A Fine Round Tower Church in a Rural Environment
Swainsthorpe St. Peter is a round tower church located on high ground in the village centre where it has been the main focal point since the year 900. It is not only the Saxons represented here but Normans, Stuarts and the Victorians, who all carried out alterations to “modernise” the building for their time. The church is of architectural importance and grade 2* listed.
The church consists of a chancel, nave and round tower to the west, with a north aisle and south porch. There are plain tiles on the roofs, with clay ridges, and the walls are constructed of a mixture of random knapped flints interspersed with old bricks and possibly courses of Roman Tiles within the nave walls. All dressings to the buttresses, corners, wall tops, windows and doors are in limestone.
The Round tower design was used from the 11C through to the end of the 14C, and it must have been a sound technique for this church to be still standing after so many centuries. Later it became fashionable to up-date earlier towers by adding an octagonal belfry stage, as happened with St. Peter’s Church in the 14C. However the earliest part of the church is the nave, which has quoins built of flint at its south-west, north-west and north-east corners. These quoins, perhaps originally formed in Saxon times, have been repaired over the years by the insertion of tiles and early brick, and more recently with dressed stone at the top to support the later roof. The round tower was probably added on to the nave, which had already been built, as it has a flat east wall. Within the tower can be seen blocked openings which were built with flint frames, a style used before dressed stone became easily available. One of these narrow openings can also be seen from the outside above the 14C ground floor west window.
There are four bells, one of which is dated 1629. Only one of the four bells is in use today.
The north aisle was added in the 14C, probably at the same time the chancel, which possibly ended with an eastern apse, was extended and given a square end. The doorway on the north wall of the nave has been filled in. The south nave and east windows are now in large 15C perpendicular style, but the others, the south and north chancel and the north nave, are smaller small headed ones, except for the east window of the isle which retains the decorated style from the 14C.
The porch has been reduced in size from the one illustrated by Robert Ladbrooke in the 1820s, which had an upper storey. The church today is entered through the 13C door arch, decorated with fleurons and supported by head steps. On the west jamb of the doorway is a Mass Dial, a form of sun dial used to indicate the time of the service before the porch was built. To the east of the doorway is a benetura, which contained holy water for the people to dip their fingers in and cross themselves as a sign of atonement as they entered the church.
The churchyard is still used for burials and maintained as a wild flower meadow, with advice from Norfolk Wild Life Trust. It is maintained regularly by volunteer villagers. Many unusual and rare plants have been identified in this ancient site.
Inside St. Peter’s Church
The 14C pillar and responds for the north aisle are unusually low, at about five feet high, and there is a newer, smaller arch cut through at the east end of the nave. This was probably constructed at the same time as the chancel arch was rebuilt, possibly during the restoration in 1885.
Above is a fine 15C roof over the nave and chancel with angels, albeit with restored wings, holding emblems, such as chalices, harps, crowns, etc., along where the purlins and the longitudinal beams cross the arch-braced vertical rafters.
There is quatrefoil bratticing along and above the wall plates and the wall posts end in wooden heads of men, perhaps prophets or kings and animals, such as lions with their tongues out! The central ridge bosses include dragons and birds with large beaks, possibly pelicans.
Close by the Victorian pulpit is an iron bracket fixed to the window reveal. It is suggested that this swung out to hold candles to give light for the preacher.
Some woodwork from the former rood screen has been incorporated into the Victorian choir stalls, including one panel of tracery on the north side and some poppy heads. The nine-petalled piscina in the chancel has open carving above it in the arched tracery and a stone credence shelf.
The tower arch is very tall and has many mouldings around the arch. It has perhaps been altered from the original one. The font was probably Norman restored in 1885 with two blank arches on each face of the bowl and standing on a central column surrounded by eight shafts.
Nearby in the south-west corner of the nave is an arched doorway, which formerly gave access to the stair turret leading to the upper room of the porch which probably served as the Priest’s chamber. It is now blocked, but the hinges are still there for the door to hang on.
The north aisle contains the organ, made by Nichols and Fitt, Norwich, which is the memorial to the four men of the village who gave their lives for their country in the 1914-1918 War.
William Daniel Chamberlain
Charles William Howard
Joseph Alfred Larter
Leonard Walter Pearce
The organ was installed in 1921.
Nearer the south door is a plaque on the wall recording the gift of Benjamin Bennett of £200 to provide bread to the poor in the winter months. His gravestone of 1879 is just below the east window outside the church.
There is an interesting brass plate on the south chancel wall remembering Gilbert Havers, who died in 1628, at the age of 87, having lived during the reigns of six different monarchs, Henry V111, Edward V1, Mary 1, Elizabeth 1, James 1 and Charles 1.
In the north-east chancel is the elaborate memorial made from white and mauve marble, for John Dearsley, Sherriff of Norwich 1759 and Mayor in 1764. “Who after indefatigable application to the duty of his Public Offices retired to this village and dyd.” (In 1765).
Re-ordering the nave and north aisle – August 2012/November 2012
In July 2012 work started on re-ordering the nave and north aisle to provide flexible space for both worship and community use. This £80,000 project was funded by grants raised by the Swainsthorpe Community Charity Trust who were to take out a 30 year lease on the building to provide a Community Facility for the residents of Swainsthorpe.