Two Towers and an Eccentric Priest: Booton St Michael

In the tiny village of Booton in Norfolk, an enormous church towers above the houses, far larger than any village could ever have required. Lying in such an isolated place, it has come to be known locally as ‘the cathedral of the fields’

Although there has been a church on the site for several centuries, the current building was erected in the 19thcentury at the will of the autocratic and eccentric Reverend Whitwell Elwin.

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Elwin was a contributor and sometime editor of the Quarterly Review and was prominent in the Quarterly’s publishing world at the time of Charles Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species’. The publisher of the Quarterly Review, John Murray, had already agreed to print the abstract for Darwin’s work without fully reading it. He then sent a few chapters to Elwin to gauge his opinion. Elwin, being a staunch Victorian clergyman, was understandably not a great fan of Darwin’s theory of evolution but did not respond to the scientist’s work as one would expect. Rather, he believed Darwin’s work lacked substantive evidence and was far too broad, reporting back that Darwin really should have focused his efforts on observations about pigeons, saying ‘every body is interested in pigeons’. Darwin was not of the same opinion and On the Origin of Species was printed shortly thereafter, encompassing far more than pigeons.

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Elwin was the rector of Booton from 1849-1900 and was the sole architect of the current church. Which is rather striking, considering that he had architectural training or knowledge of draftsmanship at all. He was however a passionate fan of architecture, amassing an enormous collection of books and touring the country in search of inspiration.

Before the church, Elwin was tasked with building a rectory. This was designed by Thomas Allom, paid for by Mrs Elwin’s dowry and is rather more standard in construction than the church it borders. Until the end of Elwin’s life, the rectory remained ‘undecorated, with no curtains, carpets or heating, but with an inordinate number of books.

The architect Edwin Lutyens was not a fan of Elwin’s work, criticising it in private, but once publicly remarking that Booton was ‘very naughty, but built in the right spirit’. A sentiment that certainly rings true to every visitor.

Elwin only received the help of a draughtsman in the latter stages of the project, whereby a lot of building work had already been completed. Subsequently, a lot of issues arising from his naivety were yet to come to the fore.

Before the church was fully rebuilt, the chancel arch began to sink into the vaults below; the vaults of Elwin’s own family. He was then tasked with retrieving the rotting bodies of his own loved ones and reburying them, before underpinning the chancel arch and western towers.

Elwin had made many poor choices in the construction of the stonework. Using hard cement, soft stone and enormous pieces of masonry (poorly bedded), the church has suffered splitting, lamination and occasional, terrifying falls of masonry.

Booton was designed as a passion-project of sorts, taking inspiration from other churches and cathedrals that had taken Elwin’s fancy:

  • The west doorway is inspired by Glastonbury Abbey
  • Chancel arches inspired by Lichfield Cathedral
  • Nave stained glass inspired by St Mary’s Church, Temple Balsall
  • West window stained glass inspired by St Stephen’s chancel at the Palace of Westminster
  • The hammer beam roof inspired by St Botolph’s Church in Trunch, Norfolk.

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The overall style of the church is regarded as ‘eccentric French Gothic’ and is a real hodge podge of ideas.

The church is constructed primarily from flint and limestone and has a rather standard construction of a nave, chancel, north porch and south vestry. However, it also has twin west towers, which are of slender construction and look utterly bizarre against the common architecture of English churches.

The oldest addition to the church is set inside the east wall of the north porch and is a headless statue of the Virgin and Child, believed to be from the 14thcentury. It was discovered during the rebuilding of the church and thankfully saved by the reverend and his team.

The nave has a beautiful hammerbeam roof, which is decorated with enormous carved wooden angels by James Minns. Minns was a local master carver whose carving of a bull’s head still adorns advertising for Colman’s Mustard. The angels were designed to hold hanging lamps, but such decorations are long gone. All other fittings in the church are 19thcentury and have lasted well, despite the best efforts of damp and creeping mould. Many more old furnishings have been removed and set in other churches in the surrounding area, mainly Costessey, leaving the church a little barren.

The church was built between 1876-1900 and is believed to have been driven by the deaths of three of Elwin’s five children; Fountain, Philip and Frances.

Today, the church is redundant and has been under the care of the Churches Conservation Trust since 1987. Booton was never a large enough parish to sustain such a building and the increasing threats of falling masonry put off many visitors. Today, renovations and conservation work are carried out under the supervision of professionals.

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Booton is also occasionally offered as a place for ‘champing’, whereby lovers of church architecture, or those just wanting to stay somewhere a little outside the norm, can sleep for the night, create art or scare themselves stiff.

While the threat of falling masonry is one hard to ignore, Booton is such a beautiful and unusual church, that is almost seems worth the risk.

 

 

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