Hethel Church

A Tour of All Saints' Churchyard & Church

Welcome to All Saints' Church, Hethel!

Come in the gate and look around - the churchyard is a conservation area managed under the Norfolk Wildlife Trust who help volunteers mow the grass in a traditional way around the end of August. This encourages the beautiful little wild daffodils that carpet the churchyard in Spring, and the array of interesting plants throughout the summer.

At first glance, the church building might strike you as a strange mixture of parts that make up the whole. The tower stands tall and square and almost entirely of flint. The crenelations on the top of the tower are in keeping with the porch. The nave is rendered and its one rounded window looks rather domestic. The chancel windows look more like what you'd expect in a church, but the brick parapet suggests there have been some strange additions here. Worth a closer look!

The Tower

Look up at the tower... Although square, there are NO cornerstones, except for a few at the base and some at the more modern top! Hethel is one of only six churches in Norfolk with a square western tower built without the use of freestone. Norfolk has no 'freestone' to quarry - it has to be brought in. The large stones at the corner of the base are Barnack Stone: oolitic limestone from between Peterborough and Stamford. This tower is constructed entirely of flints and mortar, strengthened with the occasional Roman tile and 'erratic' stone out of the ice-age boulder clay. 

Hethel disproves the theory that lack of freestone meant that early builder had to build round towers! But Hethel's tower builders were extremely skilled: they built an unbuttressed square tower, 5 metres wide and 16 metres high.  People from miles around must have been told to being in all the stones they could find. The flints would have been graded for size, carefully chosen and laid in horizontal courses, and the irregular ones used for the core of these thick walls. Huge amounts of mortar had to be carefully mixed, and once used had to be left to dry for a long time, unlike modern concrete. Corners without cut stone are notoriously fragile and they have survived here only because the mortar was so good.
The tower would have been built literally foot by foot, which can be seen at Hethel as horizontal lines between courses or slight change in mortar colour. They could not build in cold weather because of the risk of frost damage. This tower would have taken a minimum of four years to build - probably a lot longer. It was almost certainly built in Norman times - though evidence of 'long and short' stone-work has made some suggest it could be partly at least built by Saxon workmen. It is certainly the oldest part of the present church. A survey by the Centre for East Anglian Studies (of UEA) found an opening about half-way up the tower that is in fact a Putlog hole - these were built into the side of walls to receive the end of scaffolding poles and take the load of the scaffold structure. A fragment of timber scaffolding found in this putlog hole was analysed and dated between 1104-1140. The upper part of the tower has cornerstones and is either a repair or an addition. The brick battlements and pinnacles were added much later, in the 19th century. 

The Bell

The upper openings in the tower are louvred - they are not windows, but are there to protect the bell and allow it to sound out over the parish. Unfortunately, Hethel's only bell cannot now be rung, but there are plans afoot to raise funds to repair both the fittings and the (currently unsafe) wooden floors of the tower. The bell itself was cast by Brasyers of Norwich around 1500 and is almost 30 inches in diameter. The bell-frame is of heavy oak and a large wheel of traditional design is part of the mechanism. The bell is mentioned in the 1864 Directory and was rung for a wedding in 1967, but has now fallen silent.

The Roof

Detail from Ladbroke's etching of Hethel Church published 1830
Detail from Ladbroke's etching of Hethel Church published 1830

Pause, too, to notice where the nave roof joins the tower: you can discern the outline of an earlier, steeply-pitched roof. Initially the nave roof would have been thatched with reed or straw. It's a characteristic of many Norfolk churches that high-maintenance (and fire-prone) thatched naves were lowered in both height and pitch and fitted with lead-covered, tiled or slated replacements. The only existing documentary evidence relating to Hethel church repairs is a faculty dated July 1818 for re-roofing the nave with slate at a cost of £135.

A view from the tower shows the construction of the pantiled roof of the chancel, chapel and mausoleum at the east end, hidden by the parapet. Immediately it shows why there have been many headaches about water seepage over the years!

The Porch

This dates from the 15th century and is perpendicular in style. The layout of most parish churches changed in Medieval times - mainly because of functional changes in services, devotional activity and non-religious use, but also because of changes in local population and prosperity, and the whims of the Patron or Lord of the Manor. Porches were added for weddings, as schools, and to improve the warmth of the church itself. The stepped gable came much later - around 1820 - and the sundial is a Millennium addition, thanks to some very talented 6th form craftspeople at Wymondham College. But the Holy Water stoup in the porch is a reminder of pre-reformation days.

The Nave & Aisle

Inside the door is the baptismal font - the place of entry into the church. Hethel's is a very simple design of uncertain date. But its step is a good place from which to view the church. Notice the 'ledger stones' paving the floor - a family tree of the Branthwayt family can be created from these.

Writing in his church guide, Prof Richard Wilson comments: 'Once inside the church, dates and periods are equally difficult to ascribe with precision. The nave and north aisle are of the perpendicular period but the windows are elementary nineteenth century affairs and the flattish plastered ceiling is difficult to date. At some time the roof of the nave was lowered...' The north aisle may have been added in the Norman period (1080-1180) or Early English era (1180-1280) - the north door is set in a slightly pointed arch which some suggest is early 14th century. True to Hethel's modest approach, the dividing piers (columns) have clean-cut octagonal profiles and simple double-chamfered arches.

The nave and aisle windows installed in 18th century may have replaced lancet-style openings from the Early English period. They are framed with wood and strengthened with brick rather than more expensive stone. White's Directory of 1864 is very disparaging: 'The original windows have been replaced by common domestic ones: even that at the east end being an ordinary house window'! The comparatively low, flat ceiling and the 'domestic' windows certainly make the nave seem more like a mansion sitting room than a church. 

Compare the last of the nave windows (right) with the chancel windows (left)

Perhaps White's comments stung the community into action. 'The Reverend Henry Steward (Rector to 1894) inserted three new windows in the chancel in 1882, mercifully without the customary stained or tinted glass.... But the simple pulpit and lectern reflect the paucity and piecemeal nature of the restoration.'

The Chancel & Chapel

His successor, Revd Herbert Henry James Steward, Rector 1894-1948, 'had distinct high church leanings, and introduced the present rare type of altar which, with its marble mensa (table-top), is an example of late Tractarian restoration. It is worth taking a close look at this fine slab of marble with its beautiful markings.' In the wall to the right is a piscina for washing the communion vessels. Hethel Church possesses a fine communion cup (shown in a photograph at the back of the church), now on permanent loan to the Castle Museum in Norwich. It was made in Ghent by Jan Van Henweghem in 1532. The circular floral scroll and workman's hammer inscribed upon it suggest that it was made for secular use as a Guild cup which was later consecrated as a post-Reformation communion chalice.

Dominating the chancel is the 'swagger' tomb of Miles Branthwayt (c.1557-1612): monumental specialists define 'swagger' as 'gently elegant' but the tomb also has a boastful element. Miles Branthwayt, a lawyer, reclines in full legal dress with head resting on hand; next to him is his wife Mary nee Southwell; and kneeling below are their 3 children, Arthur, Elizabeth and Mary.  This tomb, 'one of the grandest memorials of its period in the whole of Norfolk', astonishes visitors to this humble church. It was beautifully carved in the years after 1612 using pink-hued alabaster decorated with fruit, columns, obelisks and strapwork,  and the inscriptions make good reading. 

One of the kneeling children, Elizabeth, is also commemorated by a small metal plaque on the opposite wall. Miles Branthwayt's great-grandson, Thomas (c.1657-1676) who died aged 19, is commemorated on a ledger stone that should be on the floor but is now in the south wall. His brother William (d.1729) has an ornate marble monument high on the wall to the right of the Communion table: 'This Gentleman will be Remembered for his Eminence in the Law, Sweetness of Temper and Readiness in forgiveing injury's.' - despite (or because of) being another lawyer! And the other marble memorial to Mrs Anna Finch (nee Beevor) 'recalls her virtues so glowingly that she seems to step straight from the pages of one of Jane Austen's novels'.

Thomas Reddington, Rector 1737-1739 and commemorated on a slab in the floor of the central aisle, rebuilt the chancel which presumably had fallen into poor repair. It was rebuilt in conjunction with the Branthwayt mausoleum for 'it shares with the mausoleum a curious north-south roof behind the deep parapet, a delight for architects and a constant worry for churchwardens'. Sadly the first occupant of the vault was 14-year-old Ann Branthwayt, killed in a riding accident in 1740.

Built on to the north-east end of the chancel is the Branthwayt family chapel and mausoleum.  Externally it has a brick façade to the north with a pronounced baroque character. There are rusticated quoins and blank arched windows with identically filled-in segment headed windows in the heavy parapet above. Looking inside today, 'its blank wall tablets never received the inscriptions intended for them. In fact the mausoleum has been much altered. Originally there was a door to the north and "two sash doors at the east". Round the walls hung the armorial achievements (hatchments) of the Branthwayts, and beneath was a capacious vault reached through a trap door. In the midst of all this was the family pew, positioned to give, for those who sat there, a view of the chancel and a continual opportunity to reflect on their own importance and impermanence.' All this changed in 1882 when Revd Henry Steward opened the Branthwayt family chapel to the church by two arches when the chancel windows were replaced.

Today, the archway into the chancel is occupied by a rather lovely painted chamber organ that was restored in 2010. The Victorian organ was built for the drawing room at East Carleton Manor before moving two miles south to the church in 1894.  It was made in the 1860s in Norwich by the cathedral organist using some parts that date back to the 17th and 18th centuries. However, It had been so badly treated that when Fakenham organ restorers Holmes and Swift came to repair it, they found that many of the pipes had been sawn off - leaving them with a "jigsaw puzzle" to solve. That team was one of three commissioned to return the organ to its original splendour, with David Bartram of Raveningham restoring the furniture and Joanna Green of Buxton the gilding and paintwork, all of which had been covered in sombre grey paint. It sounds as lovely as it now looks!

Returning to the west end, notice the Branthwayt and Beevor hatchments in the tower. These display the arms granted to the deceased and were carried in the funeral procession, afterwards hung on their house for several months, and then placed in the church. 
Although Hethel church may seem remote from houses, in a parish with few people, it is lovingly maintained by a lively congregation. The tower has been put to good use to provide a discreet disabled toilet; and a small kitchen is neatly housed at the back of the north aisle. Come and visit to enjoy the facilities, the peace, the monuments and the literature in this House of God - and maybe come to one of the services or events held each month in this fascinating building. Hethel is now part of the Mulbarton group of parishes and you can find out what's on at the group website.

Some historic pictures and photos of the Hethel Church

Based on information in brief guides to All Saints Church, Hethel, written by Prof Richard Wilson (churchwarden) and Richard Butler-Stoney (Church Tours); with further information and detailed photos of tower and roof from an illustrated talk by Dr Adrian O'dell of the Centre for East Anglian studies given in Hethel Church in September 2016; an Eastern Daily Press report on the restoration of the organ; and the 2023 report on the bell and its fittings by Matthew Higby & Co. Ltd, bell founders. With thanks to all of these.