Santon Downham – St. Mary the Virgin Church

On my Brandon walk we visited St. Mary the Virgin church at Santon Downham, one of the most historically complex churches that I’ve visited recently. Its location by the edge of Thetford Forest have given the building the rather suitable name of ‘The Church in the Forest’.

The nave and chancel of the current church date to the twelfth century, but it was built on the site of a Saxon wooden church. The tower is later and was constructed between 1460 and 1500.

The doors on both the north and south walls of the church are contemporary to the nave, so are twelfth century, although they look modified.

The exterior of the building has numerous former windows and entrances, some of which have been blocked up. This is the former entrance to a chapel, which at some point has been demolished. I had assumed that this took place following the Reformation, but it seems that it might be a later removal.

The stone base of what was once a free standing preaching cross, or the site of an external pulpit.

The font dates to the thirteenth or fourteenth century.

The church’s interior and the rood screen.

A partially exposed window which was filled in long ago, with the window on the right created to replace it. I assume that this was to create more light inside the church.

The altar.

The dreaded, since in retrospect they often are, Victorian restoration mainly took place here in 1894. The phrase “new interior of walls” often means that history was faffed about with to make it even more confusing for me to work out. Another newspaper called the restoration “extensive and substantial”, so I imagine the interior was modified to a considerable degree. Certainly the impressive high pews, which a newspaper said were “cupboards into which you enter, shut the door and sit on the shelf” were replaced with “decent oak seats”. Personally, I imagine the high pews looked rather gorgeous.

Stained glass.

I’ll have to go back to this church as I’d like to understand a little more about what is going on with its history. There are also some interesting tablets inside the church which I didn’t have time to look at properly. It was pleasing to see that the church was open on a Wednesday in early January, and the flowers inside the church showed what wonderful local volunteers they must have.