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St Mary's Church, Houghton-on-the-Hill

This afternoon [29th August 1999] my wife and I have visited St. Mary's church, Houghton-on-the-Hill and so I am now able to cover my ignorance shown in previous postings. The church is reached from the lane (part of the Peddar's Way) by a gravel surfaced drive of about ½-mile, designated as a Public Footpath - up which we drove.

The church restoration was initiated by the Historic Buildings Team of the Norfolk County Council in 1994 and accelerated by local efforts and fundraising encouraged and organized by Mr R E (Bob) Davey of North Pickenham, for which Bob received an award from the Norfolk Society for his efforts in November 1996. The work of Historic Buildings team of Norfolk County Council and Bob Davey received a Building Conservation Award from the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors in 1998.

It has apparently been covered on BBC TV in John Timpson's second series on Historic East Anglian Churches - a series I missed - and has recently been visited by Prince Charles, among other dignitaries. It is now a Grade I Listed Building.

My grandson and I climbed the 39 steps and final ladder to the roof of the tower - from which there are fine views, across tree-bounded fields, of Ashill, Holme Hale and Swaffham - where the new 300+ foot wind turbine, at the new Eco-Tech Centre, with its revolving blades making a clear landmark on the horizon.

The bell floor in the tower now contains a miniature chapel, with 1 bell standing in the corner - bearing the inscription on one side 1611 and on the other C & G Mears Founders London Recast 1857.

I was informed by the acting warden that the second bell is installed, and rung, in the church in Swaffham [though the directory entries on my web-site both only refer to one bell]. We were also told that the font had been recovered from the garden of the local farm where it was being used as a bird bath until recovered by the County architect.

The churchyard is large and well cared for, resplendent with teasles, mallow and various flowers and specimen trees.

E.C. ("Paddy") Apling
29th August 1999, last modified 21st Setember, 2004.

I reproduce below the text of the leaflet produced by Norfolk County Council, and dated December 1966:


Today, the church of St Mary stands alone on top of the hill at Houghton, but it was once at the centre of a village which may have had its origins in Roman times. The roman road, the Peddar's Way, must have passed very close to the site of the church and there is a large quantity of roman bricks re-used in the present church, suggesting that the church builders were using the ruins of a roman settlement as a source of building material.

The deserted remains of a medieval village are just visible as bumps in the field north of the church. By the mid-eighteenth century the village was described as 'only a farm or two, and a cottage or two'. The church was finally abandoned in the middle of the twentieth century, whilst the last surviving cottage was demolished later in the century.


The Church of St Mary has been a place of worship for at least 900 years. The present nave of the church was built at the end of the 11th century. The small round-headed, double-splayed windows in the north and south walls are typical of this period. Another clue to the early date of this part of the building is the use of 'long and short' work at the corners of the nave, together with the reuse of roman bricks, which look very much like thick tiles. The original roof line of the nave can be seen on the north side of the west wall and south side of the east wall. The semi-circular arch between the chancel and the nave also dates from this period.

The original chancel (demolished) was slightly narrower than the nave. It appears to have been bonded into the east end of the nave showing that they were built at the same time. This can just be seen [towards the north end of the east wall] where the surviving masonry breaks the surface of the ground. It is likely that the chancel had a semicircular or apsidal east end as this was normal practice in the 11th century.

The most striking survival of this early period of the church are the wall paintings on the east wall of the nave. They show a very rare image of the Holy Trinity. Christ is seated in the centre, with a smaller image below his right hand of Christ on the cross, and above this, a dove representing the Holy Ghost. This is the earliest known example of a wall painting showing the Trinity in this way in Europe, and probably unique in Britain. There are also circles or roundels showing prophets holding scrolls, and angels on either side of the chancel arch. To the left of the arch there is a picture of people rising from their coffins on Judgement Day.

In the mid 12th-century a north door was inserted and a south aisle added. One door jab on the north door survives in the wall, with a tiny shaft supporting a miniature Romanesque cushion capital. The shapes of the two semicircular headed arches of the aisle can be traced in the south wall, with the plaster underneath the arches still visible.

Several further alterations took place during the 14th century. The aisle was demolished and a new door created in the south wall. A large window with Decorated tracery was inserted at the east end of the north nave wall. The nave walls were also heightened, which is visible from the outside. A holy water stoop was installed next to the north door and two altar niches created either side of the chancel arch.

The present chancel was built in the 1760's after the old one became ruinous and was demolished. The ruinous chancel was about 26 feet long which would be unusually large for an 11th century chancel. It is likely that the original one was extended during the 14th century, though there is no above ground evidence for this.

The tower was built in the 15th century. The use of brick is evidence of this date as well as the four-centred arches over the bell openings. The interior arch over the window on the south side of the nave is also four-centred, and it is likely that the tracery was Perpendicular. At some point before 1830 this was replaced with two simple mullions.... After this it was changed again to the present large rectangular opening.


The building was completely covered in ivy and the roof of the nave and chancel were in ruins before the repair work began. During 1994-96 Norfolk County Council supervised the clearance of the ivy, repair and replacement of the roofs, and the repair and repointing of walls, including rebuilding the top section of the east gable. The project was jointly funded by Norfolk County Council, English Heritage and Breckland District Council. The interior of the church may be visited. Please contact Mr R Davey on Tel: 01760 440470.


Norfolk has over 100 ruined churches, many more than any other county. Most of these ruins are of great architectural interest and landscape importance. Norfolk County Council began the Ruined Churches Five Year Repair Programme in 1992 in order to save up to twenty of the most important ruins.

For further information please contact the Council Council Historic Buildings team on (1603) 222706, Department of Planning and Transportation, Norfolk County Council, Martineau Lane, Norwich, NR1 2SG.

Ruins are dangerous places - please take care

The leaflet also contains a c.1830 drawing of the church by Ladbroke, a plan, and sketches of the church as it would have appeared in the 11th, 12th, 14th and 15th centuries.

Kelly's 1883
White's 1845
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St Mary's Church
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Paddy's home page