04 April 2024

Saint John Timberhill is
an Anglo-Catholic and
mediaeval church saved
from closure in Norwich

Saint John the Baptist Church on Timberhill is one of the smaller mediaeval churches in Norwich and the principal church in the Anglo-Catholic tradition (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

Saint John the Baptist Church on Timberhill is one of the smaller mediaeval churches in Norwich. The church dates from the 11th century and is the principal church in the Anglo-Catholic tradition in Norwich.

The church is on the edge of the central shopping area in Norwich. Its understated exterior conceals a beautiful Anglo-Catholic interior, and I visited the church late one afternoon last week during Holy Week after visiting Saint Julian’s Church, which is part of the same benefice.

Saint John’s was probably built after Norwich Castle had been built. Today the church is surrounded by modern shops and caf├ęs. There was a lumber market outside the bailey enclosing the Norman castle in the mediaeval period, and the Church of Saint John Timberhill takes its name from that market.

The east end of Saint John the Baptist Church on Timberhill, Norwich (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

There may have been a church on the site long before the market, and the exterior walls show long-and-short quoins favoured by late-Saxon and early Norman builders. The church is referred to by early writers as ‘Saint John ad Montem’ or ‘at the Hill’, ‘Saint John at the Castle-gate’, and ‘Saint John by the Swine-market’.

The church has roots in the pre-Norman period and the ‘long and short’ work in the east wall indicates a date soon after the Norman Conquest. But the present church was largely built around 1420, and includes a massive 15th century porch.

However, the church as seen today is primarily the result of extensive rebuilding in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The church was described in 1783 as consisting of ‘a nave thatched, a chancel tiled, a south porch and two aisles, with chapels at their east ends, leaded’. The tower was square and had five bells.

The tower collapsed in 1784 and the roof was full of holes. By the late 19th century, the church was in such poor condition that services were held under the west gallery for fear of roof timbers collapsing on the parishioners.

Saint John the Baptist above the south porch, dating from the 15th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Saint John’s became part of the Anglo-Catholic and liturgical revival in the Church of England at the end of the 19th century, although successive vicars faced deep prejudice and even riots.

Father Edward Ram became the Vicar of Saint John’s in 1871 and over the next 39 years worked to repair and beautify the church which had fallen into dilapidation, and reordering the church as he imagined it looked in the mediaeval period.

Ram had a very Victorian idea of what mediaeval churches looked like. He replaced the earlier bell-turret with a slender spirelet, swept away the gallery and the pews, and removed the boards displaying the Ten Commandment, as well as the pulpit and the reading desk.

Inside Saint John the Baptist Church Timberhill, facing the east end (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Ram put a beam across the chancel arch, ostensibly to tie the walls together. But it was clear from the start that he meant to put a cross and figures on it, restoring the mediaeval rood screen. He found an unwanted rood screen in Horstead Church and installed it in Saint John’s.

Three figures of the Crucified Christ, the Virgin Mary and Saint John the Disciple, were carved by Zwuik in Oberamagau, were placed on the beam above the screen. The Bishop of Norwich, John Pelham, and the Chancellor of the diocese told Ram that the screen and the figures were illegal and should be removed. But Ram was adamant and they have remained in place.

The reredos is also from Oberammergau and was installed in 1911. It was shorn of its canopies in 1980, but some parts have been replaced. However, as it was Holy Week when I visited the church, it was covered in Lenten array and I could not see it.

The figures on the rood beam were carved by Zwuik in Oberamagau (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Above the High Altar, the one remaining mediaeval feature in the church is a German candelabrum dating from ca 1500. It was given to the church in 1723.

The pulpit dates from the 1870s. Ram had started to make it himself, but found the work too time-consuming.

Because of the extensive rebuilding programmes, few monuments remain in Saint John’s. Those that have survived include a late Georgian mural monument to the mason and woodcarver Robert Page (1707-1778), designed by Page himself.

Inside Saint John the Baptist Church Timberhill, facing the baptismal font and the west end (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Saint John’s Church was closed for some years World War II, and the Brooke Report in the 1960s said it was surplus to the needs of the city – Norwich City had 53 mediaeval church buildings in the 15th century. But when Saint Peter Parmentergate Church was found to need considerable structural rebuilding and to have an unsafe tower, it was agreed to abandon it and to reopen Saint John’s.

Saint John’s reopened in 1980 under Father Michael McLean. The church was reopened, reordered and made comfortable and conducive to modern Catholic worship. Much of the work was undertaken by members of the congregation.

The rood screen was removed and the chancel and sanctuary opened up, but the rood beam and its figures were retained.

A modern panel depicting the Virgin Mary was designed by Martin Travers for All Saints’ Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

A modern panel of stained glass depicting the Virgin Mary in the south nave aisle was designed by Martin Travers (1886-1948). It was originally in All Saints’ Church, around the corner. When All Saints became redundant and transformed into a Christian hospitality centre, the glass was moved to Saint John’s. The panel is an early work by Travers, dating from his schooldays.

Travers also designed the east window in the south chapel, which shows the Ascension, and is from a much later period of his life.

Travers trained under both Christopher Whall and Ninian Comper, but work is rarely found in high profile locations. His neglect by the establishment may have reflected his personal life – he was a conscientious objector during World War I and his first wife was a divorcee – and his association in the public mind with Anglo-Catholicism.

The mediaeval angels above the glass depicting the Virgin Mary were brought from Saint Peter Parmentergate when its closed and are typical of Norwich School glass of the 15th century.

The organ was much modified in the 20th century.

Martin Travers designed the east window in the south chapel, depicting the Ascension (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Today, the Church of Saint John the Baptist consists of a nave, a chancel, and two aisles that run the full length of both the nave and cancel, giving the church a square plan.

The new Parmentergate parish covers a wedge shape southwards from the town centre containing the predominantly working class King Street and Rouen Road areas. This wedge was once served by about a dozen mediaeval parish churches. Saint Julian’s Church in the parish has also been retained for worship.

Saint John’s describes itself as a lively, diverse and friendly Church Family worshipping in the Catholic tradition of the Church of England. The church is open every day for prayer, quiet and visiting, and the Eucharist and other services are celebrated in the parish every day. The main service is at 11 am every Sunday.

The Revd Richard Stanton is the Priest-in-Charge of Saint John Timberhill with Saint Julian, and Priest-Director of the Julian Campus, and he is also an honorary priest vicar in Norwich Cathedral.

The west end of Saint John’s Church, open every day for prayer, quiet and visiting (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

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