These are the next nearest cities in terms of having the most parish churches in the old city.
(Note I use town and city interchangeably; all but Ipswich are cities now but Bristol and Cambridge weren’t in medieval times).
So what of York? Even York books concede that though it’s better for variety and showcasing different building eras, its churches do not compare with Norwich. I like the local open octagonal belfry style but none of the churches individually really inspire and there’s no modern or classical here either. There’s no tracery within or out, no exciting ceilings; it seems the bombed one, St Martin’s Coney Street by the Picturehouse, was actually the best. (The wonky spire in the photo is on purpose!)
Ipswich is pretty special to have kept up with these major cathedral cities, although none of its churches are outstanding; it’s again more about the group than individuals. The two that are converted (St Lawrence and St Stephen’s) look better now than I suspect they would have as churches. Maybe that’ll make church crawlers gasp, but I confess I’m not interested in fittings, it’s more about the space, and my own expression of faith means I prefer the new floorboards and uncluttered vistas to statues, altars and even pews. The best church may be St Margaret’s for its painted ceiling. There are some big churches (like St Peter’s, left) and interesting flushwork in Ipswich (St Lawrence’s being the best though it’s Victorian). St Mary At Elm has a lovely red brick Tudor tower. But Ipswich doesn’t have variety, being as much about black flint high gothic as Norwich.
Above: St Margaret’s and St Mary Le Tower, Ipswich
Cambridge isn’t so special either, even if I let the prereformation college chapels in. Only Kings and Jesus stand out. St Mary the Great parish church isn’t so great, it’s just the tracery in the nave I like. I’d pick out the rich honey coloured Saxon tower of St Bene’t’s and what I consider the best of the Norman Round Churches. The colleges run from classical to High Gothic but the parish churches don’t. Except King’s and St John’s college chapels, churches do not feature strongly in the overall look of the city, unlike the other towns.
Let me come back to Norwich and say that although its churches are all the same era and style, and there’s nothing outstanding to pop Bristol’s Redcliffe off its perch, it does have several excellent ones, though I’d like to change them all and to swap bits. The exception to that statement is St Stephen’s with its jaunty patterned side tower cum porch. It has a pitched hammerbeam roof with angels, big windows, a mix of stone and flint externally, and tracery on the arcade wall. Full house to my mind! And better still, it’s alive inside too, and restored with most pews save a few 16th C ones taken out. I don’t miss the others.
St Stephen’s and St Andrew’s, Norwich
I like big St Andrew’s but it’s not got any decoration externally – the tower especially feels a bit flat – and so does the ceiling. The east window should be larger (and no Victorian reredos would be even happier).
St Miles (above) is a favourite for the flushwork and for being unusual as having its nave and aisles the same height (is that a hall church or would the chancel have to be all one?). Simon Knott, he who has given us the huge online resource of Norfolk and Suffolk churches, thinks there’s a missing porch. I hope he’s right and it would account for the disappointing plastered over space in front of the beautiful chapel and the fine tower. He thinks it’s his favourite Norwich church and I am not far off agreeing, it’s just there’s no tracery internally, it’s got a small east window (the Victorian restorers got that wrong) and it’s not in good repair, whereas St Stephen’s has just had a refurb.
St Giles has got the highest tower, a great fan vaulted porch and is a pleasing space but I would like to make changes to the chancel. St Laurence might have potential if it was restored; but I only like the tower at St John de Sepulchre, Ber Street.
St John de Sepulchre and St Giles, both in Norwich
(The parapet being cut off is by Boots the chemist, not me!)
Others might be pleasant places – St John Maddermarket, St George Colegate – and do important functions. But as individual church buildings, I would not miss any of the others. What I would like Norwich to have is a classical church (eg St George’s Yarmouth) and a small Romanesque church. There’s a few of the characteristic local round towers in the city but no church bodies to match. Perhaps an urban Hale/Heckington (from south east Norfolk) would complete the set better.
There are several other towns with 6-8 central parish churches but I don’t think have a great grouping overall. The one I would consider a rival is Worcester, which has little gothic and impressive but some wonderful Classical churches, more than any city in Britain after London. I’d like to know this city far better. I also think that Coventry could be interesting to compare because it’s got a few but all good ones. Could Norwich’s be reduced to just 3?
Next time, to Norwich’s biggest rival:
I’d like to say – these pictures are not displaying how they look in the editing mode – WordPress, take note – they were aligned exactly!