Tag Archives: York

City of Churches II Norwich vs York, Ipswich, Cambridge

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).

York churchesSo 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 St Peter'sIpswich 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.

Ipswich St Margaret's Ipswich Mary Le Tower Oak Lane

Above: St Margaret’s and St Mary Le Tower, Ipswich

Cambridge chapelsCambridge 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.

Norwich churches at night4

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).

Norwich  St Miles Norwich St Miles inside

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 Ber St Norwich Norwich St Giles

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!

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Cities of churches – intro

** UPATED WITH NEW EVIDENCE JUNE 2015**

Is it true that Norwich has more medieval parish churches in its walls than any other English city?

It even says it’s got more than most of Europe, in some daft marketing phrase that is so beloved of Norwich’s promoters. I can personally only account for the former, so that is what I’m sticking to – places I know and have actually counted myself in England.

Norwich also likes to boast it has as many churches as York, London and Bristol – England’s three other greatest medieval cities – put together. That claim has never felt right. It is also misleadingly phrased. The claim can only be to have more medieval churches in the centre – that’s medieval fabric today, not medieval foundation. There will follow some lovely tables to put this matter to rest.

Norwich has been a little sneaky with its boast because lots of other important medieval towns spread its walls but Norwich was neatly contained by them till medieval church building was done. And “medieval” is vague, as most central parish churches were founded in medieval times, but have often been rebuilt, whereas Norwich’s are all the same style of Gothic, built in the 14-16th centuries: remarkable, or dull?

I’ll come to that question in another post. This one is about numbers. Here are my definitions:just outside the wall = allowed; but not ones in the suburbs, nor who have been moved, nor utter ruins; and I count only Anglican parish churches, not cathedrals, friaries or private chapels.

I’ve enjoyed comparing the English cities with multiple medieval parish churches – mainly the 10+ group of Bristol, York, Cambridge, Ipswich, Norwich and London. Multichurches does seem to be an English phenomenon – Scottish or Welsh cities seem to have had one of two original parish churches. It’s interesting that several important medieval towns (Edinburgh, Hull, Coventry, King’s Lynn, Great Yarmouth) had only 1-3, opting for few large churches, which makes me wonder something for my next article… I’m aware of larger former numbers in Lincoln, Winchester and Exeter but I don’t know those cities well enough to personally vouch. Here is my table:

City # churches now medieval now prewar reformation
London 39 7 c48 c100
Norwich 31 31 34 c60
York 19 19 19 47
Bristol 10 6 15 21
Cambridge 13 c5? 13 U/K
Ipswich 12 12 12 12?
Canterbury 9 8? 11 14+

Colchester has 6 (+1 further out) and Worcester 6 (with 2 just outside the walls); Chester 6 including St John’s (had 9), Nottingham 3, Newcastle 4, Northampton 4…. this is sounding like football results!

But what’s more interesting – the greatest number or the greatest collection? There are going to be four more on this subject.

I made a full list of the churches in the 10+ cities but it won’t fit on these pages!

Reeling it off makes me feel like that character in a Count Duckula episode whose party trick is to recite the digits of pi – suffice to say the list is available to the curious and I do know the names and locations/look of all the churches in my chart. I have seen and visited many of them and made an effort to count personally, not copy figures from other sources.

I am being generous with “medieval now”  as Norwich claims that title for churches that have been bombed who have been substantially renewed and rebuilt by the Victorians, and whose furnishings nearly all come from other eras – the can also include glass. Nearly all its churches, whilst appearing medieval, actually have some fabric that isn’t. There is a blatantly C17th tower, also counted among its 31. So I am offering the same spirit of generosity in my definition of medieval to other cities. St Martin le Grand of York counts as it has a roof, windows and is used for worship..

Does Norwich really have as many medieval churches as Bristol, York and London?

Norwich  31/31 Bristol, London, York
1 All Saints All Saints                 B 6/10
2 St Andrew St James
3 St Augustine St John on the Wall
4 St Clement St Mary Redcliffe
5 St Edward SS Philip and Jacob
6 St Etheldreda St Stephen
7 St George Colegate All Hallows by the Tower    L 7/39
8 St George Tombland St Andrew Undershaft
9 St Giles on the Hill St Bartholomew the Great
10 St Gregory St Ethelburga
11 St Helen Bishopgate St Helen Bishopgate
12 St James St Olave Hart Street
13 St John Maddermarket All Saints North Street      Y 19/19
14 St John de Sepulchre All Saints Pavement
15 St John Timberhill Holy Trinity Goodramgate
16 St Julian Holy Trinity Micklegate
17 St Laurence St Andrew, Andrewgate
18 St Margaret St Cuthbert
19 St Martin at Oak St Denys
20 St Martin at Palace St Helen Stonegate
21 St Mary Coslany St John the Evangelist, Micklegate
22 St Mary the Less St Margaret
23 St Michael at Plea St Martin le Grand
24 St Michael Coslany/Miles St Martin-cum-Gregory, Micklegate
25 St Peter Hungate St Mary Bishophill
26 St Peter Mancroft St Mary Castlegate
27 St Peter Parmentergate St Michael le Belfrey
28 St Saviour St Michael Spurriergate
29 SS Simon and Jude St Olave
30 St Stephen St Sampson
31 St Swithin St Saviour

No – it’s the same. It has AS MANY medieval churches NOW as those three cities.

Adding up Bristol, London and York’s full set would mean 10+39+19 =58 – somewhat higher than Norwich’s 31!

So Norwich, your boast is wrong! I will never get a job at Norwich’s HEART now.

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