Saint Nicholas Church

st Nicks at night

Potter Heigham is in the heart of the Norfolk Broads, and one of the busiest roads runs through the middle of it, but St Nicholas is set away from all the tourist madness on the edge of the village overlooking the fields. It is plainly one of the most attractive churches in the county, with wide, neatly thatched roofs topping off the nave with its tall clerestory and the more rustic chancel huddled at the east end. The bell stage to the round tower is later than most, and is elegantly decorated with flushwork and crowned with battlements. The overwhelming effect is of the late Middle Ages. Brick was used to good effect to pick out the clerestory windows and the niches on the otherwise rather stark porch. In the central niche is the figure of a woodwose, probably from the tower parapet of another church.

In the central niche is the figure of a woodwose, probably from the tower parapet of another church.

Simon Jenkins famously said that the parish churches of England are its folk museum, and St Nicholas feels rather more like a museum than most, not least because it is one of the few churches in this part of the Broads which is kept locked. There are three keyholders listed, but on two occasions I have found all three of them out.

St Nicholas may not be immediately available for private prayer and reflection as other churches are, but if it is a museum then it is a good one, full of fascinating details. The most striking on entry is Norfolk's only brick font (Suffolk has another at Polstead). It appears to be 15th century; there are banded details which have eroded, but may have been trefoils. Curiously, the very name Potter Heigham suggested that this was a place where clay for bricks was to be found. But it is for its wall paintings that Potter Heigham is justly famous. The best are the Seven Works of Mercy in the south aisle. A woman in a shawl is shown in the seven scenes depicting Christ's injunctions. In the best of them, she comforts a dying man, while in another she offers a loaf of bread to an old man who is hungry. In a third, she opens her door to give shelter to a homeless stranger who is dressed in the garb of a pilgrim, a message to locked churches if ever there was one. The paintings in the south aisle must have been a sequence of the life of Christ, and the best surviving images are of the Annunciation and the Adoration of the Shepherds. A tall standing figure is probably St Christopher, but I can't help thinking that he looks a lot like medieval images of St James.