The many wonders of West Dereham’s church
With its imposing Norman round tower, its magnificent medieval architecture and its impressive memorials, the church of St Andrew’s in West Dereham is a truly extraordinary building
West Dereham is a pretty parish situated on the edge of the Fens, a mere four miles east of Downham Market, and it has what is widely considered to be one of the finest churches in the whole country.
The extraordinary Grade I listed church of St Andrew stands on raised ground at the north end of the village with a striking round tower stretching into the sky. It’s both remarkable and rare, since most round tower churches were built during the early Norman period and there are only around 185 surviving examples in England, 70% of which are in Norfolk.
The tower of St Andrew’s is constructed of large blocks of ferricrete, a locally-formed conglomerate that may be up to 70 million years old. With an internal diameter of just over 17ft it’s the widest round tower in Norfolk and one of the largest in East Anglia, second only to the 20ft of Wortham in Suffolk.
The tower is crowned by an impressive octagonal Tudor belfry, which it acquired in the 16th century during the Reformation. Built of brick, flint and ferricrete, its design is unique. Each facet of the octagon is slightly recessed, with brick piers at each angle and extravagant ‘machicolation’ arches above them. Five of the eight faces have Tudor-arched openings housing the church’s five bells, one of which has been dated to 1785.
The current church building is thought to have been built in Norman times and probably on Anglo Saxon foundations.
It’s estimated the nave is 11th century (built between 1060 and 1140) although it underwent a complete restoration in 1901 when the contemporary thatched roof fell in.
St Andrews experienced a further metamorphosis in the 15th century when its wide arched perpendicular windows were fitted, and these contain some stunning and historic pieces of stained glass.
In the tracery lights of the nave’s east window there are the remains of a sequence of the Orders of Angels, a hierarchy that illustrates nine levels of spiritual beings. The window features an angel’s feathered wings, a prince’s crown and a warrior’s armour - and is thought to depict the Archangel Michael, the ‘leader of angels’ and the ‘protector of mankind’. These fascinating fragments of glass date from the 15th century and are thought to have come from West Dereham abbey, which was demolished in 1539.
As well as stunning Norman architecture and medieval glass, St Andrew’s contains a number of unique memorials in its chancel. The most striking of these is a decorative panel made for Sir Thomas Dereham, 4th Baronet, who was born on the site of West Dereham abbey in 1678 and spent most of his life in Italy acting as an informal representative of the English crown.
Made in Rome, his extravagant memorial features a coat of arms surrounded by exuberant mantling, a Latin inscription and small bronze stags’ heads in each corner. Even though it was erected in 1722, the colours have stayed remarkably true.
Opposite this is a magnificent life-sized statue of Colonel Edmund Soame, who was an accomplished and well-regarded soldier and MP for Thetford from 1701 to 1705. Soame’s statue stands in armour striking a proud, martial pose with a long tribute to his life below. It’s considered one of the very best standing monuments in Norfolk - and is a truly spectacular sight to behold.
Another distinctive element of St Andrews is its charming south porch, which was constructed in the 15th century and gained a fashionable Dutch gable in the 17th century. The porch has recently undergone a complete restoration and the church itself has been extensively renovated, particularly during the Victorian period.
“It’s a wonderful building with something from almost every century,” says Michael Poole, lay minister and church secretary at St Andrews. “I love every single part of it.”
And St Andrews is equally loved by the people of West Dereham, who cherish their beautiful, historic church.
“If you’re seeking some peace and quiet you can come and sit in one of the pews,” says Michael. “Many villagers, who don’t attend the church for services, like to come and sit here because it’s so tranquil.”
For regular visitors, St Andrews has a weekly prayer group which has been running every Tuesday for almost a decade - even during lockdown via Zoom.
“Lockdown enabled us to hold an online church, which helped people from different villages to get to know each other,” says Michael. “It was brilliant. People gave it their all during hymns because they were in the comfort of their own homes. Even though the church has since reopened, we’ve kept the online service going as everyone really enjoys it, and even people from out of the county are attending.”
With its strong community feel and incredible architecture, St Andrews in West Dereham is well worth a visit. It’s open daily from 10-4 and everyone is welcome - so why not come and admire its wonders for yourself?