Bracon Ash Church

A church with hidden secrets

Stand at the gate with your back to the church and you can look across the hedge and meadow to Bracon Hall - home of the Berney family, patrons of the parish. Turn and walk south towards the church and the view is dominated by the Berney family mausoleum. 

Added in the 18th century in classical style, it has prominent stone quoins and keystones at the corners and in the front. One circular window gives light, the others are blocked, and in the past the parapet was decorated with urns. The mausoleum looks massive, blocking two of the chancel windows and seems quite out of keeping with this small country church which has no tower. 

Bracon Ash church with its small tower, 1908
Bracon Ash church with its small tower, 1908

A photograph taken before the alterations of 1913 (above) shows an unusual octagonal bell turret, which was reputedly taken down because it was unsafe. Walk round the outside of the church and you will find the bell, mounted in a wooden frame not much above head height. It was cast in 1807 and would have been originally in the turret; the frame is a memorial to churchwarden A. James (Jim) Gurney (1923-2004) of Bracon Lodge and replacing a similar one that was too rickety to risk ringing the bell! Now it can be rung again, although the opening in the south door lets in a lot of draught as well as the bell rope!

The red brick porch seems large because of its high step-fronted gable. It has no windows and is presumably a much later addition. Does it date from the early 19th century repairs after which the church was 'reopened' by the Bishop of Norwich? It is shown on a drawing of the church made in 1820. Several directories comment 'The church... was thoroughly repaired in 1808 and a new altarpiece added the following year...' (White 1854) but no further details given.

Step down into the church and enjoy the view to the east end. It seems to have grown bigger! The south aisle gives width and the lack of stained glass makes it light and airy. The nave and aisle are 14th century, with windows in 'Decorated' style. Two pillars, each of four shafts, rise up between the nave and the narrow south aisle - in 1375 a bequest of 20 shillings (i.e. £1) was left to roof the aisle.

The font may date from the 14th century, too - it is quite plain, but the 16 sides with protruding triangular decoration are unusual. It was moved to its present position when the church was re-ordered just before the outbreak of the Great War.

Inside Bracon Ash church 1910 showing double-decker pulpit and box pews
Inside Bracon Ash church 1910 showing double-decker pulpit and box pews

Gladys Watling remembers: 'An early memory of the Church was the box pews which almost gave the impression of a small room. An amusing incident was when my brother Loftus and I were taken to church on Sunday afternoons - we were told that it was God's House and that He could see everything, so Loftus crawled under the seat and shouted "Gladys, God can't see me here!". The nave of the Church was restored in 1914 by Mrs. Augustus Berney in memory of her husband - we then lost the box pews and the double decker pulpit, the bottom half of which was occupied by the Clerk.' (Shown in a rather poor photo above - compare with the same view today, above)
A brass plaque on the north wall states: To the glory of God and in loving memory of AUGUSTUS BERNEY Lord of the Manor & Patron of the Living of Bracon Ash Born Aug. 17. 1831. Died Sep. 27. 1910 The Nave and Aisle of this Church were restored A.D. 1914 by his widow MATILDA LAVINIA BERNEY

This probably explains the delightful little head carved into the 'poppy head' of the back pew that has amused and mystified many... Did Mrs Berney ensure her husband was immortalised on one the pews given in his memory? Their daughter, Dora Lavinia Berney, was an accomplished wood-carver - did she create this image of her father, dated 1914?

The much smaller modern pulpit reveals the window narrow staircase in the wall which led to a rood screen that now longer exists. Even the screen that did exist pre-1913 is not a true rood screen, which would have held a representation of the crucifixion ('rood' is a Saxon word for 'cross') where candles could be lit. 

On the opposite is an elegant eagle lectern, carved by Beatrice Corbould-Warren in 1915 in memory of her father, Edward Corbould Warren (1848-1913) who was churchwarden for 29 years, and has small memorial plaques to various other members of the Corbould-Warren family of Bracon Lodge. 'It stands in full view of the congregation and is used regularly. Usually the whole [Corbould-Warren] family attended morning service at Church and always walked as they did not want to bring out their coachman with carriage and horses on a Sunday.' (Gladys Watling) 

Now we enter the chancel, which is older than the nave and dates from the late 13th century. The south side has three fine windows to let in the light. The north side has one window - the rest blocked by the mausoleum. It is soon obvious that the building of the mausoleum wreaked havoc here. The rather ugly modern door is set into what was once an elaborate monument with delicate terracotta patterns of birds, scrolls and urns, dating from around 1530. When the remains of the monument were professionally surveyed in 2011, something of its depth and extent were revealed. There are so many similarities with the Bedingfield monuments in Oxburgh church that it is thought the same craftsmen were involved. 

Terracotta is made from clay pressed into moulds - and it is possible that moulds of Flemish origin were used and reused for all seven of the terracotta tombs found in East Anglia. Interestingly, there is a monument higher on the wall to a Bedingfield, with a long Latin inscription to the memory of William Bedingfield who died 1693/4 and his wife Elizabeth who died shortly afterwards. he is described as 'Gentleman' and a 'much-loved Rector of this church'; and Elizabeth was the daughter of Thomas Woode - one of a family with many ledger slabs on the floor of the church. It would be wonderful to know more, if funds for further excavation ever became available.

The mausoleum itself is somewhat macabre, with tiers of coffin holes. Those on the east side are full and sealed with inscribed slate slabs. Others are still available.... More coloufully, the Berney family is also represented by a number of hatchments high on the chancel walls. And there is plenty more heraldry to distinguish the noble on the ledger stones in the sanctuary, the chancel and the nave.

Take a careful look at the window to the right of the communion table: the tracery looks genuine but it has actually been restored in wood. There is a similar thrifty repair to the east window of the south aisle and to the window at the west end of the nave. You may then notice that the window that should be at the west end of the south aisle is a blank - and there is no hint of its existence outside! People have conjectured that there might have been a tower here once - but no evidence has been found, even when a drainage area was dug around the building in the 1980s to try to prevent damp (below).

Working party creating dry area around church (c.1983) - L>R Holden daughter & husband; Richard Willings + 2 Holden grandchildren; Kevin Stevens; Mr Barsham & Paul Willings (behind); Rev Henry Brierly; Eleanor Smart & Margaret Brierly (in doorway); Freda & Granville Holden (far right)
Working party creating dry area around church (c.1983) - L>R Holden daughter & husband; Richard Willings + 2 Holden grandchildren; Kevin Stevens; Mr Barsham & Paul Willings (behind); Rev Henry Brierly; Eleanor Smart & Margaret Brierly (in doorway); Freda & Granville Holden (far right)

Medieval churches are expensive to maintain, hard to heat and with furnishings that are not conducive to many functions apart from formal services. But the congregation at Bracon Ash continues to care for this 'gem of a church', to care for the community in which it is placed and to seek with the rest of the Mulbarton group to be 'Following Jesus - Sharing the Journey' with the villages of Mulbarton, Flordon and Hethel, too.

Historic photo gallery:

Information from various church guidebooks and reports kindly supplied by churchwarden, Cyndy Bowles