Kenton on the other side of Eye. Money began to be spent here in the 1870s when all the furnishings were renewed, and then came the late 19th and early 20th Century glass by Heaton, Butler & Bayne. The subjects of the glass suggest rector George Paterson's enthusiasms, including what must have seemed some fairly obscure Saints at the time, including St Denys and St Longinus,some of which have been given the faces of the Paterson family. Amongst all this splendour is one quieter, later window which remembers Maude Tacon of Brome Hall who bankrolled the fabulous Anglo-Catholic makeover of Eye church at the hands of her friend Ninian Comper.

St Nicholas is a church which does not shout, or wear its treasures on its sleeve. As if acknowledging this, two empty image niches on the north wall are beautiful but puzzling. They look awkward, as if there should be a matching smaller niche on the right side. We'd normally expect a triple niche like this to contain a rood group, a crucifixion in the middle flanked by the Blessed Virgin and St John. But what if there were only ever two? Up in the sanctuary is the simple early 17th Century memorial to Sir William Cornwallis. This is entirely in a plain puritan style, and as Pevsner observed it is very remarkable for the total absence of figures or ornament. The east wall of the chancel has scenes representing the Passover, and the reredos set on it depicts the Last Supper, the figures so languid that St John appears to be asleep with his head on the table. Perhaps that is fitting, in this lovely, sleepy place.

   

Simon Knott, April 2023

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chancel sanctuary reredos: the Last Supper
font rood loft stairs lectern, hymn board and piscina high camp credence
image niches Crucifixion and Resurrection flanked by the Nativity and the Women at the Empty Tomb (Heaton, Butler & Bayne, 1886) William Cornwallis, 1611 looking west
Mary at the Presentation Simeon and the Christchild (Heaton, Butler & Bayne, 1886) St Denis (Heaton, Butler & Bayne, 1886) Anna at the Presentation
the pelican in her piety three naked boys in a barrel pelican in her piety (Heaton, Butler & Bayne, 1886)
Resurrection St Nicholas, St George, St Edmund (Heaton, Butler & Bayne, 1886) Presentation in the Temple St Longinus, St Denis, St Stephen (Heaton, Butler & Bayne, 1886)
St Christopher & the Christchild (15th Century? 20th Century?) Untitled fragments (15th Century) ghost (15th Century)
reredos: the High Priest Melchizedek a new birth into righteousness do this in remembrance of me the feast of the passover (Powell & Sons)
arms wide open William Cornwallis, 1611 In the Reverence of God

 
               
                 

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